Three in Four Prisons Are Overcrowded - Ministers Must Recognise There Is a Problem

Three quarters of prisons that hold adult men - some as young as 18 or 19 - are overcrowded... If the problem is going to be solved it requires a mature attitude by ministers and a recognition that there is indeed a problem.
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Prisons are in a terrible state and this matters to the public because they are not islands, what happens in jails spills out into the community. The increasing violence, assaults on staff and prisoners, the impossibility of providing basic facilities like a shower or a phone call home, all lead to more crime when people are released.

The Howard League has just published figures, using official government statistics, that show overcrowding is now a serious national problem. Three quarters of prisons that hold adult men - some as young as 18 or 19 - are overcrowded. This not just a matter of discomfort, it has serious repercussions for safety inside and on release. Many people in prison have mental health problems and caging them for weeks on end in a small cell with nothing to do exacerbates their illness. People with drug and alcohol addictions can still get drugs in prisons and HM Inspectorate of Prisons has found evidence that people acquire drug habits inside jails because drugs are so easily available. Indeed, because of the inflated market inside prisons it is the best place to make serious money from dealing drugs.

Doubling and trebling are terms used in prisons when a cell is designed for one person but holds two, or three men are held in a cell designed for two. This means that bunks are put into a cell the size of a toilet cubicle, that also has a toilet, so people have to defecate and urinate in front of each other. The smell is noxious as there is little ventilation. There is nothing to do all day but lie on your bunk and watch TV if there is one in the cell. If one of the prisoners has broken the rules and has his TV taken away as a punishment, the other prisoner has no TV either. This is prison life for the whole remand or sentence period.

The Ministry of Justice closed 12 prisons at a time when more people are being sent to prison. The ministry also cut prison staff by 40%. So more prisoners are crammed into fewer jails with fewer staff.

Our figures show that on a typical day, almost 19,000 men were doubled up and about 800 were trebled up. Leeds is the most overcrowded prison with accommodation for 669 men but in fact holding more than 1,200. Other grossly overcrowded jails include Swansea, Wandsworth, Leicester, Exeter, Preston, Durham, Bedford and Cardiff.

Some of the private prisons run by G4S, Sodexo and Serco are also overcrowded but information about how much extra these companies are paid is kept secret. They are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and they keep information secret for commercial reasons, not for the public good.

It is the public-sector prisons that have taken the brunt of the additional numbers and the staff cuts. The Victorian local prisons have few facilities for education or work. It is common for men to be allowed a shower only every few days. The uniform they wear has been worn by countless others before and that includes underwear.

Government ministers were quoted as saying that the increase in suicides in prisons last year was a "blip". They say that overcrowding is not a problem. They say that the increase in violence against staff will be dealt with by more prison sentences.

If the problem is going to be solved it requires a mature attitude by ministers and a recognition that there is indeed a problem. It is no good ministers putting their fingers in their ears and singing La La La.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has a comprehensive programme for solving the prison overcrowding problem that would also reduce reoffending and prevent people from becoming the victims of prisoners. I don't want to see continued violence inside prisons or when people are released back on the streets drug addicted, resentful, unemployable and ready to commit another crime. We are ready and willing to talk to Government.

Frances Crook is chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform


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