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"Unprecedented" Rates Of Prison Building Still Failing To Keep Up With Rising Demand

HMP Wandsworth in London is holding more extra prisoners over capacity than any other prison (Alamy)

5 min read

Prison capacity has been failing to meet rising demand and government policy has not been “joined up” despite an “unprecedented” level of prison building, according to the Minister for Prisons.

Damian Hinds, the Minister of State for Prisons, Parole and Probation, told the Justice Select Committee on Tuesday that the government has had to take measures that “ideally” would not have been necessary if it were not for a huge growth in the remand population in prisons causing demand to exceed supply of places.

Last week, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk told the House of Commons that prisoners would be released from jail up to 18 days before their automatic release date, and legislation would be introduced to make a “presumption” that custodial sentences of less than 12 months would be suspended suspenses – where the person does not go to prison unless they commit any further offence.

The measures have been introduced in response to prisons across the country being well over capacity and experiencing overcrowding: A record of 88,225 people in England and Wales are currently in prison.

Chalk also announced some tougher measures around serious offenders, including changing the law so that rapists stay in prison for the entirety of their sentence, and deporting foreign prisoners earlier to ease capacity. He also announced spending of up to £400m on building more prison places. 

Giving evidence to the justice committee on Tuesday, Hinds said that although there had been an “unprecedented” rate of building extra capacity over the last few years, rising demand for prison places since the Covid-19 pandemic had caused a shortage and that building had been hampered by planning controls.  

“When you say ‘couldn't something have been done months or longer ago’, the answer is what it has been,” Hind said.

“We have been doing things and bringing on places at about a rate of an average of 100 a week is 5,000 over the course of a year: that is pretty much unprecedented in the modern era. 

“But the issue was that over that period, the demand kept growing and was growing at a rate somewhat faster than the rate at which we were able to match it with supply and that's why we got to the point that we did.”

Hind added that government policy on prison capacity had never been adequately “joined up”.

“Where parliament is making sentences longer or bringing more people into more offences within the scope for custody, we absolutely do need to make sure that we have prison places available,” he told the committee. 

“The honest truth is hitherto, under Conservative governments and under Labour governments, the two things haven't all really been joined up and we're going to make sure in future that they are.”

The government had originally planned to increase capacity by 20,000 additional prison places by the mid 2020s, but this is now not expected to be completed until at least 2030 due to planning delays. 

Asked whether the Ministry of Justice had held discussions with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) over the planning process, Hind replied that he was “frustrated” by the delays but did not specify whether such conversations had taken place. 

“I'm frustrated in some ways with some of the delays that have come along,” he said, adding that work on three prisons was currently delayed in planning.

Hind argued that an increase in the remand population – those detained in prison before their trial has begun – is the primary factor behind the increasing demand. 

“The biggest single thing is the growth in the remand population, and there are other factors as well,” he said.

“We got to the point where the number of available places in prisons was very thin and it was important and necessary at that point to take further action. You cannot get to a point in this system where there are no places.

“Taking some of the measures that we have in the short term, these are not things that ideally would have become necessary and of course, we have also at the same time over that period been increasing capacity very, very significantly.”

Hind was unable to confirm whether sentencing guidelines for offences where you can potentially receive a custodial sentence shorter than 12 months will have to be amended to reflect the new measures. 

“We're not proposing to ban short sentences,” he clarified. 

“Almost everybody, I think, agrees that you need that ultimate threat of incarceration.”

Hind insisted that he believed the public would support shorter prison sentences if it meant they could see the benefits of other punishments such as community sentences.

“I think most of our constituents and most people, you know, see that part of a concept of a just society includes punishment for wrongdoing, and there's nothing wrong with that view,” he said.

“Particularly on unpaid work, we do want to make that more visible. We want more people to know that these people are having their time taken off them to make these reparations to society. 

“And where possible doing it in a way that the typical member of the public sees and goes: ‘Right I totally get that, that is a good thing happening in my community that wouldn't get done otherwise.’

“So when that works well, I think it does attract public support.”

The committee hearing will continue at a later date, with Michelle Jarman-Howe, Chief Operating Officer at HM Prison and Probation Service, also expected to give further evidence alongside Hind.

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