Supply and Demand: Prison Population Overload

Published: May 26, 2022  |  

Criminologist and commentator on criminal justice issues

“Can anyone doubt that today our prisons truly are in crisis—seriously overcrowded, understaffed and volatile—and that the solution cannot be simply to build more, but lies rather in adopting fresh approaches to reducing their population and restoring what is now almost entirely lost: the real prospect of prison sentences actually being used to reform and rehabilitate inmates?”

This was the opening paragraph from Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood on the debate on Prison overcrowding 7th September 2017 that he brought to the House of Lords.

I was there in the Public Gallery, watching and listening very carefully. Looking down from my vantage point, I could see row upon row of members sat on their deep red button seats, which clashed with the bright blue, repetitive pattern-emblasoned carpet. At the far end of the chamber on a raised platform stands the royal throne: an ornate gilded piece based on the design of the 14th century coronation chair in Westminster Abbey. I was slightly in awe.

It troubled me that, for such an important debate, many members of the house looked bored. One or two of them were slumped in their seats: either they were biding their time, totally immersed in the subject matter, or presumably asleep. I think it was the latter.

At the beginning of the debate, there were many sitting in the public gallery taking in the atmosphere, but one by one, they all left, leaving me alone for the remainder of the debate without distraction to absorb as much as I could.

Anything concerning prisons and those within them is not a popular subject. Such topics are often dismissed with the “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” mentality. But in England and Wales as of Friday 6th April 2022, the prison population stands at 79,746. With the prison population projected to increase to 98,500 by March 2026, serious conversations need to be held now in order to focus on what can be done to alleviate this uncomfortable direction we are heading in.

Virtually all of the prison population increase since 1993 has been due to the increased number of prisoners sentenced to immediate custody, rather than due to those on remand. Moreover, according to HM Prison and Probation Service annual digest, 1 in 5 prisoners were held in overcrowded conditions in 2020. The British justice system is emphasising custodial rather than community sentencing, even in cases where it is more appropriate to offer an alternative. Sadly, with increased powers for magistrates, designed to reduce pressure on the Crown Courts, the result has been that this pressure is getting passed onto the already crowded and crisis-ridden prisons, which have to manage this increased population with longer prison sentences.

Taking into account these changes, it makes me question: are we building more prisons because of a projected rise in the prison population, or building prisons and then making sure they are filled?

This question brings supply and demand to mind.

I hear too often that the prison-building programme is designed to reduce overcrowding. But it’s not. There is still “slopping out” in some prisons, where the lack of in cell sanitation resorts to inmates having to use a bucket at night, when unlocking for the basic human need of waste elimination is either denied or there is not sufficient staff to manage.

In addition, details have emerged from the Public Accounts Committee that existing prisons have a £1billion backlog in repairs, and the £315 million recent allocation for maintenance is “significantly below what is required to maintain decent, safe prison places….” And so, the warehousing of the vulnerable continues.

Instead of the billions ploughed into an ineffective criminal justice system, a huge prison building programme, and a determination to increase the prison population, we need a government that can think outside the box. We do not need yet another Secretary of State for Justice that uses his role as a stepping stone to a greater position in government; rather, we need someone who will challenge the status quo and will speak out for a more humane system.

I am not advocating the abolition of prisons, but what I am saying is this: when those that are incarcerated are released in a far worse state than upon arrival, when deaths and mental health issues are prevalent, when prison staff are leaving the service in droves, the answer is not to throw money into this never-ending black hole.

Sitting in the House of Lords for the first time was a privilege that I will not forget, and I will leave you here with the last word to Lord Bird: “Until we move on to prevention, until we start to dismantle poverty, we will have overcrowded prisons. I am sorry to say this because overcrowded prisons are not prisons that work. We can be as clever as we like and come up with all sorts of solutions but let us stop the churn; let us stop the arrival of people in prisons. That is the big, revolutionary need in terms of our thinking.”

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