Sascha Lavin explores the ticking time-bomb at the heart of the criminal justice system

Overcrowding has persisted in prisons despite COVID-19 measures to reduce inmate populations, new analysis by the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal, as experts warn that these figures “raise serious questions as to what happens next”.

The issue continues as the Government’s Police, Sentencing and Courts Bill aims to introduce longer prison sentences for non-violent crimes such as vandalising statues.

Analysis of Ministry of Justice data found that, despite efforts to reduce the number of prisoners sharing cells in England and Wales in order to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, by November 2021 there was only a 7% decrease in the percentage of prisoners held in crowded accommodation compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

Even as the country entered the second wave of the pandemic, 18,672 prisoners continued to share cells designed for fewer people.

Experts have expressed concerns about the future of prisons in England and Wales. Overcrowding in cells has been linked to an increase in poor mental health as thousands of prisoners must eat, sleep and use the toilet in one shared space. Overcrowding has also been linked to increased rates of violence, suicide and self-harm. 

COVID Inaction

Public Health England urged the Government in April 2020 to reduce it by 15,000 prisoners. Healthcare officials advised that an end to sharing cells was the most effective protection against the virus. 

Within six months of the warning, however, there were only 4,005 fewer people in prison, falling more than 10,000 short of the recommended reduction.

Research by Nuffield Trust subsequently found that COVID-19 case rates were higher in prison than in the general population. Between the start of the pandemic and the end of December 2021, there was an average of 75 cases per 1,000 population in prison, compared to 46 cases per 1,000 in England and Wales overall. By the end of 2021, 177 prisoners had died either having tested positive for COVID-19 or where there was a clinical assessment that the virus was a contributory factor in their deaths. 

Despite these high case rates, the Ministry of Justice only released 275 prisoners under its early release scheme. The scheme, which ran from April to August 2020, promised to avoid high COVID infection rates in the prison estate by temporarily releasing prisoners.

As a result, some prisoners were forced to spend up to 23 hours a day in cramped conditions, leading the Independent Monitoring Board to question whether the policy was “fair or humane”. Its report on HMP Bullingdon highlighted that, for 23 hours a day, more than 500 prisoners were eating meals and using the toilet in shared cells designed for one. 

Compounding a Crisis

Before the Coronavirus pandemic, overcrowding has been an increasingly serious issue in the prison system. In 2018, 71 prisons in England and Wales were operating at overcrowded levels, and 20,695 prisoners were found to be living in crowded conditions. 

The pandemic presented a chance to help relieve the pressure on the system with early release schemes. But, according to Dr Nasrul Ismail, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Bristol, the Government’s inaction was “a missed opportunity to lessen the overcrowding issues in prisons”. 

“While it was claimed there was a duty to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system, this consideration was peculiar, especially since the decision endangered prisoners, prison staff, and the public,” Dr Ismail told Byline Times

Now, with a backlog in the criminal justice system, plans to increase the number of prison places and a bill that seeks longer custodial sentences for some non-violent crimes, there are concerns that not only was overcrowding not addressed during the pandemic, it is on course to become a greater issue in the future.  

Of the statistics revealed by the Byline Intelligence Team, Andrew Neilson, campaigns director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “These figures not only show that many prisons are still bedevilled by overcrowding but raise serious questions as to what happens next.”

The prison population of England and Wales was 79,086 as of 7 January 2022 and is projected to increase by a quarter to 98,500 by 2027, figures released by the Ministry of Justice show. This marks a dramatic jump from pre-pandemic trends: in August 2018, the MoJ predicted a 4% rise in prisoner numbers over five years. 

The Government has promised to tackle overcrowding in prisons by creating 20,000 new prison places. However, experts contest the logic of this, arguing that this risks exacerbating the issue. 

“Building new prisons leads to more imprisonment, which does nothing to address the existing overcrowding issue,” Dr Ismail told Byline Times. “Given the previous political announcements of additional police resourcing, the extension of stop and search, and increased sentences for serious offenders, overcrowding will continue to persist.”

The Private-Public Divide

Data analysed by the Byline Intelligence Team also suggests that, as of November 2021, 77% of private prisons were overcrowded, while only 56% of their public counterparts were. Private prisons were also found to be slower at reducing overcrowding during the pandemic, according to MoJ data. 

Although there was a small improvement in overcrowding in all prisons between November 2019 and November 2021, the number of overcrowded public prisons reduced by 25%, whereas overcrowding reduced by just 10% in the private sector. 

In the year to March 2021, rates of overcrowding were highest in male local prisons, which are more likely to be run privately, with 45.6% of these prisoners held in crowded accommodation.

A 2020 report by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee also warned that overcrowding can contribute to high levels of violence in prisons. 

During the pandemic, violence in prisons was significantly reduced, as restrictive measures meant that prisoners were in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. But further analysis by the Byline Intelligence Team reveals that private prisons have proven more violent than public jails.

In 2020, there were 70 more prisoner-on-prisoner assaults per 10,000 prisoners in private adult prisons in England and Wales compared to their publicly run counterparts. 

In 104 publicly-run adult jails, there was an average population of 68,327 with 10,868 assaults: 1,590 per 10,000 prisoners. In contrast, in the 13 privately-run adult prisons, there was an average of 1,660 assaults per 10,000 prisoners. 

The Byline Intelligence Team also found that over the past decade, four out of five most dangerous prisons in England and Wales – based on the number of serious violent assaults – were privately run. Over the 10-year period from 2010, Forest Bank, Doncaster, Parc, and Altcourse prisons recorded 3,251 serious assaults. 

The latest HMIP report of Doncaster prison, for instance, concluded that the Serco-run jail was “badly overcrowded” and “overall levels of violence were higher than in similar prisons”. 

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We carefully monitor the prison population and adjust our plans when necessary to ensure that we will always have sufficient capacity. Our £4 billion prison building programme is the largest in more than a century and will deliver an additional 20,000 by the mid-2020s. Our spending review settlement included an extra £250 million to fund up to 2,000 temporary places while new prisons are built.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.


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