The 30 most overcrowded prisons in England and Wales are twice as likely to be rated as failing by the prison service compared with prisons overall, a new analysis published with the latest annual edition of the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, kindly supported by the Bromley Trust, reveals.
The new analysis of Ministry of Justice prison population and prison performance ratings by the Prison Reform Trust suggests that overcrowding is undermining the resilience of establishments and their ability to maintain safety and decency in the face of steep cuts to staffing and resources. 

It also shows that the top three most overcrowded prisons are all rated as “of concern” while five of the six prisons rated “of serious concern” by the prison service are overcrowded. A full analysis of prisons by performance and overcrowding levels is below.
At the end of October 2016, 77 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. Overcrowded prisons hold 10,442 more people than for which they were designed. Because people have to double up in cells to accommodate additional numbers, this means that over 20,000 people—nearly one quarter of the prison population—still share cells designed for fewer occupants, often eating their meals in the same space as the toilet they share.
The prison system as a whole has been overcrowded in every year since 1994, largely driven by a rising prison population which has nearly doubled in the past two decades and now stands at 85,000. The government’s white paper on prison safety and reform holds out the ambition for a “less crowded” estate but contains little by way of concrete proposals to achieve that aim. In his evidence to the Justice Committee last week, the chief executive of the prison service Michael Spurr said that overcrowding would not be resolved in this, or the next Parliament.
The Prison Reform Trust’s analysis shows a correlation between levels of overcrowding and prison performance. In the past three years, the proportion of prisons rated “of concern” or “of serious concern” by the prison service has doubled and the number now stands at 31 establishments. The number of prisons rated “exceptional” has plummeted from 43 in 2011–12 to only eight in 2015–16.
The Prison Reform Trust’s analysis reveals that:

  • The 30 most overcrowded prisons are twice as likely to be failing compared with prisons overall. Half (15) of the top 30 most overcrowded prisons are rated “of concern” or “of serious concern”. This compares to just over one quarter (31) of the 117 prisons in England and Wales rated as “of concern” or “of serious concern”.
  • The top three most overcrowded prisons are all rated as “of concern”. The most overcrowded prison in England and Wales is Leeds. Designed to hold 669 men, it now holds 1,145. Second is Swansea (built to hold 268 men, it holds 456) and third is Wandsworth (built for 943, it holds 1,564). All are rated as “of concern”.
  • Five of the six prisons rated “of serious concern” by the prison service are overcrowded. The six prisons rated as “of serious concern” are Doncaster, Bristol, Isis, Hewell, Wormwood Scrubs and Liverpool. Only Liverpool is currently operating below uncrowded capacity.
  • Only one of the eight prisons—Whatton—rated as having “exceptional performance” is overcrowded.

Overcrowding can affect the performance of prisons in a number of ways. It can impact on whether activities, staff and other resources are available to reduce the risk of reoffending. Inspections regularly find a third or more of prisoners unoccupied during the working day because a prison holds more people than it should. Overcrowding makes it more likely that basic human needs will be neglected with key parts of the prison—showers, kitchens, health care centres, gyms—facing a higher demand than they were designed for. 
Overcrowding also has a significant impact on where prisoners are held and their ability to progress in their sentences. Every day prisoners are bussed around the country to remote locations just to make sure that every last bed space is filled. Prisoners progressing well are suddenly told they must move on, regardless of their sentence plan or where their family and loved ones live.
The Bromley Briefings paints a bleak portrait of a prison system stretched beyond its safe and decent limit and highlights the scale of the challenge ahead for the Justice Secretary Liz Truss as she seeks to implement her plans for prison safety and reform.
Key facts include:

  • 324 people died in prison in the year to September 2016, the highest number on record. A third of these deaths were self-inflicted.
  • Serious assaults in prison have more than doubled in the last three years. There were 2,462 serious prisoner on prisoner assaults in the year to June 2016.
  • Rates of self-harm are at the highest level ever recorded. There were 36,440 self-harm incidents in the year to June 2016—a 52% rise in just two years.
  • Nearly one in three people (31%) held in a local prison said they spent less than two hours out of their cell each day.
  • Only one in seven people said they spent 10 hours or more out of their cell each day.
  • The National Tactical Response Group, a specialist unit assisting in safely managing and resolving serious incidents in prisons responded to over 400 incidents in the first eight months of 2016—more than the whole of 2015.

The introduction to the briefing calls for a comprehensive strategy on prison reform to reduce overcrowding and pressures on the system. Proposed measures include reform to the sentencing framework to limit the use of long determinate and indeterminate sentences, the release of some IPP prisoners held beyond their tariff expiry date, changes to the arrangements for recall, an early release scheme linked to constructive activity in prison, and a drive to increase the uptake of effective community approaches.
Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
“The bleak state of our prisons is a political failure, shared by all governments of the last two and a half decades. Three years of austerity have now brutally exposed the system’s inherent vulnerability, and a comprehensive strategy to control the demand for prison, and so to end overcrowding, must form part of this government’s response.”