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This briefing paper explores data on the UK prison population, including the population size and change over time, the demographic profile of prisoners, safety in prisons, and the cost per prisoner.

Prisons are devolved, so UK prison statistics are published separately for England and Wales (the Ministry of Justice), Scotland (the Scottish Government), and Northern Ireland (the Department of Justice). This briefing also compares the UK with other countries.

Prison population

Weekly prison population data are available for England, Wales and Scotland and quarterly data are available for Northern Ireland. As of June 2022, the UK had a total prison population of approximately 89,520 people, comprising

  • 80,660 in England and Wales,
  • 7,430 in Scotland, and
  • 1,640 in Northern Ireland.

The prison population fell in all jurisdictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. The starkest decline was between February and June 2020, when the prison population of the UK as a whole reduced by 5,500 people or by 6%. It has steadily grown since then without yet returning to its pre-pandemic level.

In addition to snapshots on particular days, all jurisdictions publish an average annual prison population. This was 78,536 people in England and Wales, 7,504 in Scotland, and 1,494 in Northern Ireland in 2021/22 (a total of 87,534).

Change over time

Up until 2015, the prison population had been generally increasing in size, with the sharpest increases happening in the mid-1990s and the 2000s. After that it flattened off, even falling in Scotland and Northern Ireland prior to the pandemic.

The graph below shows prison population change relative to 1900 (and relative to 2000 for Northern Ireland). 

The prison population of England & Wales quadrupled in size between 1900 and 2018, with around half of this increase taking place since 1990.  The Scottish prison population almost doubled in size since 1900 and rose 60% since 1990.

The data series for Northern Ireland begins in 2000. Between 2000 and 2020/21 the prison population of Northern Ireland increased by 40%, although the prison population is currently well below its peak of around 1,800 in 2014.

Prison population per capita

To put the prison population in context, it is possible to calculate the number of prisoners per 100,000 people in the general population aged 15 and over. At the most recent estimate, there were:

  • 159 prisoners per 100,000 of the population in England and Wales
  • 162 per 100,000 in Scotland.
  • 97 per 100,000 in Northern Ireland.

Projections

In each jurisdiction, prison population projections are made on a regular basis. At the most recent estimate, the prison population in England and Wales is projected to grow to 98,700 by 2026, to 7,800 in Scotland by 2022, and to 2,251 in Northern Ireland by 2022.

Further statistics

The availability of more detailed data on the prison population varies by jurisdiction. Where available, this briefing contains statistics on:

  • Sentence length and offences for which prisoners were convicted
  • Age of prisoners
  • Nationality
  • Ethnicity and religion
  • Over-crowding
  • Safety in prisons (assault, self-harming, deaths in prison, drugs)
  • Prisoner escapes and absconds
  • Cost per prisoner

An Excel spreadsheet is also provided which contains the underlying data to the charts in the briefing.


Documents to download

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