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The prison estate in England and Wales contains 117 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.

Concerns about conditions

There has been growing concern 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 has been estimated at around £1 billion.

Reports from the Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2017-19 said that conditions in this period were some of the most disturbing and squalid the inspectorate had ever seen. The inspectorate reported that in 2019-20, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, some prisons had improved living conditions, but conditions remained poor and overcrowded for many prisoners. The current Chief Inspector of Prisons in his 2020-21 annual report stated that the pandemic had exacerbated some underlying problems and unacceptable conditions that inspections have previously criticised.

Government prison estate programmes

The Government ran a ‘Prison Estate Transformation Programme’ from 2016-2019 with the aim of building 10,000 new prison places, investing in repairs and renovations and reorganising the functions of individual prisons.

In 2020 the National Audit Office and 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-for-old 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.

A New Prison Programme was created in 2019. In August 2019 the Government announced that it would spend up to £2.5 billion to create 10,000 prison places. 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 and Five Wells (Wellingborough).

The 2020-21 Spending Review also included £315m capital funding which HMPPS said would be used to make a start on critical refurbishment projects. The Public Accounts Committee has said the £315 million is significantly below what is required to maintain the prison estate.

Responses to the Government’s approach

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

In January 2021 the Government announced that up to 500 prison 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.

This briefing discusses the prison estate in England and Wales.


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