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How governments created overcrowding in jails

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Britain’s prisons are more overcrowded than ever, with around 16,000 more people in prison than a decade ago.
Issue 2306

Britain’s prisons are more overcrowded than ever, with around 16,000 more people in prison than a decade ago.

Since 1993 the prison population has gone up by nearly 70 percent and is now close to outstripping prison capacity.

With 151 of every 100,000 people behind bars at any given time, Britain now has the second highest incarceration rates in western Europe.

The rise is not the result of more murderers, rapists or other violent offenders.

It’s because courts handed out more prison sentences to offenders every year between 1995 to 2002.

This was driven by the Prison Works programme.

Tory Michael Howard launched the programme under the last Tory government and New Labour unapologetically continued it.

Howard’s theory was that while prisons didn’t stop crime or rehabilitate prisoners, they could reduce crime by keeping potential criminals off the streets.

Sentences were made longer and more punitive.

More prisons were built to keep up with the vast numbers of people coming into the system.

When this wasn’t enough, more prisoners found themselves rushed through early releases with no support to make way for the constant new influx.

And of course overcrowding soared.


Vicki Helyar-Cardwell from the Criminal Justice Alliance reform organisation explained, “Our members report that overcrowding extracts a heavy price from prisoners, prison staff and voluntary sector working to cut reoffending, and ultimately harms communities to which ex-prisoners will return.”

The frenzy of sentencing after last year’s riots has made this worse.

Fury at inequality and unemployment, police racism and the shooting of Mark Duggan spilled over.

But politicians, the media and the police demonised and criminalised young working class people—and especially young working class black people—as “feral”.

Over 3,000 people were arrested.

At one point more than 100 people were being jailed every day.

By April of this year 62 percent of prisons in England and Wales were officially overcrowded—

and thirteen prisons were operating at more than 150 percent capacity.

More than 12,000 prisoners are being held two to a cell designed for one—in some cases without even screened toilets.

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