Today, on the same day that MPs will debate the government’s prison reform and safety plans, the Prison Reform Trust has published a paper it has commissioned from a former Prison Service Finance Director, Julian Le Vay.
The paper analyses the Ministry of Justice’s ambitions for prison building in the light of its current spending review settlement with HM Treasury.
It concludes that the Ministry of Justice’s current plans are inadequately funded to the tune of £162m in 2018/19, rising to £463m in 2022/23.
In the spending review and autumn statement 2015, the government committed to build nine new prisons providing 'around' 10,000 new places. Five of these prisons would be built 'in this Parliament' i.e. by May 2020, the other four 'shortly after' that. These prisons were expected to replace existing old prisons which would be sold to provide 'over 3,000' homes.
However, revised prison population projections, published in August 2017, revealed that the population is expected to grow by around 1,600 above current levels by 2022. And the building programme has already slipped, so it is extremely doubtful any new prison can open by May 2020—let alone five.
On current population projections, there is no prospect of any impact on overcrowding before 2022—indeed, unless the government abandons plans to close old prisons and instead keeps them all open as well as building new ones, emergency measures to create space are likely to be necessary as early as next year and throughout the period up to 2022.
Furthermore, the paper's projections assume there are no unforeseen events, such as fire, riot or loss of accommodation to other reasons of health and safety. However, those events have been a regular feature of the last three decades, and have become more rather than less frequent in the last three to four years. The analysis suggests there is no prospect of being able safely or decently to take any existing accommodation out of use before 2022.
Looking further ahead, the analysis concludes that, without a concerted effort by government to reduce the size of the prison population, a further prison building programme is likely to be required from 2026, and that no more than half of the capacity created by then will have resulted in the closure of older and unfit prisons
The paper notes that we have been building prisons continuously since 1980, with 31 opened since then—at a capital cost of £3.7bn, and with extra annual running costs of £1.5bn. This is enough to have built maybe 25,000 homes. And to be employing 50,000 more nurses or teachers.
Yet new prisons have filled up and been overcrowded as quickly as we have built them. As long ago as 1991 government described an end to overcrowding as essential to running a decent prison service, but the proportion of prisoners sharing cells designed for one has not reduced.
Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“At a time when prison numbers have fallen in many developed countries, the UK has continued to throw taxpayers’ money at prison building. Yet our prisons remain chronically overcrowded, with disastrous consequences for safety and decency. After trying the same failed policy for nearly four decades, the time has surely come for a change. Reversing sentencing inflation would create the breathing space our system so desperately needs and plug at least this one hole in the public finances.”

Click here to download a copy of the paper.