UK Politics

Prisons not in overcrowding crisis, says justice secretary

Prison cell
Forty prisons have been told to take in more inmates, although 34 are already full or overcrowded

There is no "crisis" of overcrowding in prisons in England and Wales, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has said.

He was responding to criticism from Labour's Sadiq Khan who claimed jails were becoming "unsafe warehouses" with increasing rates of suicide, self-harm and rioting.

The chief inspector of prisons has also attacked the state of prisons after dozens of full jails were told to take more inmates.

But Mr Grayling played down the fears.

"A few more prisoners are going to have to share a cell for a few weeks," he told MPs, after Commons Speaker John Bercow granted an urgent question on the subject.

'Breath-taking'

"We do not have a prison overcrowding crisis. Today's prison population is 85,359. This is against total usable operational capacity of 86,421, which means we have more than 1,000 spare places across the prison estate," he said.

"We will also by next April have opened an additional 2,000 places. This includes four new house blocks, which will start to open from this autumn."

Mr Grayling also hailed the introduction of a new scheme to enable prisons to take on temporary staff to deal with temporary population pressures.

There was "anything but a crisis", he concluded.

Sadiq Khan
Mr Khan cited the example of Wandsworth prison, which is operating at 169% capacity

But Mr Khan accused the "out-of-touch" minister of "breath-taking" complacency.

"He appears to think there are no problems and that MPs can be kept in the dark," he said, while "already overcrowded" prisons were being told to "squeeze in hundreds more inmates".

The government had paid private firms including G4S and Serco to provide emergency prison places - but he said the Commons was not being told how much this would cost.

"Prison staff that were made redundant are now being hired back - at what cost? We don't know," he added.

In May, there were "11 self-inflicted deaths in our prisons," he continued. "Last year, self-harming suicides and assaults on staff in adult male prisons went up."

He sought to link staff cuts and the closure of 18 prisons with the increasing rate of "serious disturbances" among inmates.

But the justice secretary replied: "Prison overcrowding under this government is lower than in the last four years of the last Labour government."

'Very concerned'

The 40 publicly-run jails told to raise their "operational capacity" include: Bedford, Durham, Leeds, Leicester, Lincoln and three prisons in London - Brixton, Pentonville and Wandsworth - according to documents seen by the BBC.

All but six of the 40 are already full or overcrowded.

The jails have been told they need to find accommodation by August for 440 more prisoners, in total.

This figure represents about 0.5% of the prison population of 85,410. On average, the 40 prisons affected will have to find space for an additional 11 inmates each.

Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Saturday: "The situation is extremely serious and I am very concerned".

He said the system was not coping, and warned that because of staff shortages, men were locked up together for 23 hours a day, causing "huge tension".

He said extra resources were needed or the prison population had to be reduced.

"This is a political and policy failure - this is not the fault of staff," Mr Hardwick said.

Most overcrowded prisons in England & Wales, May 2014
Prison name Uncrowded capacity (CNA*) Actual population Population as % of capacity
1 Swansea 242 446 184%
2 Lincoln 403 692 172%
3 Preston 421 718 171%
4 Leicester 214 363 170%
5 Exeter 318 538 169%
6 Wandsworth 943 1597 169%
7 Kennet 175 272 155%
8 Bedford 322 487 151%
9 Cardiff 539 807 150%
10 Doncaster 738 1108 150%
11 Nottingham 723 1086 150%
12 Durham 591 880 149%
13 Thameside 600 892 149%
14 Bristol 407 604 148%
15 Leeds 826 1190 144%
16 Pentonville 915 1313 143%
17 Altcourse 794 1129 142%
18 Brixton 530 748 141%
19 Winchester 499 683 137%
20 Hull 552 748 136%

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