Prison Overcrowding

What is prison overcrowding?

The British prison population has been increasing rapidly in recent years, and the prison estate has struggled to keep up with the rising demand.

As prisons are expensive and take a long time to build, the result of a lack of capacity has been overcrowding, which is when prisons have to house more inmates than they are designed for.

Overcrowding may be attributed to a number of factors, including failure to find and use effective alternatives to prison, under-funding of prison building programmes, bureaucratic inefficiencies in moving prisoners between facilities, and loss of existing capacity due to age and deterioration.


The overall trend in the rate of imprisonment has been fairly consistent over the last fifty years. Between 1951 and 1981, judges were sending more and more people to prison, culminating in major overcrowding problems in the late 1970s. There was a short period of declining prison populations from 1981, when fines, community sentences and cautions were increasingly used as alternative punishments.

Another dip occurred in 1992 when new early release measures were introduced, following the 1991 Woolf Report into the Strangeways riots. Lord Woolf warned in the report that conditions in some prisons were "no longer tolerable" and that the prison population would double from 44,000 to 83,000 by 2008 on contemporary trends.

After less than a year, most of these measures were reversed, and the prison population began once again to rise rapidly, stimulated by the then Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works".

The previous Labour government introduced various measures to reduce prison overcrowding, with mixed results. The Narey reforms of 1999 reduced prisoner numbers by reducing the numbers held on remand, and there was greater use of additional prison places in the private sector.

An emergency extension to the Home Detention Curfew scheme was ordered by the Home Office in 2003, permitting prisoners to leave early with an electronic tag attached to monitor their movements.

In February 2007 Home Secretary John Reid announced plans to build two new prisons - one at Maghull, Merseyside and a second next to Belmarsh prison, London - stating that the Home Office was "working flat out to deliver additional capacity within the system."

In June of that year the Government commissioned Lord Carter to carry out a review of prisons. Lord Carter recommended that there should be a "significant" expansion of the current prison building programme to provide 6500 additional new places by 2012. He also recommended that "larger state of the art prisons"  - so-called Titan prisons - be developed to provide approximately 2,500 new places each.

This, he said, would "allow for a programme of closures of old, inefficient, and ineffective prisons offering better value for money and much improved chances of reducing re-offending and crime."

Lord Carter's proposals were supported by the government and it was announced subsequently that three new Titan prisons would be built to provide 7,500 places. However, following widespread opposition to the plans, former Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, confirmed in April 2009 that Titans would not be built after all; in their place would be five new prisons providing up to 1500 places each.

The Coalition government elected in May 2010 said that it would conrinue to expand the prison estate with new prison places coming on stream. However, it was announced in January 2011 that Lancaster Castle and Ashwell prisons would be closed and Morton Hall prison would become an immigration removal centre.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the prison population had not grown as fast as previously projected, with a prison population in January 2011 of 82,991 and a useable operational capacity of 87,936. There was, therefore, scope to reduce overall capacity whilst maintaining sufficient prison places.

Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke stated. "'The decision to close any prison is a difficult one but one that we have had to take. Closing outdated and expensive prisons is an important step in our strategy to provide a secure and modern, fit for purpose prison estate, while improving efficiency and value for the taxpayer."


The main controversy surrounding the issue of prison overcrowding is its negative impact on inmates. There are fewer opportunities for rehabilitative work in overcrowded prisons due to a lack of supervision and inmates are confined to their cells for longer, causing greater tensions between prisoners and with prison staff.

In her annual report published in January 2009, former chief inspector of prisons, Dame Anne Owers, warned that due to the record number of prisoners being held, the prison system remained under pressure and important lessons had to be learned if prisons were to be safe and effective.

She highlighted growing concerns about safety, particularly in dispersal prisons and young offender institutions, and about rates of self-harm among young women; she also  warned of "unsuitable, cramped, or unhygienic accommodation" in some prisons.

"Titan" prisons - the "larger, state of the art prisons" recommended in the Carter review - proved to be extremely controversial. Proposals to build up to three American style jails each housing 2500 prisoners were announced in December 2007 and provoked an outcry.

The Criminal Justice Alliance, a coalition of leading criminal justice organisations whose members include Liberty, the Prison Officers' Association and the Prison Reform Trust, wrote to Justice Secretary Jack Straw in August 2008 calling for the plans to be scrapped. The Howard League for Penal Reform warned that "Titan Prisons will be a Titan nightmare" for communities unlucky enough to have them on their doorstep, and the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats both criticised the proposals.

But Prisons Minister David Hanson rejected the criticisms, insisting that Titans would not be giant warehouses, but "clusters made up of a number of smaller units within one perimeter wall", adding that each unit would "serve a specific function in the process of educating, training and rehabilitating prisoners".

Nevertheless Titans remained controversial. In her 2009 report Dame Anne Owers warned that inspections had revealed "large prisons are more likely to be unsafe and to rely on force" and she said the findings "reinforce concerns about Titan prisons".

The Government finally capitulated in the face of such strong opposition and in April 2009 announced that plans to build Titan prisons had been abandoned.

Another continuing area of controversy is the issue of prisoners with mental health problems. In her 2009 report Dame Anne urged the Government to "invest in alternatives to prison for those who do not need to be, and should not be, there".

Her comments were welcomed by the Prison Reform Trust who in February 2009 published a report entitled "Too Little, Too Late: An Independent Review of Unmet Mental Health Need in Prison", and warned that "thousands of mentally ill people are regularly dumped in and out of the prison system".

The Coalition government elected in May 2010 pledged that it would "explore alternative forms of secure, treatment-based accommodation for mentally ill and drugs offenders."

In April 2012, NICE announced that, following a topic referral from the Department of Health, people working in health, youth and criminal justice, education and social care sectors would be given NICE guidance on the effectiveness and cost effectiveness of interventions for the prevention and early treatment of mental health problems of offenders.

Alongside this, joint clinical guidelines and public health guidance would be developed for those working in health, social care and criminal justice sectors on an integrated model for addressing mental health in prisons.

According to NICE, an estimated 90 per cent of all prisoners have a diagnosable mental health problem, including personality disorders, and/or a substance misuse problem. More than 70 per cent of the prison population has two or more mental health disorders, and the suicide rate in prisons is almost 15 times higher than in the general population.


The latest National Statistics on prison population projections:

This release (generally annual) gives the projected monthly prison population in England and Wales up to 2017.

Three projected scenarios have been modelled.  These lower, medium and higher scenarios track the impact of three different sentencing trends on custodial convictions and hence on the resulting prison population.

By the end of June 2017 the prison population is projected to be 83,100 on the lower projection, 88,900 on the medium projection and 91,800 on the higher projection

Source: Ministry of Justice – October 2011



“Building our way out of the overcrowding problem is not the answer. The prison population can be safely reduced by curbing inflation in sentencing, calling a halt to any unnecessary use of custodial remand and investing in effective community penalties."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust - 2012

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