Prison population in Britain soaring as overcrowding and escapes up

Isla Bryson is sentenced to eight years in prison

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Criminal activity has been waning for decades in Britain. However, with more police on the streets and tougher laws at their disposal, more and more offenders are expected to be sent to prison in the future. With the capacity of facilities already maxed out, it poses a dangerous and intensifying problem for policymakers. 

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the way crimes were committed and recorded. In January 2023, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released the Crime Survey for England and Wales for the year ending September 2022 – the first full 12 months of data since lockdown restrictions ended.

Generally taken to be the best indicator of long-term trends in crime — its victim-focused interview approach being unimpacted by changes in recording or the addition of new offences – it shows that the total number of offences has decreased dramatically since a 1995 peak. 

Excluding fraud and computer misuse, there were 4,747,000 crimes committed during 2022 to September – less than any other year on record. 

Despite this, the prison population trend goes in the opposite direction.

The prison population of England and Wales quadrupled in size between 1900 and 2018, and roughly half of this increase took place since 1990.

Weekly prison count and capacity statistics are published by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). At the latest count, for the week up to Friday, March 3, the number of people incarcerated in Britain was 83,990. 

With a combined population of 59,642,000 according to the latest census, this means that there are 141 prisoners per 100,000 people in England and Wales. According to the House of Commons, the equivalent rate was 162 in Scotland and 97 in Northern Ireland mid-last year.

In Britain, as of March 2023, 96.6 percent of those in custody were men. The proportion of female inmates has fluctuated between three and six percent of the total since World War 2.

According to the prison population projections released last week by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the total is expected to “increase steadily to reach 94,400 prisoners by March 2025 and between 93,100 and 106,300 by March 2027.”

If this upper estimate materialises, using the latest population growth forecasts by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), it means the rate could swell to 172 per 100,000 in the next few years.

The system’s operational capacity marginally exceeds the current population at 85,132, but without substantial investment, Britain’s detention centres will soon be even more overcrowded than they already are.

In the 12 months to March 2022, the crowding rate – the proportion of prisoners held in rooms where the number of occupants exceeds the recommended capacity – rose by 0.4 percentage points to 20.6 percent. For local male prisons, this rate soars to 45.2 percent.

Back in 2016, analysis by the Prison Reform Trust found HMP Leeds to be the most overcrowded in the country. Designed to house 669 men, it held 1,145 at the time.

The number of escapes more than doubled over the past year, going from five to 12, all of which occurred during escort between jail facilities.

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If crime is going down, why are Britain’s prisons expected to get ever fuller? For one, the growth of the overall population is likely to call for more prison spots. The ONS projects England’s population to grow by 3.5 percent during the 2020s. 

In the short-term, the prison population is also expected to increase due to efforst by the courts to dispose of cases quickly in order to clear the backlog accumulated during the pandemic. At the end of September, this was estimated at 62,800 cases – exacerbated by Criminal Bar Association strike action.

The MoJ also bases its growth projections on increased police officer numbers, likely to see charge volumes rise. Sentencing policy is also changing as the Government gets measurably tougher on crime.

In 2012, the average custodial sentence length for all crimes was just over 14 months. By 2022 it was just under 23 months. In terms of legislation put forward in just the past year, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 increased the automatic release point for violent and sexual offenders from 4 to 7 years, while the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 hands out a range of harsher sentences to people smugglers.

However, the number of cases solved by police and prosecuted in the courts – as well as the proportion of convictions then handed out – are going down. According to latest Home Office figures, just 5.4 percent of all crimes ended in a charge during the year to June 2022.

This is down from 6.5 percent the previous year and 15.5 percent when records began seven years ago. For cases that reached court, the average conviction rate across magistrates and crown courts fell to 79.6 percent in the July to September quarter last year – the lowest rate in a decade.

The Government is nonetheless investing in the system to accommodate more prisoners in future. Last June, then-Prisons Minister Victoria Atkins announced capacity would be boosted by 2,200 following a £500million construction deal to build new housing blocks in six prisons.

She said: “The government is delivering on its vision for a modern prison estate that places security and rehabilitation at the heart of its design. This will boost public safety by giving offenders every opportunity to turn away from a life of crime and towards a future of gainful employment.”

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