The prison system in England and Wales is dangerously close to capacity, with 98 percent of available spaces full, according to data released by Britain’s Ministry of Justice on Friday that experts said underscored an ongoing crisis within the criminal justice system.
The reality of overcrowded prisons and an accompanying rise in inmate violence and self-harm poses a stark challenge to the Conservative government as it plans to extend sentencing for the most serious crimes, as announced earlier this week.
The Ministry of Justice said the prison population was 87,704, meaning there are around 1,200 places left before the system reaches its maximum “operational capacity.”
Britain already has the highest per capita incarceration rate in western Europe, and many prisons house far more people than they were built for. Wandsworth prison in London, for example, from which a prisoner facing terrorism charges briefly escaped in September, has a normal capacity of 961, but was housing 1,584 men in May. An independent monitoring report said it was “seriously overcrowded with most men sharing cells designed for single occupancy.”
The prison population in England and Wales has risen rapidly since the 1990s as successive prime ministers pledged to be “tough on crime,” introducing longer sentences and policies to ensure convicted criminals serve a greater proportion of their sentences.
Although the overall number of prisoners was down slightly from last week, it is almost 5,000 higher than a year ago and nearly double the level it was 30 years ago.
While that partly reflects population growth in Britain, the number of people being incarcerated has outpaced that rise, according to official research published by Parliament. In 1900 there were 86 prisoners per 100,000 people, compared with 159 per 100,000 last year. And not enough new prisons have been built to house them.
Experts say that has created unsafe conditions for both those in detention and the staff who manage them.
“I think this is a sign of a system that is broken,” said Nick Davies, program director at the Institute for Government, an independent British think tank. “There’s always ways of squeezing extra people in, but the conditions are already very grim. And ultimately, none of this is going to be good for ensuring that if and when these people come out of prison, that they don’t commit more crimes.”
Prison officials have made extra space by doubling up prisoners in cells built for a single person, but criminal justice charities say this has left inmates in severely overcrowded conditions. Suicides and incidents of serious violence have risen, and staff members are under serious strain, after funding cuts in the 2010s caused an exodus of experienced employees.
Despite a government pledge in 2020 to build facilities to accommodate 20,000 more prisoners, only two new prisons have opened since, with one still under construction. The government expects 8,200 new prison places will be operational by May 2025.
Mr. Davies said the government was grappling with a “fundamental mismatch between demand, which they’ve increased through sentencing, and supply, which they have not been able to meet, largely due to budget cuts and planning.”
The coronavirus pandemic deepened the strains. While Britain’s prison population fell sharply at the start of 2020 because of releases during the early days of the pandemic and the halt of court proceedings, the pandemic also created a backlog of cases that the system is still dealing with.
Alex Chalk, Britain’s justice secretary, last month admitted the “custodial estate is under pressure” and announced plans to temporarily allow the early release of some prisoners to free up space. He also said the government was holding “exploratory discussions” with countries in Europe to rent prison space abroad.
Despite the backdrop of a capacity crisis, this week the government announced new legislation to keep murderers locked up for longer, with those whose crimes involve sexual or sadistic conduct facing life in prison without any chance of release, which is still a rarity in Britain. Those convicted of rape or other serious sexual violence will also face more time behind bars.
“We must always strive to do more, taking the right long-term decisions for the country and keeping the worst offenders locked up for longer,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement earlier this week. “In the most despicable cases, these evil criminals must never be free on our streets again. Life needs to mean life.”
Mr. Sunak also promised a broader crackdown on antisocial behavior, including a ban this week on the recreational use of nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. Repeat offenders could face up to two years in prison, and those who distribute the gas could face up to 14 years in prison, which critics say could strain the already overstretched system, including the police and courts.
“The government cannot fix the justice system unless it invests in all of it,” said Nick Emmerson, the president of the Law Society, an association that represents lawyers in England and Wales. “Focusing on sentencing alone is not the right approach.”
He added, “The entire criminal justice system is fracturing.”