The prison population is on course to rise by a quarter over the next five years and could hit 99,000, according to the Government’s own projections. A new report by the Prison Reform Trust, reveals prisoner numbers in England and Wales are projected to rise by 20,000 by 2026 to 98,700, from 77,912 as of last month, with no plans to reduce overcrowding or close prisons ‘clearly unfit for purpose’ (here).
The increase is due to the impact of inflationary sentencing policies in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill as well as the recruitment of 20,000 police officers and the response of the courts to dealing with the backlog of cases as the Covid-19 restrictions lift. ‘The government itself has admitted that its punitive policies are likely to have a negligible effect on levels of offending,’ says the PRT. ‘The impact assessment of the PCSC Bill acknowledges that there is “limited evidence that the combined set of measures will deter offenders long term or reduce overall crime.”’
The Sunday Telegraph pointed out yesterday that average prison admissions of the 47 Council of Europe member states was 149.8 people per 100,000 of the population. ‘However in England and Wales, where prisons are rated “high” for overcrowding, suicide and violence, it is 215.5 per 100,000,’ it reported.
The group argues that the sudden increase in numbers will follow ‘one of the most challenging periods in the history of the prison service’. ‘For the past 15 months and counting, as a result of public health restrictions imposed as a consequence of the Covid 19 pandemic, the great majority of prisoners have been locked up for at least 23 hours a day, with almost no training, work or education and very limited family contact,’ the group argues. ‘No-one knows what the toll will be on mental and physical health caused by the prolonged periods many prisoners are spending in de facto solitary confinement.’
The government expects to build a total of 18,000 new prison places comprising HMPs Five Wells and Glen Parva and an additional 10,000 places, with the remaining places to be met by the construction of four new prisons; the expansion of a further four prisons; and refurbishment of the existing prison estate. ‘However, these plans need to be seen in the context of the struggles of previous governments to meet much more modest prison building targets. A programme to build 10,000 cells by 2020, announced by the government in 2015, delivered just 206 spaces by its original deadline’.
‘These facts and figures reveal the devastating impact the past 15 months have had on prisoners and their families,’ comments Peter Dawson, PRT’s director. ‘But instead of ensuring that such a calamity can never happen again, ministers are determined to put a rocket booster under prison numbers. The government accepts that its punitive approach is unlikely to reduce crime, yet is willing to find £4bn to fund its addiction to prison. With no target either for ending overcrowding or for closing prisons that are plainly unfit for purpose, the people at the sharp end will continue to live and work in a dangerous system, as vulnerable to the unexpected as it was in March of last year.’