Prison crisis: governors body warns criminal justice system is ‘on precipice of failure’

Prison Governors' Association calls for immediate action as it says criminal justice system is weeks away from a public safety crisis
HMP Pentonville. Photo: PA/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

25 Jun 2024

The criminal justice system is "on the precipice of failure",  the Prison Governors’ Association has warned.

The PGA says "it is a matter of days before prisons run out of space" and “within a matter of weeks, it will put the public at risk".

The body, which represents 95% of prison governors, has written to the leaders of the UK’s political parties, asking for the next government to make an immediate change to legislation so that all prisoners are routinely released from custody after serving 40% of their sentence.

In response, a government spokesperson said the civil service is working closely with partners across the justice system to ensure there are enough prison places to keep people safe.

The PGA letter warns that “procrastination is not an option” and that inaction will result in “people who would normally be imprisoned [being] left on the streets until space becomes available”, putting the public at risk.

Prisons will be full within a matter of days and will be forced to close their gates to new prisoners, with police and court cells in turn quickly filling up with people detained who would normally have been sent to prison, according to the letter. This will result in the police not being able to detain any more people and courts no longer being able to send people to prison, the letter adds.  

“As space runs out, any hope in reducing the court backlog will also dwindle away and the criminal justice system will no longer be able to operate,” the letter says.

The PGA said the crisis had resulted from successive government policies which have seen prisoner numbers more than double over the last forty years, and from austerity measures which have been implemented since 2010.

The number of prisoners has risen from around 41,000 in the early 1990s to more than 88,000 people today; the PGA said an uncrowded prison system should have no more than about 78,000 people in custody.

On the underfunding of prisons, the letter said: “As an unprotected department, austerity hit the Ministry of Justice and our prisons hard. There has been insufficient money available to maintain the current prison estate, let alone build new prisons or create additional space early enough. New prison places which are planned are too little and too late to avert prisons running out of space. It is simply not possible to squeeze any more people into a full and overcrowded prison system, and to think this is possible is fanciful at best.”

The PGA said the failure of successive governments “to ensure sufficient resourced space exists across the prison estate” was “shameful”.

The letter says changing the legislation so that sentenced prisoners are routinely released from custody at the 40% mark of their sentence, which it says would need to apply retrospectively, is now the only option to avoid prisons running out of space. Releasing prisoners from custody earlier will be “far safer” than the police and courts having “nowhere to send even the most serious offenders”, it adds.

Action such as sentencing reviews, or a royal commission are needed but should come later to avoid this situation reoccurring, the letter adds, as waiting for these reviews would see prisons run out of space, putting the public at risk.

The letter asks party leaders to consider the proposals and “work collaboratively on this occasion, by at least taking politics out of justice”. The PGA has also offered to “openly and genuinely offer our support to help whoever the new government will be in navigating its way out of this crisis”.

All parties' manifestos contain reforms to the criminal justice system. The Labour and Conservative plans include promises to create thousands of new prison places to tackle the crisis.

The Tory government committed in 2020 to building 20,000 new prison places by the mid-2020s but has only delivered around 6,000 so far.  Labour has said it will deliver the remaning 14,00. The Conservatives have said they will build four new prisons and meet the target by 2030. All parties have made promises to reform the justice system.

A government spokesperson said: “Public safety will always be our priority.

“The police and prison service have long established processes to manage short-term capacity issues, and the civil service is working closely with partners across the justice system to make sure we have the prison places needed to keep people safe.”


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