Background Briefing 18th October 2013

Current Prison Population Figures as of Friday 18 October

  • The prison population stands at 84,987
  • This is up 155 on last week
  • The prisons system is running at 99.02% of capacity – beyond the 99% figure when Operation Safeguard kicks in


  • Capacity in the prison system stands at 85,828
  • This is down 230 on last week
  • This is down 5,246 on this time last year
  • And down 1,591 on the time of the last election


Emergency Response to a Shortage of Places

The Ministry of Justice’s emergency response to a severe shortage of prison places is called Operation Safeguard. This is implemented when the population comes within 1% of operational capacity. Operation Safeguard results in police station and court cells being activated. It is estimated to cost £385 per night per police cell place which the Ministry of Justice still pays even if the cell isn’t ultimately used  (the average cost of a prison cell per place is £123 per night).

The prisons system is running at 99.02% of capacity – this is now beyond the 99% point when the emergency footing Operation Safeguard kicks in.


Cancellation of Labour’s Prison Building Programme

1.    The coalition government cancelled Labour’s prison building programme. On 14 December 2010, they announced the cancellation of Maghull Prison on Merseyside wasting £16million of taxpayers’ money

2.    The two prisons which have opened since May 2010 – HMP Thameside and HMP Oakwood – were both started under Labour.

3.    Capital spending[1] on the prison building programme has shrunk from £433million in 2009/10 to £134million in 2012/13 – a cut of 69%


Prison Closures on the Coalition Government’s Watch

In total, 13 prisons have closed since May 2010, with three partially closed, and 4 more to close by next Spring.

1.    On 13 January 2011, three prison closures were announced (loss of 849 places):

  • HMP Lancaster Castle
  • HMP Ashwell
  • HMP Moreton Hall to be turned into an Immigration Centre

2.    On 13 July 2011, two further prison closures were announced (loss of 377 places):

  • HMP Latchmere House
  • HMP Brockhill

3.    On 17 July 2012 a further prison closure was announced (loss of 588 places):

  • HMP Wellingborough

4.    On 10 January 2013, a further round of closures and part-closures were announced (with the loss of 2,600 places)

6 more prisons would close:

  • HMP Canterbury
  • HMP Gloucester
  • HMP Bulwood Hall
  • HMP Kingston
  • HMP Shrewsbury
  • HMP Shepton Mallet

And three would partially close:

  • HMP Chelmsford
  • HMP Hull
  • HMP Isle of Wight
  • And 200 places from the private sector will be decommissioned

5.    On 4 September 2013, it was confirmed that 4 more prisons would close by the end of 2013/14 with the loss of 1,400 places

  • HMP Blundeston
  • HMP Dorchester
  • HMP Northallerton
  • HMP/YOI Reading
  • HMP Verne (to be converted to an immigration removal centre)

In addition:

  • HMP Dartmoor – discussions beginning with the leaseholder about its future
  • HMP Downview – stop holding women prisoners and convert to hold adult male prisoners (by end of 2013/14)
  • YOI Warren Hill – convert from young offenders to hold adult male prisoners (by end of 2013/14)


Limited Numbers of Additional Prison Places

1.    Two new establishments have come on stream during 2012:

  • HMP Thameside (900 places from March 2012)
  • HMP Oakwood (1,605 places from April 2012)

2.      On 10 January 2013, it was announced there’d be 1,260 new places added to four existing prisons at:

  • HMP Parc
  • HMP Peterborough
  • HMP The Mount (confirmed on 4 September that this will take new prisoners in Sept 2014)
    • HMP Thameside
    • And that YOI Ashfield would be changed into an adult male prison

3.      On 4 September 2013, it was:

  • Confirmed there’d be a new prison in Wrexham (to open in 2017) – BBC report it will be a 2,000 place prison[2]
  • Announced that plans would be drawn up for a new adult prison in adjoining HMP Feltham
    • Back in July, Labour warned against spending £250million on a ‘Titan’ prison in Wrexham. With this not coming on stream until 2017, it will do little if anything to address the short term crunch in prison numbers brought about by the Government’s closure programme.
    • The Government themselves were opposed to ‘Titan’ prisons in opposition. Of very large prisons, David Cameron said “The idea that big is beautiful with prisons is wrong“ (The Guardian, 2009)


Labour’s Warnings on Prison Capacity

Labour has repeatedly warned about possible shortages of prison places

1.    On 18 July 2011, Sadiq Khan warned “With the Tory-led Government cutting too far, too fast it is not clear whether other prisons have the capacity to deal with the displaced prisoners from HMPs Latchmere House and Brockhill,2011-07-13


2.    On 27 January 2012, Sadiq Khan warned there is a “genuine fear” that “our prison system simply won’t have the spaces to cope with the seasonal rise seen every Winter and Spring


3.    On 10 January 2013, Sadiq Khan said “the public will want reassurance that there's enough prison places over the coming years to keep safely behind bars those found guilty of serious crimes” and that “this announcement is about short-term gain, with vague commitments to the possibility of a new prison being built somewhere down the line nothing but red meat for Tory backbenchers,2013-01-10


4.    On 4 September 2013, Sadiq Khan criticised the plans to close prisons before new capacity has come on stream. He said “new prison places don’t appear out of fresh air to replace those being closed now. It takes a stable rolling programme of investment with many years of planning and construction”. He went on to say “promised new capacity won’t start coming on stream before 2017 at the earliest. The public will want reassurance from this out of touch government that there’s enough prison places until then to keep safely behind bars those found guilty of serious crimes


Other Warnings About The Prison Population


In November 2012, the Ministry of Justice updated its prison population projections[3]. By 2017, they predict the population could be 90,300.


Eoin McLennan Murrary, President of the Prison Governors Association[4] warned that “This spike in prison numbers present[s] a significant threat to the stability of the prison estate at a time of prison closures and reduced staffing numbers brought about by benchmarking and restructure. This is accompanied by a number of prisons reaching capacity


The Public Accounts Committee[5] note that Grayling’s strategy is based on an assumption that: ‘the prison population will stay at its current level and not increase and that no progress [will be] made on reducing overcrowding’

Chair Margaret Hodge[6] said ‘Its strategy depends on the prison population remaining stable, something over which it has no control’


The Howard League for Penal Reform said that 19,140 inmates on average were made to share cells designed for just one person. It said overcrowding was “far worse than anyone imagined”. (he Howard League for Penal Reform, Mirror, 4 September 2013)


The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union said the decision to close six prisons and part close three facilities was "irresponsible", while imminent redundancies will hit local economies.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "These closures are unnecessary, irresponsible and amount to more privatisation by stealth.

"The fact this is happening without any public debate or discussion ought to be a national scandal and we urgently need an independent review to look at the impact of prison privatisation on our communities, staff and prisoners." (Mark Serwotka, PCS, Huffington Post, 10 January 2013)


The September 2013 prison closures were condemned by the Prison Officers Association (POA), stating around 700 jobs in the four jails are at risk.  POA general secretary Steve Gillan said: "The Prison Service has lost some 1,800 staff over the last eight months. This could exacerbate the problem even further.

"With the assaults going on and the violence going on, we are extremely concerned by the powder keg situation now in prisons and severe overcrowding." (POA general secretary Steve Gillan, Manchester Evening News, 4 September 2013)


[1] In answer to written parliamentary questions 46906, 46907 and 46910 and

and 137793 here

[2] See

[3] See

[4] See

[5] See

[6] See


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