Nine prisoners a day

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 9 May 2012

I’ve been tracking the UK prison population since the beginning of the year to get a sense of some of the underlying trends.

My interest here is the UK prison population, not just the prison population of England and Wales, a figure more commonly the focus of London-based policy elites.

I’m also interested in the total population under a prison sentence. This includes those serving a Home Detention Curfew: the latter stages of a prison sentence served under a form of house arrest.

So what’s the current picture? In the four months from the start of January to the beginning of May, the total UK prison population went from 99,516 to 100,540. That’s 1,024 more prisoners now than at the beginning of 2012.

Put another way, the UK prison population is currently growing at the rate of nine prisoners per day. If this trend continues the UK is on course for a prison population of around 102,500 by the close of 2012.

The good news is that there is no inevitability here. As the graph above shows, the growth in the UK prison population has been a lumpy affair. It grew by 39 prisoners a day during January, slowing to 10 prisoners a day during February. During March it fell by 5 prisoners a day and by 10 prisoners a day during April.

The riots probably had something to do with the rise and subsequent fall in the prison population. Those sentenced to custody late last year will have started coming up for release over recent weeks. Against this, news that there remain hundreds of outstanding cases to prosecute suggests that we may not have seen the end of riot sentencing-induced prison growth.

That said, the underlying drivers of the prison population in the UK, as in other countries, are political and economic factors external to the criminal justice process. Tinkering with sentences in themselves will not solve the problem.

The bad news is that there is little sign that policy makers have grasped this basic fact, never mind turned it into anything approaching a coherent plan of action. Indeed the latest government consultation continues to push community sentences as central to addressing prison growth, and this despite the clear evidence that this is unlikely to work.

So what might a coherent plan of action to control, and then reduce, the prison population look like? This is a question that I will return to next week.