The proportion of prisons whose performance is “of concern” or “of serious concern” almost doubled from 13% in 2012–13, to 24% in 2014– 15. Both the Justice Committee and HM Chief Inspector of Prisons have stated that falling staff numbers have been a key factor behind deteriorating standards within prisons in recent years.
One in five prisoners told inspectors that they spent less than two hours a day out of their cells during the week. Only one in seven said they spent 10 hours or more out of their cell each day. Most people are locked up for the night at 6.30pm—often even earlier during weekends. This meant some prisoners (especially those in fulltime employment) were unable to shower every day. Some also struggled to telephone their families and friends.
At the end of September 2015, 70 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded—holding 8,495 people more than they were designed to. In 2014–15 an average of 21,765 prisoners were held in overcrowded accommodation, accounting for more than a quarter of the total prison population. The majority were doubling up in cells designed for one. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) has highlighted the damaging, and potentially tragic, effects of prisoners being transferred on “overcrowding drafts”. People are often moved from prisons that they know and are known in to other busy prisons where they may feel less safe.
There are now fewer staff looking after more prisoners. The number of staff employed in the public prison estate has fallen by 30% in the last five years— 13,730 fewer staff looking after nearly 1,200 more people. In 2000 there was on average one prison officer for every 2.9 prisoners, by the end of March 2014 this had increased to 5.3 prisoners.
The number of people sentenced by the courts has fallen by 19% over the last 10 years. 1.22m people were sentenced in the 12 months to March 2015, a small rise on the year before. 7% of people sentenced by the courts were given a custodial sentence in the 12 months to March 2015. 90,333 people were sentenced to immediate custody in the year to March 2015, a drop of 3% compared to the previous 12 months and the lowest figure in the last 10 years. However, the average prison sentence has been getting longer. It’s now nearly four months longer than twenty years ago at 15.9 months. For more serious, indictable offences, the average is 53.6 months.
Anyone leaving custody who has served two days or more is now required to serve a minimum of 12 months under supervision in the community. The government has estimated that around 13,000 people will be recalled or committed to custody as a result of these changes—requiring around 600 additional prison places, at a cost of £16m per year.
Increasing numbers of people in prison don’t know if, or when, they might be released. 12,053 people are in prison serving an indeterminate sentence. This compares with fewer than 4,000 in 1998 and 3,000 in 1992. The proportion of the sentenced prison population serving a life or indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) has almost doubled since 1993 from 9% to 17% in 2014. England and Wales have more than three times as many people serving indeterminate sentences than France, Germany and Italy combined—the highest in Europe by a significant margin.
7,439 people are currently in prison serving a life sentence. Over half (53%) had a tariff of 10–20 years, a quarter had up to 10 years and 19% had 20 years or more. A third of people currently in prison on a life sentence have already served their minimum tariff. People serving mandatory life sentences are spending more of their sentence in prison. On average they spend 17 years in custody, up from 13 years in 2001. Judges are also imposing longer tariff periods. The average minimum term imposed for murder rose from 12.5 years in 2003 to 21 years in 2013.
The Justice Secretary said in July 2015, “Prison is a place where people are sent as a punishment, not for further punishments…Human beings whose lives have been reckoned so far in costs— to society, to the criminal justice system, to victims and to themselves— can become assets— citizens who can contribute and demonstrate the human capacity for redemption.” This is merely a pious hope.