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Why are Prisons Getting More Overcrowded?

There are currently more prisoners in the UK than there have ever been (88,225), and in England and Wales (as of June 2023), over 60% of prisons have been classed as crowded. But why is this? And what are the impacts of this in practical terms?

COVID-Delayed Trials Affecting Crowding in Prisons

Like so many sectors over the past couple of years, a big part of why prisons are becoming even more crowded is the Coronavirus pandemic, specifically because of delayed trials due to the outbreak. Prisoners are being held in prison awaiting trial for far longer than usual, which in turn is placing massive strain on the prisons themselves. 

Convicted Criminals Being Kept on Bail

There have been reports that convicted criminals will be kept on bail to ease pressures on the current prison crowding situation. This has led to some judges being concerned about whether more severe offenders will be left walking the streets. The government has since said that this will not be the case and that “anyone deemed a risk to public safety” would be kept in custody whilst awaiting trial. 

Impact of Overcrowding on Prison Conditions

Overcrowding can have a significant negative impact on the lives of the prisoners being housed in said prisons. Cells may have to be shared, existing mental health problems can worsen, and behaviour between inmates can worsen. These are just a few of the dangers posed by an overcrowded prison.

An Increase in Police Officers and Arrest Numbers

If you compare the number of FTE police officers in England and Wales as of March 2023 with March 2022, there’s been a significant increase. In March 2022, there were 140,228 full-time equivalent police officers, whilst in March 2023, there were 147,430 full-time equivalent police officers. That’s a 5.14% increase. This continues the trend of more police officers, as in March 2021, there were fewer still, with only 135,301 FTE police officers.

This increase in police officers has correlated with an increase in arrest numbers. Recently published information from the government stated that: “there were 663,036 arrests between April 2021 and March 2022 – up by almost 18,000 compared to the previous year”. 

It’s no wonder that there are more arrests when there are more crimes reported. Comparing data from Year ending March 2021, 2022, and 2023, the number of police-recorded crimes (excluding fraud) has consistently increased. In 2021, the number in England and Wales was 4,612,654. In 2022, it was 5,335,806, and by 2023, that figure had risen further to 5,584,888. 

There’s no hard and fast rule that says an increase in the number of police officers and crimes also leads to a definite rise in arrest numbers, but the fact that there has would indicate at least a partial correlation.   

Shorter Sentences to Potentially Be Scrapped

In what’s been considered a highly controversial proposal, the government is considering scrapping shorter sentences to lighten the load on prisons up and down the country. There has been significant backlash to this, particularly from those concerned for women’s safety, like the government’s domestic violence watchdog, as many shorter sentences are for crimes like harassment and revenge porn.

What is the Government Doing About It?

Besides shorter sentences being scrapped, the government has outlined two principal areas where overcrowding can be tackled: early release on license and removing foreign offenders.  

That means prisoners could be released up to 18 days before their automatic release date, and that some foreign offenders may be freed up to 18 months early, rather than the 12-month sentence discount currently applied to some foreign offenders.  

The government also plans to spend £400 million to create more prison spaces, equating to roughly 800 new prison cells. 

Carry on reading