Men in squalor: Britain’s prison overcrowding problem

Overpopulation in Britain’s prisons continues to be a chronic problem with one operating as high as 183 per cent of capacity, latest government figures reveal.

More than two thirds of the country’s prisons house a population higher than the recommended certified normal accommodation (CNA) – the prison service’s own measure of how many prisoners can be safely housed.

The five worst offenders – Kennet, Merseyside; Leeds; Swansea; Wandsworth, London; and Exeter – all operating at figures of over one and a half of the recommended guidelines.

The impact is the majority of prisoners confined to six-by-ten-foot cells are forced to “double-up” or “treble-up”.

“Caging men in squalor with nothing to do all day is never going to help them become law-abiding citizens on release,” said Frances Cook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

“Far too many people are being sent into already overcrowded jails and the need to stem the flow is urgent. Government must get a grip on a prison system in crisis that is feeding the crime problem and creating more victims.”

The figures, released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) on Friday, show that only 34 of the country’s 118 prisons house the level of prisoners safe for them to do so.

Private prisons were introduced in the 1990s in order to deal with the ballooning problem of prison overcrowding; however, their performance was no better.

Of the 14 private prisons – contractually managed by companies such as G4S Justice Services, Serco Custodial Services and Sodexo Justice Services – only three were under the 100 per cent mark. The average capacity rate was one per cent higher than those managed by Her Majesty’s Prison Service at 111.

Studies also show that self-harm, drug-taking and sexual abuse were more common in privately run prisons.

The latest solution on offer for the overcrowding crisis however, announced in the Chancellor’s November spending review, is to build nine new prisons – five before 2020.

George Osborne said many prisons are out-dated “relics from Victorian times” that stand on “prime real estate”. He said modern prisons that would be better equipped to the housing and rehabilitation of the inmates would be built instead.

The sites for the nine new prisons have yet to be announced but will be in addition to the new jail being built in Wrexham and the extensions underway at HMP Stocken in Rutland and HMP Rye Hill in Warwickshire.

The Prison Reform Trust argues however, that increased capacity will be meaningless and will quickly be filled unless the overall justice system is radically overhauled.

“An explosion in the use of indeterminate sentences and the increased use of long determinate sentences are key drivers behind the near doubling of prison numbers in the past two decades,” a spokesman said.

“The average prison sentence is now nearly four months longer than 20 years ago at 15.9 months. The use of sentences of more than ten years has nearly tripled since 2005 alone, and accounts for 14 per cent of the people in prison serving a sentence.”

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