26 Aug 2011

Post-riots prison population hits another record high

The courts’ tough approach to those charged with riots-related offences has caused an increase to the prison population in England and Wales for the third week running.

Prison numbers at a three-week high (Getty)

Hundreds more people have been jailed as a result of the riots this week, which has caused the prison population in England and Wales to reach a record high for the third week running. However, Ministry of Justice figures show that the speed at which the prison population is growing has slowed down. There was an increase of 167 prisoners this week, compared to 723 last week.

The total number of people in prison in England and Wales hit 86,821 this week, just over 1,500 short of the usable operational capacity for prisons. This number takes into account control, security and the proper operation of the planned regime, less 2,000 places.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “The Prison Service is disciplined and used to coping with crises but the sudden influx of people has made a number of pre-existing problems worse.

“More than half of our prisons were grossly overcrowded before the riots with many prisoners, including children and young people, held long distances from their homes.

“Too many people were already in limbo, awaiting trial or a parole hearing.”

First-timers increase risk and uncertainty

The Prison Service sent an email to the governors of prisons in England and Wales. It urged them to warn new inmates of the risks of stating where they live, what gang they may be in or what team they may support.

“A surge in first-timers and remand prisoners increases levels of risk and uncertainty,” said Lyon. “The sooner the service can get on with its work with the most serious and violent offenders, and those who have committed lesser public order offences are required to pay back to victims and repair damage in their communities, the better.”

Almost 1,500 people have appeared in court charged with offences linked to the riots and looting. Seven in ten of those charged have been remanded in custody as a result of the courts’ tough approach to rioters. This is compared to one in 10 of those charged with serious offences in 2010.

One-off increase

This week, Prison Minister Crispin Blunt said that we would see a “one-off increase in prison numbers” but the new wave of riot related inmates does not necessarily mean a change to the long term estimates for prison numbers.

Blunt defended the spike in numbers and the tough sentences in the wake of the riots. He said the jails can cope with the rise in numbers.

“What we have to do is make sure there are prison places for those sent to prison by the courts and we will continue to do that regardless of how many people are sent to prison,” said Blunt.

Contingency plans to manage the “unprecedented situation” could involve bringing on new accommodation early, using extra places in the public and private estate, or reopening mothballed accommodation. They could also lead to accommodating prisoners in police cells.