The Prison Reform Trust has warned that the prison system is facing a “perfect storm” of rising prison numbers and a looming staffing crisis which threatens to blow the government’s reform plans off course.

Responding to the government’s consultation on its prisons strategy white paper, which closes today, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“The government’s white paper on prisons is long on promises and short on the means to deliver them. For the long term, it simply avoids the fundamental challenges on overcrowding and resourcing which have sunk so many similarly ambitious policy statements in the past. But it also offers nothing for the short term, where policies to inflate prison numbers despite a staffing crisis threaten to make prisons unmanageable.

“A perfect storm is coming, and ministers must not think they can ride it out by cramming more prisoners into dilapidated prisons regularly condemned by the Chief Inspector of prisons. Too many prisoners and too few staff led to an explosion in deaths, self-harm and violence in the last decade—there can be no excuse for not understanding the consequences of doing the same again.”

The prison population in England and Wales has risen by 70% in the past 30 years—and is projected to rise by 19,000 by 2026 to 98,500.

To accommodate the projected increase in prison numbers, driven in large part by its own punitive criminal justice measures, the government has committed to building an additional 20,000 prison places by the mid-2020s.

PRT’s response to the white paper says that even if this ambitious target is delivered, the new places are likely only to meet the demands of the  increase in the prison population.

The same number of prisoners will still be forced to live in prisons where inspectors repeatedly find physical conditions falling well below acceptable standards, and the typical day is spent mostly locked behind a cell door.

The white paper also commits to recruiting up to 5,000 additional prison officers in public and private prisons over the same period; and introducing a retention framework.

But at a time when the labour market is becoming increasingly competitive, there are worrying signs that the prison service is struggling to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of staff.

In the year to September 2021, 2,587 prison officers, around one in nine (11%) of those employed, left the prison service.

Most officers (52%) who left the service in the last year had stayed in the role for less than three years.

Despite this, a recommendation by the independent prison service pay review body to increase prison officers' pay was recently rejected by the government—the latest in a series of rejections of the body’s recommendations.

PRT’s response to the white paper warns that the government “faces a dramatic fall in the number of people applying to become a prison officer at a time when one in nine prison officers are leaving the profession every year. And it will do so after repeatedly denying prison officers a pay rise recommended by an independent pay review body.”

Recalling the similar broken promises of revolutionary change made by Chris Grayling when he was Lord Chancellor, and David Cameron as Prime Minister, the response describes most of the white paper as reading like an “unfunded wish list”. It calls on ministers to publish an analysis of the costs of all of its proposals, and how they are to be met.

Amongst 31 specific recommendations, it also calls for:

  • a timetabled and resourced plan to eliminate overcrowding;
  • the immediate publication of the prison service’s race action programme; and
  • the publication of a safety impact assessment for the white paper.

The government has said it will respond to the consultation process in April 2022.