Prisoner numbers to hit record high with 99,000 behind bars by 2026

The number of prisoners in England and Wales is set to hit a post-war high of nearly 99,000 as tougher sentences and the 20,000 increase in police officers take effect, Government figures reveal.

An analysis of the Government data shows the numbers will rise by 25 per cent from 77,912 last month to 98,700 by 2026, as the Government’s heavier sentences for serious offences and injection of police officers lead to more criminals being arrested and jailed for longer.

That compares with a low of just 15,000 prisoners in 1945 before an inexorable average increase of 2.5 per cent a year until the mid-1990s. Then, under the Blair-Brown Labour Governments numbers rose by a third from 64,000 to 85,000.

They have hovered around 80,000-plus since then but have fallen during the pandemic lockdowns as courts have temporarily closed, the backlog of cases has grown and recorded crime has slumped.

England and Wales already has the third highest prison population across Europe, behind Russia and Turkey which dwarf it with their combined total of more than 800,000, according to the Council of Europe.

Overcrowding, suicide and violence

The average rate of prison admissions of the 47 Council of Europe member-states was 149.8 per 100,000 of the population, whereas in England and Wales it was 215.5 – with the two countries rated “high” for overcrowding, suicide and violence.

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT), which analysed the government data, warned that the sharp rise in the next five years could lead to serious overcrowding and worsening conditions in the ageing largely Victorian prison estate.

The Government has pledged more than £4 billion capital funding to create 18,000 additional places across the prison estate by the mid-2020s. But hundreds of cells are taken out of commission every year because of declining conditions, offsetting the increases.

The PRT also said the plans needed to be seen in the context of the struggles of previous governments to meet more modest prison building targets.

A programme to build 10,000 cells by 2020, announced by the Government in 2015, delivered just 206 extra spaces by its original deadline.

Devastating impact

The trust also warned that it came after one of the most challenging periods in prison history as offenders were locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day during the pandemic, with no training or education.

Peter Dawson, PRT director and a former prison governor, said: “These facts and figures reveal the devastating impact the past 15 months have had on prisoners and their families.

“But instead of ensuring that such a calamity can never happen again, ministers are determined to put a rocket booster under prison numbers.

“The Government accepts that its punitive approach is unlikely to reduce crime, yet is willing to find £4 billion to fund its addiction to prison.

“With no target either for ending overcrowding or for closing prisons that are plainly unfit for purpose, the people at the sharp end will continue to live and work in a dangerous system, as vulnerable to the unexpected as it was in March of last year.”

However, the MoJ said it expected the 10,000 extra prison places to be open midway through 2026, with four new jails being built over the next six years.

These include HMP Five Wells, a new jail at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, and HMP Glen Parva, Leicestershire, both with 1,680 prison places.

“New large prisons are due to open in each of the next two years and £4 billion has already been allocated to ensure we will always meet demand for places,” said an MoJ spokesman.

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