150416 Rising prison population
  • More porridge… One of the most significant public policy developments of the past thirty years has also been one of the most invisible: the rising number of people being put behind bars. It began in 1993, when the prison population of England and Wales was about 45,000. By the time the Coalition came to power that number had swollen to almost 85,000, on the back of average annual growth rates of 3.7 per cent. This was such a momentous change that the Ministry of Justice recently took a moment to try and figure it out. Their conclusion? That the responsibility lay with tougher sentences, as well as increased prosecution of serious criminals.
  • …and more spending. Spending on prisons rose by almost 70 per cent between 1993 and 2010– even after accounting for inflation. All that extra porridge doesn’t come cheap.
  • Recent savings. The riots of 2011 pushed the prison population up to a new high of 88,000 in December of that year, which didn’t exactly help matters. But, apart from that, the Coalition has managed to slow some of the upwards trends. Over this Parliament, the growth in prisoner numbers has averaged only 0.2 per cent a year, whereas overall spending has actually declined. The government’s prisons budget is basically £1 billion lower in 2015-16 than the £5 billion total for 2010-11.
  • Will they be enough? The problem is that even slower growth is still growth. Just look at the Ministry for Justice’s central projections for the prison population, which I’ve included in the graph at the top of this post: they have it topping 90,000 in 2019. Not only does this mean more prisoners each costing about £34,000 a year, but it could also mean additional prisons costing a helluva lot more. The current “useable operational capacity”, as they call it, stands at 86,150 prisoners. Once that limit is reached there are certain emergency measures the government could implement, such as using cells in police stations, but, fundamentally, they’d have to start calling round construction firms for quotes.
  • Or should we look to Texas? Admittedly, total recorded crime has declined since 1993 – but how much of that is to do with prisons? It will take another To The Point post to unpick that question, for the answers aren’t straightforward. So here’s another question: even if it was all down to prisons, what if lower crime rates could be achieved for less? This is why I’ve written about the Texan example before now. Faced with the cost of building extra prisons, that state chose something different. They chose to put fewer crims behind bars, and instead spend on rehabilitation programmes and the like. The results should speak to any nation, particularly ones without much spare cash.

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