Just 557 prison spaces left and ‘criminals to be spared jail’ as population hits record high

The number of people jailed in England and Wales has hit an all-time high, as ministers consider releasing inmates early in a scramble for ways to avoid running out of prison spaces.

There are just 557 spaces left across the entire prison estate, with that number thought to be significantly lower in men’s jails, which also includes spots in Category D “open prisons”, for which most prisoners are not eligible.

The male prison population has grown by 192 in a week to hit 88,604, Ministry of Justice figures published on Friday show. It grew by 211 the previous week, when there were reported to be just 150 spaces remaining.

The Prison Governors Association told The Independent on Thursday that it was “inevitable” that prisons would run out of space, as judges were reportedly ordered to delay sentencing criminals to avoid overwhelming the system.

After meeting with criminal justice representatives on Thursday, justice secretary Alex Chalk is expected to announce measures to address the crisis next week, with the prison population now surpassing a previous peak of 88,179 in December 2011.

The government is reported to be considering multiple short-term solutions, including telling judges they should avoid issuing prison sentences of less than 12 months, in favour of community sentences for offences such as shoplifting, public disorder and drink-driving.

Prison recalls – which last only a maximum of two weeks – could also be scrapped for people who served less than 12 months in jail, while prisoners serving sentences of up to seven years could be released three months early.

It comes after The Times reported on Wednesday that Lord Justice Edis, the senior presiding judge in England and Wales, had “ordered/strongly encouraged” crown court judges to delay the sentencing of criminals on bail because prisons are nearly full.

‘We cannot afford the level of imprisonment we’ve got,’ one expert warns (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
‘We cannot afford the level of imprisonment we’ve got,’ one expert warns (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Suspects accused of the most serious crimes and remanded in custody are to be held in magistrates' court cells, according to a crown court judge involved in the meeting. Lord Edis’s office told The Independent it could not comment on internal meetings.

“Our concern is that any use of magistrates’ courts cells in this way could have a knock-on effect on magistrates’ business,” Mark Beattie, chair of the Magistrates’ Association, told The Independent.

“It could create a higher backlog of cases in magistrates’ courts, meaning longer delays in justice for victims, witnesses and defendants. The government needs to devise a longer-term solution that delivers adequate prison capacity for those being sentenced.”

The average length of prison sentences increased by a third in the decade to 2019 as governments sought to appear tough on crime, while recent efforts to bolster police numbers and chaos in the court system have seen the backlog of trials hit an all-time peak of more than 65,000.

Consequently, there are more suspects than ever awaiting trial behind bars, some trapped for more than five years, while the backlog of rape cases involving bailed defendants has also hit a new high to reach more than double the average between 2014 and 2019, The Independent revealed last week.

Overcrowding has led to prisoners being kept in harrowing conditions, with some doubled up in cells and kept locked inside for 23 hours a day, forced to choose between exercising, showering or calling loved ones, with little access to rehabilitation programmes.

The government’s promise of six new prisons is not expected to materialise until 2030, reports suggest (Getty Images)
The government’s promise of six new prisons is not expected to materialise until 2030, reports suggest (Getty Images)

Asked about reports of measures the government is considering, Carl Davies of the Prison Governors Association said: “In terms of an immediate short-term intervention, anything which frees up space in prison we would see as a positive outcome, and clearly any scheme which targets low-risk offenders to divert them away from custody or release them would be something we would support.”

While it is difficult to assess how many spaces such measures could free up, given that any decisions on sparing criminals jail or releasing prisoners from custody would still be subject to risk assessments, “it’s likely to make an impact in areas of the prison estate where there’s most challenge”, Mr Davies said.

Warning that without measures to reduce the demand on capacity, any space freed up by early releases will merely erode again, he added: “It’s a fine balance, in terms of the perception of what the public want and the reality of what the public can afford.

“At this moment in time we cannot afford the level of imprisonment we’ve got.”

The Ministry of Justice said: “Following the pandemic and barristers’ strike, the criminal justice system has seen a significant spike in the prison population, with 6,000 more prisoners on remand than before the pandemic.

“While we are carrying out the biggest prison-building programme since the Victoria era, and have taken decisive action to expand capacity further by doubling up cells in the short-term, the prison estate remains under pressure.”

Mr Chalk’s “programme of reform” will “ensure that we can continue to strengthen public protection by locking up the most dangerous criminals”, a spokesperson added.

Promises in 2016 of 10,000 new prison places by 2020 failed to materialise, while the current pledge to deliver 20,000 places in six new prisons by the mid-2020s has seen some 5,500 spaces created, but is now reportedly not expected to hit the target until 2030.