The Home Office’s National Offender Management Service should improve its contingency arrangements in case the number of prisoners in custody continues to rise. There were 77,300 prisoners in England and Wales in September 2005 – the highest prisoner population ever recorded – and over the last ten years numbers have risen by over 25,000. Despite increases in the number of places available, the rising prisoner population has left the prison estate close to its maximum capacity.
Today’s report to Parliament by head of the National Audit Office Sir John Bourn highlights the difficulties in trying to predict the likely number of prisoners and why the Prison Service needs to be able to respond at short notice to changes in demand for prison accommodation. Previous projections of the number of prison places required have not proved reliable in the long term: the estimates published in January 2005 acknowledged the difficulties in quantifying the impact of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and these estimates had to be revised again in July 2005 when the actual population had significantly departed from the projected figures.
The cost to the National Offender Management Service of not providing enough accommodation can be considerable. When police cells were used to hold prisoners under Operation Safeguard in 2002, the cost was significantly higher than the average cost of keeping prisoner in prison cells.
The construction of brick clad, steel framed units within existing prisons has proved the most cost-effective method of providing additional accommodation at short notice. The units cost around £1,700 to construct each place per annum over the lifetime of the building, took an average of 183 days to build and offer broadly the same facilities as existing accommodation. The other main alternative, modular temporary units (pre-fabricated two storey buildings, similar to portacabins) have proved more expensive and prone to problems. The modular temporary units cost £5,600 each place per annum over the lifetime of the building, and took 134 days to build, compared to an expected 49 days in the original business case. Although the estimated 49 days was probably unrealistic, more detailed planning could have hastened construction at a time when the prison estate was under pressure to increase capacity quickly.
Local prisons tend to take the brunt of overcrowding. The ten most overcrowded prisons in 2004 accounted for 5,900 of the 18,400 prisoners required to share a cell. While sharing a cell can create tensions within a prison, most of the prisoners interviewed spoke positively about prison officers and other staff taking time to resolve concerns.
Overcrowding can impact on efforts to educate and train prisoners, however, as the high prisoner population can result in some offenders spending their entire sentence in a local prison (where there are fewer opportunities to attend classes) and others being moved around the prison estate more frequently (with consequent disruption to their work). The report recommends shorter modular courses to increase the chances of a prisoner’s being able to complete a course before being moved on.