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The prison estate contains 120 prisons holding people who have been sentenced or are on remand awaiting trial for a range of crimes. The prison estate has a mixture of publicly and privately run institutions, some of which are newly built, while others date back to the Victorian era.


As of March 2023, the total prison population in England and Wales was around 84,400 people, 96% of whom were male. The prison population has grown substantially over the past 30 years, with almost all the growth having taken place between 1995 and 2010. It reached its highest level in 2012 at around 86,600 people. During the pandemic, in 2020, the prison population dipped to its lowest level for around 13 years before rising again in each of the two most recent years.

In the long term, the Government expects the prison population to increase. Among reasons for the projected increase, the Ministry of Justice cites the rise in police officer numbers and changes in sentencing policy. The most recent set of projections give a central estimate for the prison population of 94,400 by March 2025 and a range from 93,100 to 106,300 by March 2027.

Concerns about conditions

There are long standing concerns that the prison estate is unfit for purpose. The estate includes many dilapidated and overcrowded prisons. There is a backlog of maintenance work in prisons that was estimated in March 2021 to be around £1 billion.

Reports from HM Inspectorate of Prisons have repeatedly found living conditions to be poor, describing them in recent years as squalid, poor, overcrowded, insanitary and unacceptable. The inspectorate has reported finding damp cells, unscreened toilets and vermin at some prisons.

On an average day in 2022, 20.6% of prisoners in England and Wales were being held in crowded conditions. The proportion of prisoners being held in crowded conditions is currently lower than in recent years. The highest overall level of crowding was in 2015, when over a quarter (25.5%) of prisoners were in crowded conditions.

The Prison Estate Transformation Programme (2016-19)

The Government ran a Prison Estate Transformation Programme (PETP) from 2016-2019, which aimed to build 10,000 new prison places and close prisons in a poor condition.

In 2020, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee published reports that were critical of the attempts made by the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to improve the prison estate. The Public Accounts Committee said that despite promises to create 10,000 new prison places by 2020, just 206 new places had been delivered, and prisoners continued to be held in unsafe, crowded conditions that did not meet their needs.

Plans to close old prisons in a poor condition did not proceed, with Ministers stating the places were needed to accommodate rising numbers of prisoners.

Plans for more prison places

In March 2018, the Ministry of Justice decided not to deliver the PETP in full due to budget pressures and removed around 6,500 places from the programme. In summer 2019 the PETP was retired, and a new programme created. The Government announced in August 2019 that it would spend up to £2.5 billion to create 10,000 prison places in addition to the approximately 3,500 places already under way.

In the 2020 Spending Review, the Government stated it would spend more than £4 billion towards delivering 18,000 prison places across England and Wales by the mid-2020s. The 18,000 places would include the 10,000 places at four new prisons (announced in August 2019), the expansion of a further four prisons, the refurbishment of the existing prison estate and the completion of ongoing prison builds at Glen Parva (HMP Fosse Way) and Wellingborough (HMP Five Wells).

The 2021 Spending Review said the Government would spend £3.8 million to provide 20,000 prison places. The Prisons Strategy white paper, published in December 2021, repeated the 20,000 figure, adding that this would be made up of 18,000 prison places (announced in 2020) and 2,000 temporary places.

The Prisons Strategy white paper said the provision of new prison places would make the estate more modern and secure, protect the public and provide a productive environment for offenders.

The Ministry of Justice has projected that the prison population will rise in the coming years, particularly as an anticipated result of an increase in the number of police officers and changes in sentencing and release policies.

Current position

HMP Five Wells, operated by G4S, was opened in March 2022. HMP Fosse Way, run by Serco, began accepting prisoners at the end of May 2023. Construction has started for HMP Millsike (Full Sutton), the first of the four new prisons announced in August 2019. The Government is seeking sites for the other three new prisons. Potential sites, subject to planning appeals, include land near current prisons Garth Wymott, Gartree and Grendon.

The Government has said that as of 5 June 2023, 5,202 of the 20,000 prison places planned have been delivered. The Minister explained this number included two new prisons (HMP Five Wells and HMP Fosse Way), approximately 700 temporary places through modular units and 680 places at HMP Dartmoor where the lease was extended.

Responses to the Government’s approach

Prison reform organisations have been critical of the Government’s approach of building more prison places. They argue that instead of increasing prison places the Government should reduce the prison population, thereby reducing overcrowding and freeing up resources for rehabilitation.

Women’s prisons

In January 2021 the Government announced that up to 500 places would be built in existing women’s prisons. The plans have been criticised by prison reform organisations, who have commented that they undermine the Government’s commitments to reduce the women’s prison population and go against the Government’s own evidence that most women in prison do not need to be there.

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