The prison estate in England and Wales: Pressures, population and plans for reform

Stakeholders from across the prisons sector have claimed that the prison estate in England and Wales is in crisis. The Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke said he witnessed: “conditions which have no place in advanced nation in the 21st century,” while Phil Copple, Executive Director for Prisons in HM Prison and Probation Service states there are: “chronic problems with living conditions in considerable parts of the estate.” On a visit to Liverpool prison, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart described the “shocking conditions” he witnessed and has since staked his job on turning around the conditions in ten of the worst prisons in the country.

Many prisons across England and Wales are struggling (to varying extents) with overcrowding, high levels of violence, easy access to drugs and squalid physical conditions (see our paper on UK prison population statistics and the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales Annual Report 2017-18 for more information).

Inspections have revealed that the situation has reached “breaking point” in prisons in Nottingham, Exeter, Birmingham and Bedford. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has issued “Urgent Notifications” to these prisons which require the Ministry of Justice to take urgent action to try and rapidly improve standards.

This Insight will look at factors contributing to pressures facing the prison system and what the Government proposes to do.

Why are prison conditions deteriorating?

There are several factors that have contributed to a deterioration in living conditions in English and Welsh prisons. The prison estate is large and complex – there are more than 100 prisons in England and Wales. Some of these prisons are in town centres, others in suburban and rural areas. Whilst around a quarter of prisons have been built in the last 20 years or so, much of the estate is much older. Just under a third of prisons were built in the mid-20th Century and a further third during the Victorian era.

The prison population is expected to rise by around 3,200 places by March 2023. A growing population combined with old and often poorly designed buildings is putting considerable pressure on the system.

In some cases, new maintenance contracts have impacted negatively on living conditions. In 2015 the maintenance of prisons was contracted out to private sector providers. The latest publicly available information shows that there were thousands of outstanding maintenance issues across the estate in June 2018. Many, including the President of the Prison Governors Association, have argued that maintenance companies have failed to provide an adequate service. The Labour Party has opposed the use of private contractors for prison maintenance and have to bring the contracts back “in house” if it were in Government. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has recognised concerns about the quality of service of maintenance providers and said it has put in place work to “systematically tackle” these concerns.

What is the Government doing?

In its 2016 White Paper on Prison safety and reform, the 2015-17 Conservative Government recognised that, “the physical environment that many staff and prisoners face on a daily basis is not fostering the kind of culture or regime needed for prisoners to turn their lives around.”  

In response, the Government initiated a Prison Estate Transformation Programme. This programme aims to build new prison places to replace old accommodation, invest in renovations across the existing estate and reorganise the functions of individual prisons so that they better suit the needs of the prison population.

So far, the Government has initiated three building projects as part of this programme. A new house-block at HM Prison Stocken is expected to open in early 2019 and new prisons are being built on former sites in Leicestershire and Wellingborough. However, some of the Government’s plans have stalled. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has said that plans to redevelop prisons at Rochester and Hindley have been put on hold as a significant rise in the prison population had prevented them from closing the prisons.

How much will Government plans cost?

The Government has committed £1.3 billion to build new prisons to meet its pledge for 10,000 new prison places. It has also announced around £70 million to refurbish the existing estate. This money will be spent on repairs and renovations, new security measures and improved technology for prisoners, including new ‘in-cell’ telephones.

Prisoner welfare groups have been critical of the levels of investment. They have argued that the transformation programme is considerably underfunded and that a projected growth in the prison population will prevent rapid improvements in conditions (for more information see section 3.3 in our briefing The prison estate). The Prison Governor Association has been more optimistic; its president has said the transformation programme is taking the right approach and that, “green shoots of recovery, however small, are showing.”

What next?

The Government is finalising plans for the remaining new prisons it needs to build to meet its pledge for 10,000 new prison places. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has begun its own audits of living conditions across the estate but said that an assessment of each prison would not be available for “some time”.

In the meantime, the House of Commons Justice Committee is looking at living conditions and the sustainability of the Government’s plans to transform the estate as part of its inquiry into the Prison population 2022: planning for the future. The Committee has concluded taking evidence from a range of stakeholders and is due to report this spring.

Further reading:

The Prison Estate, House of Commons Library.

Jenny Brown is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in home affairs and justice.