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In a comparison of 50 European countries, the UK is behind only Russia and Turkey with regards to the number of prisoners it has detained in its prisons, according to the latest Council of Europe figures.

Prison congestion is one of the biggest issues prisons face and whilst the UK is now what would be considered ‘overcrowded’ in the true sense of the word, the latest prison population figures stands at 85,398 (as of 8 April 2016), with an operational capacity of 88,043. Put into context, this means that the prison population in England and Wales has approximately doubled in the last 25 years. 

There are many arguments as to why this is the case and even more suggesting what needs to be done to tackle the rise head-on. 

According to the Prison Reform Trust, the prison population in England and Wales has soared by over 40,000 since 1993. England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe at 148 per 100,000 of the population and is estimated to cost £1.22bn annually. This compares to an imprisonment rate of 118 per 100,000 in France and 81 per 100,000 in Germany. 

What has caused such an extraordinary growth?

By March 2021 (the end of the projection period) the UK’s prison population is estimated to be 89,900, according to the Prison Reform Trust, which is strongly in favour of introducing what it calls a ‘multi-faceted programme, focused on sentencing reform’. It argues that ‘an explosion in the use of indeterminate sentences and the increased use of long determinate sentences are key drivers behind the near doubling of prison numbers in the past two decades’. 

There have, of course, as the trust notes, been significant changes in the type of cases being brought to justice, with more serious and historic cases coming before the courts. And with Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics revealing the average prison sentence is now nearly four months longer than 20 years ago (at 15.9 months) and sentences for more than ten years having tripled since 2005, there doesn’t appear to be a reversal in the prison population growth. 

What action is the government taking?

In his speech solely on prisons back in February this year, Prime Minister, David Cameron said that “the prison population draws mostly from the ranks of those whose life chances were shot to pieces from the start”, and that more needs to be done to understand and address the root-causes of crime. 

We are of course yet to hear more about what Cameron’s observations will mean. The prison reforms do not appear to be as closely aligned to a reduction in prison numbers as first thought with Justice Secretary Michael Gove, openly stating that he can reform prisons without cutting inmate numbers, rejecting the view that ‘it is only possible to rehabilitate if you dramatically reduce the prison population’. 

What is certain though, is that there is a wide range of factors to consider, not least of all what can be done to prevent people from entering into a life of crime in the first place. 

It is crucial that efforts are focused on keeping minor and non-violent offenders out of prison and that they are put into programmes that can help them better address the problems which have led to their offending behaviour in the first place. This, many prison-reform charities say, must involve the work of offender healthcare professionals in diverting addicts and people with mental health needs into treatment as early as possible. 

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