What happens if prison places run out?

Governors’ association says inmates might have to be released early as jail population grows

(Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The number of people behind bars in England and Wales is expected to increase by nearly 20,000 over the next five years, according to newly published government projections.

The total currently stands at around 79,500 prisoners, after dipping during the pandemic, but the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has predicted that the tally will grow to 98,500 by March 2026.

The numbers of jailed men, women and children aged 15 to 17 are all expected to increase.

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Behind the extra demand

The surge in prisoners is “largely a result” of the extra 23,400 police officers due to be recruited, which is likely to increase charge volumes, said the MoJ.

The estimate also takes into account the impact of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill going through Parliament. The proposed legislation includes “plans to introduce tougher sentences for the worst crimes, while also stopping the automatic early release from prison of serious and violent sexual offenders”, explained Sky News.

In the short-term, inmate numbers are expected to rise as courts deal with the backlog of trials delayed by Covid-19 restrictions, although the MoJ pointed to “uncertainty” around the speed of recovery of the criminal justice system and the projections generally.

Record prison-building programme

The government pledged in last month’s spending review to “continue the biggest prison-building programme in more than a century”, with £3.8bn in funding to deliver 20,000 additional prison places by the mid-2020s.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has said the plans include “six state-of-the-art prisons”, as well as the expansion of other sites across the country.

But MPs on the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee have previously expressed concern about the department’s ability to meet rising demand. In a report published last year, the committee noted that despite earlier promises to create 10,000 new-for-old prison places by 2020, just 206 new places had been delivered.

Owing to a “staggering backlog” of maintenance work that would cost more than £900m to address, 500 prison places were being taken “permanently out of action” every year due to their poor condition, the MPs added.

‘Ramping up a stressed system’

The Prison Governors’ Association wrote to Raab earlier this month warning that ministers would have to consider releasing inmates early “because they will run out of places by 2023”, reported The Telegraph.

The association’s president, Andrea Albutt, said the government’s planned expansion would not be ready in time to handle the expected influx of criminals. And existing plans to increase the number of inmates sharing cells and to provide temporary accommodation would also not be enough, she said.

The current prison population is “only 1,500 short of the operational capacity of 80,852”, said The Telegraph. This maximum capacity allows for “doubling up” in up to 60% of the single cells in the most crowded facilities.

“They are going to have to look at policies that don’t put people in prison,” suggested Albutt. “The alternatives are releasing people earlier or more court diversion schemes of offenders away from custody.”

She warned that violence, mental health illness and self-harm were already on the rise in UK jails. “If we start ramping up a stressed system by stuffing in more people, it could potentially implode, especially as we cannot recruit enough staff,” she said.

An MoJ spokesperson insisted that the prison population was carefully monitored and that the department would adjust plans “when necessary to ensure that we will always have sufficient capacity”.

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