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A rapid expansion in the prison population in England and Wales over the past twenty years is placing a growing burden on the taxpayer while reoffending rates out of prison have remained stubbornly high, according to a new report by the Prison Reform Trust.

Analysis published in Prison: The Facts estimates that in 2014 the cost of holding that increased population at today’s costs was an extra £1.22bn compared with twenty years ago—a cost of over £40 per year for every UK taxpayer.

This extra funding of prison places is equivalent to employing an additional 56,000 newly qualified nurses.

On 3 July 2015 the prison population in England and Wales was 84,930. Between 1993 and 2014 the population increased by more than 40,000 people—a 91% rise.

Simply returning to the incarceration rate of the mid 1990s would put £1.22bn back into the public purse—a fraction of that amount re-invested in constructive prison regimes could transform performance, reducing the number of future victims.

The Justice Committee, in its report on Justice Reinvestment, has said the prison population in England and Wales could be safely reduced by one third through the reinvestment of resources tied up in prisons in prevention, early intervention and effective community approaches.

England and Wales has the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe, locking up 149 people for every 100,000 of the population. Prison sentences are getting longer, and increasing numbers of people don’t know if, or when, they might be released.

Prison has a poor record for reducing reoffending with nearly half of adults reconvicted within one year of release. At an average annual cost per prison place of £36,237 and with nearly three-quarters of people entering prison under sentence in 2014 there for non-violent offences, prison is an expensive and overused resource.

The National Offender Management Service saw its budget cut by nearly £900m during the last government and prisons have borne the brunt of this. “Prison: The facts” shows cuts have coincided with a serious decline in safety and decency. In 2014 there were 243 deaths in custody, the highest number on record. Over a third were self-inflicted. Serious assaults have risen by 35% in the last year, along with a rise in assaults more generally.

At the end of March 2015, 70 of the 117 prisons in England and Wales were already overcrowded. Overcrowding is not only about two people spending most of every day in a confined space the Victorians thought was only suitable for one. It affects whether activities, staff and other resources are available to reduce risk of reoffending. At significant expense, prisoners are moved between prisons just to make space, regardless of whether it will keep them close to family, or help their eventual resettlement. Last month the Ministry of Justice admitted that published overcrowding figures had been undercounted for the past six years, an issue now resolved.

There are also fewer staff looking after more prisoners. The number of staff employed in the public prison estate has fallen by 29% in the last four years. Unsurprisingly, staff sickness has risen sharply, and many staff have had to work temporarily at prisons far from where they live. Recent recruitment by the Prison Service is welcome, but the workforce is significantly less experienced as a result, at a time when its skills are being sorely tested.

With a further £249m cut to the Ministry of Justice’s budget announced for this year it is inevitable that costs will have to reduce further. Without a reduction in the numbers of people in prison, that is likely to mean a more dangerous environment for prisoners and staff alike. Unless progress is made to reduce the unnecessary use of imprisonment the prospects for a genuinely rehabilitative prison experience can only recede. 

Commenting, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“It’s clear that Ministers cannot continue to slice the prisons budget and that there needs to be a fundamental rethink in how we use custody. Every pound we spend on prisons is one less to invest in hospitals or schools. Because we use prison too often and for too long, it soaks up money that is desperately needed elsewhere.

“Prisons have been placed under unprecedented strain during the last five years, making them more dangerous and less rehabilitative places. They have become even less able to solve the problems that might prevent people returning to them.

“In stark contrast to the mantra that ‘prison works’, successive governments have reduced the numbers of children in custody over the last seven years, and the number of crimes they commit has also fallen.

“Reducing prison numbers to an unavoidable minimum would free up resources and allow prison staff to focus on rehabilitating the serious and violent offenders for whom prison ought to be an important place of last resort.”

Click here to download a copy of the report.

You can also download Prison: The facts for iOS and Android.