Summarising the effect of poor long-term planning, a rising prison population and the resulting issues of prisoner rehabilitation and safety.

Key figures

  • £3.7 billion – the amount spent on prisons in 2021/22. That is 4.3% below 2020/21.
  • 88,225 – the size of the prison population in mid-October 2023. An increase of 13.4% on April 2021, and of 6.2% on March 2020.
  • 1.3% – the increase in the number of full-time-equivalent (FTE) operational prison officers between March 2022 and March 2023.
  • 50% – the proportion of prison staff with less than five years’ experience. This is more than twice the 2009/10 figure (23%).
  • 84% – the increase in rates of self-harm among female prisoners between March 2022 and March 2023.

Rising prison population

The Prison Service is in crisis. Since mid-2021 the prison population has been increasing at such a rate, that in August it was just 2,308 places shy of reaching total operational capacity. This precarious situation is only likely to get worse with projections that between July 2023 and June 2025 the prison population will grow three times faster than the estate’s planned increase in capacity. Unless the government finds a quick solution to this capacity crisis, the prison system is at risk of collapse.

Backlog in capital works

There is also a pressing need to refurbish the Prison Service’s existing estate, which has a £1.4bn backlog in the highest priority capital works. The Prison Governor’s Association has warned that any attempts to increase capacity within the existing estate, such as housing more prisoners in cells, would be met with legal action.

Workforce crisis

Despite increases in staff, headcount is 10% below 2009/10 levels, while the attrition rate is high with 15% of the total operational workforce leaving in 2022/23. The leaving rate for prison officers in band 3 to 5 was just 3.4% in 2009/10. This has left the Prison Service with a much less experienced workforce with just 31% of staff in 2022/23 with over 10 years’ experience, compared to 61% in 2016/17.

Workforce shortages, staff inexperience and the prisoner population boom, means officers are unable to confidently unlock prisoners for healthy periods of time. Across 2022/23, 42% of men and 36% of women spent less than two hours out of their cells during weekdays. This lack of time outside their cells severely reduces prisoners’ access to critical services such as rehabilitation and education. Being locked for 22 hours a day in a cell also limits prisoners’ ability to wash, clean their cells and engage in constructive recreational activities.   

In terms of educating prisoners, starts on education programmes in 2021/22 were 88% below 2009/10 levels. Meanwhile, Ofsted rates 60% of education programmes in men’s prisons as ‘inadequate’. 

Staff and prisoner safety

The inexperienced, under pressure workforce is also less able to manage violent behaviour with the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults increasing by 57% between 2020 and 2023. Unsurprisingly, given the length of time prisoners are spending in their cells, mental health also saw a marked decline with rates of self-harm in female prisons 119% higher than on the eve of the pandemic.

Until a solution to the prisoner population crisis is found, these conditions will continue to translate into dangerous conditions that harm prisoners, prison officers, and the wider criminal justice system.