The state of prisons in England and Wales

Last updated: 20 Dec 2016

Around 86,000 people are in prisons in England and Wales.

The prison population peaked at 88,000 in 2011, partly explained by the riots that summer, before falling to 84,000 at the end of 2012.

The total population of the UK has also increased over time. There were 182 prisoners per 100,000 adults in England and Wales in 2015. This is higher than historic levels back to 1901, apart from the peak in 2011, according to the House of Commons Library.

Space in prisons

The total number of prisoners that the Ministry of Justice says it can hold “without serious risk”, the operational capacity, has increased broadly with the number of prisoners.

However, the uncrowded capacity which represents “the good, decent standard” accommodation the service aims for has been lower than the prison population for almost all of the past 20 years.

A quarter of prisoners are held in crowded accommodation according to official figures.

Number of staff

Around 24,000 people work in operational roles in the prison service. 10,500 more work in non-operational roles, like management, administration and services.

The number of staff in both areas has fallen since 2010, our earliest data. In March 2015 there  were 30% fewer operational staff, and 25% fewer non-operational staff, than there were in March 2010. The fall in the number of non-operational staff is partly due to jobs being transferred to other organisations.

There are 15,000front-line’ prison officers working at band 3 or 4, who are not in management or supporting roles. That number is down from 20,000 in 2010, measuring by ‘full-time equivalents’ rather than headcount in all cases.

We’ve looked at these figures in more detail in a previous factcheck.

More frontline officers left than were recruited or promoted every year until 2015. Although this changed in 2015 (with 507 net new officers) the total number of full-time equivalent frontline officers was still lower than the previous year.

The government announced on 3 November that it plans to recruit 2,500 new frontline officers by 2018.

Violence in prison

All headline measures of prison safety show increasing violence in the last year.

Statistics are measured for the 12 months to September (deaths) or June (other measures).

Last year 324 people died in prison, a 21% increase compared to 2015. 107 of these deaths were self-inflicted (the prison service doesn’t assume intention). For every 1,000 prisoners 1.3 ended their own life, up from 1.1 in 2015.

The number of self-harm incidents increased by 26% in 2016, and the number of people self-harming by 23%. There were 36,000 incidents of self-harm. For every 1,000 prisoners, 123 self-harmed. In 2015 it had been 101 per 1,000.

Assaults on other prisoners and staff are also more common. There were 208 ‘prisoner on prisoner’ assault incidents per 1,000 prisoners, an increase of 32%. Assaults on prison staff increased by 40%, to a rate of 70 incidents per 1,000 prisoners.

The House of Commons Library has published a report about recent concerns over prison safety, examining possible causes of the increasing violence.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons focused on the subject in its last annual report, saying safety outcomes from its assessments were worse than any time between 2007 and 2014.

The government put out a White Paper, Prison Safety and Reform, in November 2016, promising to “address the current level of violence and safety issues in our prisons”.

Get the detail

You can find out more about the state of prisons using our Finder tool. In summary:


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