Commenting on the Justice Committee’s report on Prison: planning and policies, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 

“Written in moderate terms, this devastating report is a powerful indictment of this government’s complacent and dismissive attitude to rapidly deteriorating standards and safety in our prisons over the last two years. Soaring levels of violence, a one hundred percent increase in acts of concerted indiscipline, shocking rates of suicide and self-harm, chronic and growing overcrowding, a slump in purposeful activity, dangerously low staffing levels and plummeting staff morale reveal a prison service under unprecedented strain. There is a threshold beneath which it is no longer possible to maintain a safe and decent environment. This report reveals that we are at that threshold.

“The Justice Committee offers footholds for a fresh and effective approach to prison policy and planning. Re-evaluating the use of prison and alternatives to custody would enable an incoming government to end the one-size-fits-all model of prison building and introduce smaller units for women and young people; pay proper attention to an aging prison population; and improve resettlement through better application of technology and the sensible use of release on temporary licence and the open estate. A decent, humane prison system must be underpinned by an experienced and valued workforce, proper discretion for prison governors, an end to ministerial interference in operational matters and a truly independent prisons inspectorate accountable directly to Parliament.

“An incoming administration in May 2015 must not accept this deterioration in prison standards and conditions as the new normal. Restoring prison to its proper function as an important place of last resort in a balanced justice system is the basis on which to create a just, fair and effective penal system.”


The Prisons Reform Trust submitted written evidence, supplementary written evidence and provided oral evidence to the Justice Committee’s inquiry. These are available on the inquiry’s home page

Note on prison numbers and overcrowding

Over the past two decades the prison population in England and Wales has nearly doubled from around 45,000 in the mid-1990s to just over 84,000 today. England and Wales now has the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe, imprisoning 149 people for every 100,000. At the end of September 2014, more than four out of every six prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. More than four in 10 prisoners are now held in supersized jails of over 1,000 places or more.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Strangeways prison riot which occurred on 1 April 1990. In his seminal report into the causes of the disturbances, Lord Woolf, the current Chair of the Prison Reform Trust, called for an end to chronic overcrowding and recommended that no prison establishment should exceed 400 places.

Lord Woolf will give a lecture on the 25th anniversary of the Strangeways riots on 1 April 2015 at the Inner Temple in London.

There are two measures of prison estate capacity: certified normal accommodation (CNA) is uncrowded capacity and is the prison service’s own measure of the “good, decent standard of accommodation that the service aspires to provide all prisoners”; operational capacity is the maximum capacity based on published accommodation standards, as well as the provision and operation of appropriate regime facilities and the needs of order and control.

Operational capacity is set by senior operational prison managers, taking all of the above into account. Those prisons whose operational capacity is higher than certified normal accommodation are operating with crowded conditions.

The extent to which the population has exceeded certified normal accommodation has fluctuated between about 10 and 12 per cent over the four years to October 2014, with a peak of 12.8 percent in March 2013. A growing number and proportion of prisons are operating well over their baseline capacity. At the end of March 2014, 77 of the 119 prisons in England and Wales were classified as overcrowded; by December 2014 this had risen to 83 of 117 prisons.

Overcrowding has a negative impact on both the physical conditions in which prisoners were held, and the availability of sufficient training, activity and rehabilitation programmes. As HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, has made clear:

“Overcrowding is not simply an issue of how many prisoners can be crammed into the available cells but also affects whether the activities, staff and other resources are available to keep them purposefully occupied and reduce the likelihood they will reoffend. A prisoner who is unemployed because there is no activity available for him might spend 22 hours a day, and eat all his meals, with another prisoner in a small cell designed for one, perhaps eight foot by six foot, with an unscreened toilet.”[1]

[1] HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2013) Annual Report 2012–13, London: The Stationery Office

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