Chief Inspector's blog: Why the prison population crisis is everyone's concern

As prison population numbers continue to rise, Charlie Taylor considers the implications and warns there will be consequences for all of us.

There is nothing particularly surprising about the growth in the prison population. The prison service itself predicted back in 2018 that the prison population would reach over 86,000 by March 2023.[1] However, the potential consequences are far-reaching. Just last week, we issued a second Urgent Notification for HMP Bristol, citing overcrowding as one of the key reasons. Almost half of prisoners were living in double cells designed for one man, with a significant minority in single cells with no internal sanitation. Despite this, the capacity of the prison had in fact been increased on several occasions since the last inspection.

The fall in crime during the pandemic reduced demand temporarily and, at its lowest, the number of prisoners fell to 77,859 in April 2021[2]. Since then, with levels of offending returning to pre-pandemic levels and courts catching up with their backlogs, the prison population has grown once again. The barristers strike between June and October last year led to more congestion as remanded prisoners – prisoners who have not yet been tried and are therefore unconvicted – could not get to court. Prisons like Belmarsh and Birmingham, that used to hold a mixed population with a substantial proportion of prisoners coming back to their local prison in preparation for their impending release, now almost entirely contain men on remand. The remanded population has risen from around 11,000 in June 2020 to 14,591 in March 2023[3]. Inspectors increasingly find prisoners who have been waiting for their trial for many months and I recently came across a man who had been stuck on remand for more than three years. This means that reception prisons across the country are now busier than ever, with constant pressure to accept new arrivals and ship those who are sentenced off to their next jail.

At times numbers coming in have been so high that Operation Safeguard has been enacted, a protocol that means prisoners are held in police cells because there is no available space in nearby jails. What was meant to be an emergency contingency, has become routine in the North West of England. The police are not equipped to provide for these prisoners, many of whom are detoxing from drugs or alcohol and have mental health difficulties. It also means prison vans, that should be going from the jail to the court, now have to pick up prisoners from police stations and take them to prison, before they can collect those due in court. As I was leaving Birmingham prison, I met a van of prisoners from Manchester being unloaded, because there was no room at Forest Bank. This does not just put pressure on van drivers, of which there is a national shortage, but also means that prisoners are being placed further from home in unfamiliar surroundings with less likelihood of getting visits from family or friends, which for some prisoners is essential to their well-being and in supporting their chances of success on release. When they are taken to court, because the jail they came from might be full by the evening, they may start and finish the day in different prisons. One governor told me that some men will refuse to go to court because they do not want to end up in a different prison – they would rather face the wrath of the judge than the strain of settling into a new jail.

While the most immediate pressure comes from this backlog of remanded prisoners, in the medium and longer term, the most sustained increases will come from a rise in the longer-term population. In March 2023 the government hit its target of recruiting 20,000 more police officers; the assumption is that this will lead to more arrests and ultimately to more prisoners. Average sentence lengths have increased for many offences, despite public perceptions of sentencing often suggesting otherwise. Experienced governors tell me that in the past it was unusual to come across prisoners who were serving four years or more – as of March 2022 they now make up 55% of the population[4] and the average tariff imposed for mandatory life sentences for murder has risen from 12.5 years in 2003 to 20 years in 2020[5]. These prisoners have less incentive to behave and, particularly early in their sentences can be hard to manage.

The new category C prisons, Five Wells and Fosse Way, both in the East Midlands, will, when full, provide 3,395 more places. Millsike in the North East will yield a further 1,440. This, however, will not be enough to meet even the lowest projected growth and the number of prisoners is predicted increasingly to outpace the number of places. Governors will be under pressure to take more prisoners and already we are seeing children who turn 18 continuing to be held in under 18 young offender institutions until their 19th birthday, adding to the existing challenges in these establishments.

When we inspected Dartmoor in September 2020 we praised the fact that all prisoners, most of whom were long-termers, were being held in single cells. On our return in July this year, there were already 46 cells that had been doubled up in an ancient prison that was already unable to provide enough activity places. This jail and those like it are likely to be under pressure to cram in more prisoners in what may well be a vain attempt to accommodate the surge. Some prisons have been able to open up prefabricated cells and here and there refurbished wings will become usable, but these will not be enough to meet demand. Open prisons, for some time underpopulated, have now filled up, but many who end up there are right at the end of their sentences, unlikely to be able to take advantage of the opportunities for day release to go out to work.

In prisons like Bullingdon, Woodhill and Swaleside, the prison service has had to close wings because there were not enough staff to run a regime safely, and many other prisons are under considerable strain either because they have not recruited enough officers, or they cannot hang onto the ones that they have got.

Since I became Chief Inspector in November 2020, the biggest concern that we have repeatedly highlighted in our reports has been the lack of purposeful activity. Despite one or two outliers, most prisons are providing less time out of cell, education, work and training than they were before the pandemic. Evening association – important for prisoners who have spent the day working – has all but disappeared. Our recent Weekends in Prison thematic showed that at weekends things were even worse, with most prisoners spending at least 21 hours a day locked up – putting those with already fragile mental health at greater risk.

We criticise the lack of management ambition in driving forward more productive regimes, but if governors are going to be asked to take on more prisoners with the same amount of staff, then achieving desperately needed improvements in purposeful activity is made harder. More prisoners squeezed into already overcrowded prisons will mean more deprivation, squalor and the risk of further violence. HMPPS’s own safety in custody statistics are showing that prisons are getting less safe, with key metrics like the number of deaths, number of individuals self-harming and assault incidents all on the rise[6].

I am enormously concerned that prisoners who have spent their sentences locked in their cells or languishing on their wing are going to leave prison without having been given anything like the support that they need to successfully resettle back into the community when they are released. If they are not in the habit of getting up and going to work or college every morning, if they are not working part-time or if they are allocated to whatever activity happens to have spaces rather than the one they need or want to do, then it will come as no surprise if they commit more crime when they come out. This means neighbourhoods that are unsafe, fatherless children and more victims. The population crisis is not just a technocratic headache for ministers and the prison service; there will be consequences for all of us.

[1] prison-population-projections-2018-2023.PDF ( (817 kB)

[2] SN04334.pdf ( (545 kB)

[3] Offender management statistics quarterly: October to December 2022 and annual 2022 – GOV.UK (

[4] SN04334.pdf ( (545 kB)

[5] Dramatic rise in numbers spending 10 years or more in prison | Prison Reform Trust

[6] Safety in Custody quarterly: update to March 2023 – GOV.UK (