A new report by the Prison Reform Trust, supported by the Bromley Trust, shows a system under significant strain with fewer staff, worsening safety, and fewer opportunities for rehabilitation.

Unprecedented cuts to the Ministry of Justice budget, due to total £2.4bn by 2015-16 , are creating a race to the bottom in prison conditions and the warehousing of people in super-sized jails, according to the Prison Reform Trust’s new report Prison: the facts.

Further measures are planned to drive down costs to levels claimed by the new much criticised private sector establishment HMP Oakwood, which is reported to cost around £15,500 per place and holds nearly 1,600 men.

Despite evidence suggesting smaller prisons are safer and more effective than larger establishments, holding people closer to home with a higher ratio of staff to prisoners and more emphasis on resettlement, the government plans to build a super-sized prison in Wrexham holding 2,000 prisoners.

Over 40% of prisoners are now held in prisons of 1,000 places or more , and nearly two-thirds of prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded by to the prison service’s own definition, holding 2,687 more prisoners than they were designed to. In the last two weeks prison numbers swelled by over 500 – equivalent to the population of a small prison.

Strict controls on recruitment and high levels of staff sickness, the closure of 15 prisons, the transfer of a further two prisons to the private sector and a 23% reduction in the number of prison officers employed in publicly run prisons since March 2010 have created a system stretched to its limit. Reductions in staffing levels impact on safety and the amount of time prisoners are able to spend their time engaged in purposeful activity. Nearly half (46%) of adults are reconvicted within one year of release, rising to 58% for those sentenced to 12 months or less.

The number of occasions Prison Service Gold Command, the national group convened during serious incidents and disturbances, has been opened over the last three years has increased by 153% since 2011-12. In 2013-14 it opened on 81 occasions. There has also been a 14% rise in serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults between 2010 and 2013 , and the number of deaths in custody last year was the highest on record.

According to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, both “the quantity and quality of purposeful activity in which prisoners are engaged [has] plummeted” in 2012-13, reporting the worst outcomes in six years. In over half of prisons results were judged to be not sufficiently good or poor. He also warned in 2012 “Resources are now stretched very thinly [...] there is a pretty clear choice for politicians and policy makers - reduce prison populations or increase prison budgets.”

This report comes only a month after the Prison Reform Trust found evidence that the new Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme, which includes a ban on prisoners receiving books and other basic items, is eliciting a strong sense of injustice in prisons and undermining opportunities for effective rehabilitation.

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“These latest figures reveal a prison service having to cope with unprecedented strain. Ministers must heed the warning signs. Rising assault and suicide rates, fewer staff and less constructive activity, call into question the government’s commitment to safety and decency. Slashing prison budgets and introducing harsher regimes while warehousing ever greater numbers overseen by fewer staff is no way to transform rehabilitation.”