Friday briefing: Prisons are literally falling apart – and there’s no plan to save them

<span>A prisoner staring out of a window at HMP/YOI Portland, Dorset, United Kingdom.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/Corbis/Getty Images</span>
A prisoner staring out of a window at HMP/YOI Portland, Dorset, United Kingdom.Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/Corbis/Getty Images

Good morning. Here’s a sentence you might have written for most of the last 30 years: prisons are in crisis.

Even against that standard, the current level of overcrowding, decay, and staff shortages appears to set a new bar. Yesterday, the Guardian’s Rajeev Syal revealed that prison governors have been warned jails will be so overcrowded by the middle of July that they will struggle to accept any new inmates – a huge problem for an incoming justice secretary after the election.

This follows a recent report from the independent monitoring boards (IMBs), which audit prison standards, that said “prison population pressures and efforts to maximise capacity caused tremendous strain on all detention settings”. Another report from the chief inspector of prisons said one in 10 were in such a state of disrepair that they should be shut down. On top of all this, the National Police Chiefs’ Council recently asked officers to pause “non-priority arrests”. It is perhaps not surprising that prison overcrowding is reported by the Financial Times to be on a “shit list” of major risks compiled by Keir Starmer adviser Sue Gray that could blow up in the early days of a Labour government.

Dismal as all of this is, none of the previous warnings have led to much change. For today’s newsletter, I asked Nick Hardwick, the former chief inspector of prisons, about how we got here, what a decrepit and overcrowded prison estate means for prisoner welfare, and whether there are any grounds to expect a different approach in the future. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. General election 2024 | Nigel Farage has praised the misogynist influencer Andrew Tate for being an “important voice for the emasculated” and giving boys “perhaps a bit of confidence at school” in online interviews that appear to be aimed at young men over the past year. Since December 2022, Tate has been facing charges in Romania of human trafficking, rape, and forming a criminal gang to sexually exploit women, which he denies.

  2. Israel | The Israeli military has quietly handed over significant legal powers in the occupied West Bank to pro-settler civil servants working for the far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich.

  3. Health | At least 86 people have now been admitted to hospital as a result of an E coli outbreak linked to lettuce, health officials have said. A further 45 cases of E coli infection have been confirmed since 18 June, bringing the number of confirmed cases across the UK to 256.

  4. NHS | More than four in five locum GPs in England are unable to find work with a third forced to leave the NHS because they cannot make ends meet, a survey has found. A survey of 1,852 locums, conducted by the British Medical Association (BMA), found that 84% cannot find work despite patients across the country waiting weeks for GP appointments.

  5. Post Office | A former Post Office investigator deleted part of a draft witness statement that referred to the Horizon IT system’s failures before the criminal prosecution of a post office operative, a public inquiry has heard.

In depth: ‘If you have people living in broken and squalid conditions, it creates a sense of hopelessness’

If prisons reach breaking point some time next month, that is likely to mean offenders being housed in police cells, delays to court cases, or prisoners being released early. The same protocol was followed only a month ago. Meanwhile, plans are being drawn up to reduce the time served from half of a given sentence to 43%.


How bad is overcrowding?

The prison population in England and Wales almost doubled between 1993 and 2012, from 44,552 to 86,635; since then it has stabilised, but last year rose by 5,200, partly because of a post-Covid court backlog. The prison population last week was 87,347 against a usable capacity of 88,815, the Ministry of Justice says. It is projected to rise to 106,000 by 2028.

In June last year, 61% of prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, with eight prisons at more than 150% capacity. That often means two prisoners sharing a cell designed for one, with the toilet shielded by a curtain.

The physical side of overcrowding “is disgusting sometimes”, Nick Hardwick said. “But the most important aspect is what it means for staffing. If you’ve got 50% more prisoners, it’s going to take 50% longer to get people their meals, to showers, to education or offender management programmes.

“Staff don’t have the time to form relationships that create the potential for change. Prisoners won’t have that trusted staff member who they’ll warn if someone is being bullied, or they might not get to make a phone call to their family. And when all of that starts to break down, you have really serious problems.”


Why is this happening?

It’s not that we’re sending more people to prison, Hardwick (pictured above) explained: it’s that we’re sending them for longer. In 1993, the average sentence length was 16 months. In 2020, it was 20.4 months. Meanwhile, more prisoners are being recalled after being released on probation, and the number of prisoners serving four years or longer has risen by 26% in a decade.

“It’s like a bath,” Hardwick said. “The consistent trend is the water coming in faster than it’s going out. What they’re doing now with things like early release is frantically bailing out a bit.” But the tap is still on, and the plug is still blocked.

While that is the result of successive governments’ determination to sound tough on crime, “a difference of a few months seems unlikely to have much of an additional deterrent effect”, he added. “Most of these people are on mid-length sentences, and they’re going to come out without much in the way of their behaviour being addressed, because of the overcrowding.”

Meanwhile, the stopgap solutions are creating their own difficulties. “They’re deliberately reducing the flow by not addressing the courts backlog, which means victims are waiting longer,” Hardwick said.

“And at the other end, if people are being kicked out early, the probation service doesn’t have the capacity to cope at short notice. So they may end up living on the streets, get into trouble, and get sent back. It’s panicky measures to fix one part of the pipeline that create a new problem somewhere else.”


What are prison conditions like?

The recent report by IMBs, based on more than 37,000 visits by volunteer monitors to every prison and young offender institution across England and Wales, described conditions in some prisons as “inhumane, sometimes without access to basic sanitation”. They said that conditions were particularly dire in Victorian buildings, but there were also issues in more modern additions to the estate.

In Winchester, there were crumbling walls and roofs, leading to leaks and flooding; prisoners were able to dig through the walls with plastic cutlery. A lack of functional in-cell toilet facilities at some prisons left people resorting to using buckets. Some were stifling hot, others freezing cold; the concrete floors in some cells were breaking up, making them impossible to clean; there were mouldy showers at young offender institutions; and elderly prisoners slept on the floor because they could not reach the top bunk.

None of this happens overnight: in 2020, the National Audit Office said 40% of prisons would need major repair or replacement in three years. “It’s a long-term problem, and it reflects the lack of investment in the system,” Hardwick said. “Individual governors don’t have the budget or the authority to respond. And so the problem has got worse.”

Hardwick’s experience is that such circumstances are terrible news for rehabilitation. “If you have people living in broken and squalid conditions, there is a real impact on their sense of what they can do, and what they deserve, and their ability to think about a different sort of life. It creates a sense of hopelessness – that nothing can change, and nothing works.”

Overcrowding is a major reason that the prison estate is in very poor condition, Hardwick said. “They don’t have the capacity to take any part of the estate out of operation to fix the problems. I’ve just been reading [former prisons minister] Rory Stewart’s book, and he has a good example of what happened at Liverpool prison – they took hundreds of places out of commission because of disgraceful conditions there, and that enabled them to start to fix it. But that is very hard to do now. Wandsworth prison is struggling in the same way, and it just gets asked to take more and more people.”


What happens next?

Hardwick is deeply pessimistic that the government’s plan to create 20,000 new prison places will do any good. “There is no evidence that it will work, or deal with the projected increase.” Labour’s plan, to build new prisons and stop early releases, is hardly any different.

There is a chance that this is all standard pre-election positioning, and that a different policy might emerge after a government is formed. “Nobody’s going to say anything sensible before the election,” Hardwick said. “But the next government is going to face exactly the same problems.”

Sue Gray is right to see overcrowding as a major risk for the early days of a Starmer government: “There is a real risk of a riot. You have to be unlucky for that to happen, but you don’t have to be nearly as unlucky as a few years ago.” And whereas, after the Birmingham prison riot of 2016, it was possible to move 240 inmates to bring the situation under control, a similar scenario now would be harder to resolve. “The knock-on consequences would be much greater.”

It’s hard to envisage real solutions – involving a radical shift in how we think about sentencing, major investment in the existing estate, and new rules delaying prisoners from being locked up until space becomes available – coming any time soon.

Are there any grounds for optimism? Hardwick paused. “My grounds for optimism are that when they present the treasury with a £4bn bill for building new prisons, someone is going to ask why they want to do it without evidence that it will work, and that the economics aren’t sustainable. My grounds for optimism are that there’s only so long that you can deny that two plus two equals four.”

But the prison maths has been failing to add up for a very long time.

What else we’ve been reading

  • Who better to get advice from on how to appear confident (even when you’re not) than actors, who spend a lifetime doing exactly that. Maxine Peake suggests simply taking a breath: “Take your time. People are interested. I think we give our audiences short shrift sometimes. People want to listen and they want to be engaged.” Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • A pop legend for so long that she’s even attracted her own batty conspiracy theory, Avril Lavigne has been responsible for earworm hits like Sk8er Boi and Girlfriend. But which other songs have made it into Alexis Petridis’s Ranked list of her 20 best? Hannah J Davies, deputy editor, newsletters

  • The Economist (£) has a brutal takedown of the Conservatives’ 14 years in power, hailing the end of “smol” government – where Rishi Sunak’s self-identified legacy, the smoking ban, failed to even make it to law thanks to an early election he called: “‘That’s the type of leadership I bring,’ he said, altogether too accurately.” Toby

  • No one does a summer salad like Yotam Ottolenghi, who has taken inspiration from Laotian nam khao for his latest creation. Sign up to our Feast newsletter for more. Hannah

  • We’re endlessly fascinated by our dreams, but what do they actually mean – and what are they for? Sam Pyrah talks to scientists and therapists about our nocturnal wanderings. Toby


Euro 2024 | A 34th-minute goal from Morten Hjulmand secured Denmark a 1-1 draw against England, who took the lead through Harry Kane’s close-range strike. Spain had 20 shots but had to settle for a narrow win thanks to Riccardo Calafiori’s own goal as they beat Italy 1-0.

Paris 2024 | The two-time Olympic champion Katie Archibald will miss Paris 2024 after suffering a double leg break in a freak accident. The 30-year-old Scottish cyclist fractured a tibia and fibula, and dislocated an ankle, tripping over a garden step. She also sustained substantial ligament damage during the incident on Tuesday and has since undergone surgery.

Tennis | Andy Murray’s withdrawal from his second-round match at Queen’s Club has cast doubts over his fitness to compete at Wimbledon next month. The three-time grand slam champion lasted just five games against Jordan Thompson before succumbing to a back injury. Next month’s Championships are expected to be Murray’s last before retirement.

The front pages

“New blow for PM as former Tory minister says he will vote Labour” is the Guardian’s lead while the Daily Telegraph has “Starmer: Corbyn better than Johnson as PM” and the Daily Mail goes with “Corbyn would have been better PM than Boris, Keir claims” evidently mixing first and last names so the headline would fit. “What are the odds on that?” asks the Daily Mirror about the Tory betting scandal and the i goes with “Betting farce derails Tory campaign amid fears that more names will emerge”. “Flurry of bets on July election placed in run-up to Sunak’s announcement” says the Financial Times and “What a flutter shambles” declares the Metro. “Sunak vows to boot out Tories over poll betting” offers the Times. The Daily Express stays out of politics with “Thank you … you’ve saved our son’s life” about a little boy getting cystic fibrosis medication at last.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

House of the Dragon (HBO/Now)
After dragging itself out of the burning embers of Game of Thrones, this highly anticipated prequel insists on being so frustratingly subtle about everything. Yet, as soon as the first episode of season two has skulked away, I begin episode two, and not too long after that, I curse HBO for not releasing the entire season at once. Unmissable and thrilling television – eventually. Rebecca Nicholson

Mabe Fratti – Sentir Que No Sabes
A recent magazine feature described Mabe Fratti as “the best avant garde pop cellist since Arthur Russell”. Listening to her fourth solo album you understand why Russell’s name is being invoked in the same breath. It’s not that Sentir Que No Sabes sounds like anything in Russell’s lauded oeuvre – it doesn’t – but then it doesn’t really sound like anything else, either. Rich, rewarding, spellbinding music. Alexis Petridis

The Bikeriders
(In cinemas today)
Jeff Nichols’s motorcycle movie was inspired by the immersive 1968 study of Chicago bikers by photojournalist Danny Lyon. It opens up the storytelling throttle with a throaty growl, delivering the doomy romance of an old-fashioned western and the thrills of a mob drama. The performances aren’t subtle: with Jodie Comer’s fierce twang, Austin Butler’s soft purr and Hardy’s sibilant Brandoesque drawl. But there’s such enormous potency and impact. Peter Bradshaw

Because the Boss Belongs to Us (Widely available, episodes weekly)
Bruce Springsteen may not be the first name you come up with when asked about queer pop idols, but hosts Jesse Lawson and Holly Casio are “two queer nerds” who are obsessed with the Boss and want you to get to know him as “the queer icon we know that he is”. They set to work in this fun but very well-justified pod. Hollie Richardson

Today in Focus

Has Clacton fallen for Nigel Farage?

He claims he could be prime minister in 2029 but first he has to become an MP. Will it be eighth time lucky for Reform’s leader? Esther Addley reports

Cartoon of the day | Corb Calow Davies

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Is neuroticism putting a strain on your romantic relationships? Fear not: Shayla Love, lifestyle and wellness reporter for Guardian US, has written a guide to keeping anxious traits in check. The first step is understanding that you may be expecting rejection or exclusion and making it a fulfilling prophecy to some extent. However, neuroticism can have its benefits, too, in making someone more aware of their partner’s needs.

“In general, being a worrier and a cautious person – two central features of neuroticism – is not a bad thing per se,” says Larissa Wieczorek, a psychology researcher. So how does one toe the line between being practical about the potential for problems, and becoming consumed with panic? Psychologist Christine Finn recommends jotting down three good things you’ve felt or experienced each day as a start.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.