Inside the powder-keg prisons ready to explode during Britain’s summer election


On Adam Clark’s first day working in the prison service at HMP Doncaster, he was taking a phone call on the ground floor when he was hit by a falling mop bucket.

“It was a bucket of urine and excrement,” says Clark of the incident, which occurred in 2018.

Clark, who is now 32 and working as an officer at HMP Nottingham, had to get used to extreme working conditions quickly. He regularly works 15-hour days starting at 7am, and he has since witnessed prisoners do far worse.

Self-harm is a major problem. Clark describes one incident where a disturbed 19-year-old injured himself by cutting his own chest.

Clark is on the sharp end of an overcrowding crisis which risks an imposition of Britain’s prisons as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer go to battle ahead of the July 4 general election.

Britain’s prison population has climbed by 93pc since 1990, according to Ministry of Justice data, and is currently at a record high of nearly 88,000. It is expected to rise to 106,300 by March 2027.

Official data shows there is only capacity to house a further 1,350 prisoners. But the Prison Officers Association (POA) says the number they are experiencing on the ground is far lower, at just 200.

In addition to an overcrowding crisis and mental health challenges, prisons are also grappling with huge staff shortages, drug addiction and soaring levels of violence.

Combined, these challenges are making it even more difficult to rehabilitate prisoners when they are released.

Mark Fairhurst, chairman of the POA, warns that an “explosion of violence” in Britain’s prisons is imminent.

“I’m really concerned that our members will face extreme levels of violence and we will lose a prison because of riots,” he says. “Because the pressure is that great on everything.

“Conditions are as bad as they were in 1990 when Strangeways [prison, in Greater Manchester] started a wave of riots throughout the country. Except now we have got 4,000 fewer staff and double the amount of prisoners.”

Just last week it emerged that police chiefs had been told to make fewer arrests. Internal guidance drawn up by National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said chief constables should consider pausing “non-priority arrests”, and suspending operations that could trigger “large numbers of arrests”.

The Government has been scrambling to announce a series of stop-gap measures to ease overcrowding, such as releasing prisoners from their sentences early and housing them in police custody cells.

Early release rules, which allow some prisoners to be discharged 70 days early, came into effect on Thursday. But the service is on borrowed time.

“That will free up enough places to see us through till the end of June,” says Fairhurst. “Then we will be in a position where there is absolutely no space left, and there will be no government in place that can make decisions.”

Tinderbox for violence

On April Fool’s Day in 1990, 300 inmates gathered for a service in the chapel at HMP Strangeways.

Following an outburst by one inmate, the proceedings quickly descended into chaos and sparked riots across the prison.

Two people died, seven were taken hostage and nearly 200 people were injured. Hundreds of prisoners decamped to the roof in a protest which lasted for 25 days, the longest in British penal history.

Overcrowding in HMP Strangeways triggered a wave of prison riots 34 years ago - Rex/BBC

At Strangeways, the inmates were protesting poor conditions. At the heart of the problem was overcrowding. Strangeways was a Victorian prison designed to house 970 inmates. At the time of the riots, it was home to 1,647.

Such overpopulation is typical again today. Of the UK’s 122 prisons, 75 are overcrowded. Last year, chief inspector Charlie Taylor warned the issue would bring “deprivation, squalor and risk of further violence”.

HMP Leeds, which is the most overcrowded prison in the country according to the Howard League, a charity for penal reform, is at 172pc of its operating capacity.

It comes as drug use and mental health problems are also on the rise.

“There is no doubt that we have a mental health crisis in our prisons,” says Andrea Coomber KC, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Prisoners are increasingly being diagnosed with complex mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, dementia, personality disorders and psychosis, says Fairhurst.

There has also been a huge switch to prisoners using psychoactive drugs, such as spice, a synthetic cannabinoid which has been linked to dozens of prison deaths.

Between 2013 and 2017, there were 41,354 drug seizures in prisons in England and Wales, according to official data. That figure more than doubled to 92,130 between 2018 and 2022.

“We have two ambulances in Wymott constantly with these incidents going on,” says Ian Prescott, a prison officer in HMP Wymott in Lancashire.

“It’s the same people constantly doing [spice]. Some of these people are near death. One guy had had six shots of the antidote and it had no effect on him.”

Earlier in May, the Criminal Justice Workers Union said 25 prison officers were deliberately poisoned with spice by inmates who were working in the canteen at HMP Swaleside on the Isle of Sheppey.

The pressure has forced some officers to give up their careers completely.

The UK’s total prison staff is a tenth smaller than it was in 2009. Crucially, it is far less experienced. Half of prison staff have less than five years’ experience, more than twice the rate in 2009, according to the Institute for Government (IfG).

The number of working days lost to sickness has also increased by a quarter since before the pandemic.

Many of the prison officers have spent the majority of their careers working during lockdowns, when there were far more restrictions on inmates, says Clark. “They have never seen mass movement to work, a full unlock, prisoners going to visits,” he says.

“That has caused extra stress.”

Meanwhile, Britain’s prisons are crumbling as infrastructure deteriorates. In July 2023, prisons needed £1.4bn in urgent repair works, such as to address fire safety issues, a figure which has ballooned by 56pc since 2019.

HMP Winchester inmates were able to dig through the Victorian era prison’s cell walls using plastic cutlery last year, according to a report from the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) released earlier this month.

The kitchens at HMP Pentonville are overrun with rats. In April, the IMB said its members had seen “chewed up and spat out ceiling insulation in light fittings above open broilers of food”.

Prisons have become a tinderbox for violence. Assaults on both other prisoners and staff dropped significantly during Covid, but have climbed steadily since. Attacks are still below pre-pandemic levels, but assault rates in men’s prisons are now two-thirds higher than a decade ago.

Meanwhile, self-harm incidents have rocketed, particularly among women.

Rates of self-harm amongst women increased by 79pc between 2019-20 and 2022-23.

At the start of last year, there were nearly 1,700 incidents of self-harm for every 1,000 female prisoners.

It has created a climate of fear in the prison workforce.

“The employer has a motto: ‘Safe, decent, secure’,” says Clark.

“It’s not safe if you cut staff, it’s not decent because you’re not delivering a regime and it’s not secure because we’ve got reduced numbers.”

‘People feel the system is failing’

What happens inside matters not just for prison officers but for Britain. The spillover effects for the criminal justice system, the police force and wider crime rates will be far reaching.

Guidance issued by the Sentencing Council in March last year told courts to consider suspended sentences owing to the lack of prison places.

“It is only a matter of time before someone who shouldn’t be out commits a horrific crime,” says Sarah Rigby, of the POA.

Cassia Rowland, senior researcher at the IfG, adds: “People have a sense that the justice system is failing and that is really damaging.”

Last October the Government introduced the End of Custody Supervised License, otherwise known as the early release scheme, which allowed some prisoners to be released from their sentences 18 days early on curfew. In March, this was increased to 60 days, and just last week this was increased again to 70 days.

In mid-May, the Government triggered another emergency measure known as Operation Early Dawn, which introduced a triage process for the flow of prisoners from police cells to magistrates courts.

Ministers also reintroduced Operation Safeguard, a temporary emergency measure used last year, which means 400 police cells can be used in lieu of prison beds.

“We know that the degree of overcrowding in prisons has been taken into account in sentencing decisions, and things like [lack of] access to rehabilitative programs in prisons means that judges are maybe not sending people to prison when otherwise they would,” says Rowland of the IfG.

Across the UK, there are around 400 violent offenders who may be about to get bail because there is no space for them in prisons, says the Prison Officers Association’s Fairhurst. “That’s aggravated burglary, assault, GBH, ABH, stalkers, domestic violence,” he adds.

The risk assessment involved in the early release scheme is not as robust as it should be, says Rowland. Some prisoners, such as those convicted of sexual offences, are excluded from the early release scheme. “But we also know that at least some people convicted of domestic abuse have been released under that scheme,” says Rowland.

Prison governors have the opportunity to appeal decisions for early release of prisoners who they think are too high risk, but they do not make the final decision. “The decision is still made centrally within HM Prison & Probation Service, rather than by that individual governor, and they don’t have a veto power to stop it,” says Rowland.

HMP Wandsworth
Overcrowding in HMP Wandsworth left eight in 10 inmates sharing single-occupancy cells - Lucy North/PA Wire

Overcrowding means some prisoners are getting out by other means.

HMP Wandsworth, where accused spy Daniel Khalife escaped while he was on remand in September 2023 and sparked a national manhunt, was designed to hold 964 prisoners.

When inspectors visited, it was housing 1,513. Eight in 10 of the inmates were sharing cells designed for single occupancy.

Most worryingly, there is a snowball effect. If offenders are locked up in poor conditions, it is much harder for them to rehabilitate when they leave, making it more likely they will reoffend.

“It is a vicious cycle,” says Yasmeen Sebbana, associate director at Public First. “When there are too many people in the prison and too few prison officers, then they can’t do rehabilitation. So as soon as you get released, you get this really high rate of people coming straight back.”

In 2009/10, nearly 20,000 prisoners per year were signing up to accredited educational programmes, according to the IfG. This figure has since plunged by 88pc. Despite the end of the pandemic, many prisoners are being kept in their cells for up to 22 hours per day.

‘Released into homelessness’

Prison overcrowding is a multi-faceted problem.

Britain’s population is growing – as it swells, so does the prison population. More people are also getting convicted for serious crimes such as sexual offences and rape, which rose by 40pc and 58pc respectively between 2019 and 2023.

Crucially, sentences are getting longer. In 2010, the average prison sentence was 13.7 months, according to analysis by the Prison Reform Trust. By 2022, it was 56pc higher at 21.4 months.

The pandemic and the 2022 barristers’ strike also created a backlog of cases which created a surge in the prison population further down the line. From December 2022 to October 2023, the prison population swelled rapidly by 605 people every month – roughly triple the current level.

The logjam in the court system means far more defendants are on remand, meaning they have not yet been sentenced but have been denied bail.

In March 2013, almost 13pc of the prisoner population were either untried or awaiting their sentence. In March this year, the figure hit a record high of 18.7pc, meaning an extra 5,690 people are locked up before their real sentences begin. This is at least a 50-year high.

There is also a deep-seated structural problem. The number of prisoners being recalled back to jail after they have been released on licence or parole has soared to a record high.

In March 2013, 5,140 prisoners, or 6.1pc of the total prison population, had been recalled. In March this year, that figure had more than doubled to 12,344, or 14.1pc of the prisoner population.

Here, the toll of both abandoned rehabilitation schemes and the national housing crisis are laid bare.

Of all recalls in October to December last year, 26pc were owing to reoffending but 77pc involved non-compliance, such as failure to communicate, according to Revolving Doors, a charity. More than a quarter involved a failure to reside, meaning they were unable to secure an address.

In the 1990s, prisoners had housing officers to make sure people getting released had roofs over their heads. These officers no longer exist.

“Regularly, people are being released into homelessness,” says the Howard League’s Coomber. “I was in a prison a couple of weeks ago where people are given a tent when they are released. That is setting those people up to fail. You can barely be surprised if people then go on to reoffend.”

High caseloads and inexperienced staff mean probation workers are not building such good relationships with the offenders they are working with, Rowland adds. “Maybe they are more inclined to send people back to prison.”

At the root of the problem, Fairhurst blames austerity. “[The Government] reduced our budget by over £900m and cut our staff by 30pc, so we lost 100,000 years of experience,” he says.

Yet from 2015/16, prison spending was beginning to rise.

The cash flow was bolstered by pandemic measures, but this was short-term. After rising by 5.1pc in 2020/21, government spending on prisons dropped 4.3pc in 2021/22 to £3.7bn.

In 2023/24, spending was likely still 1.7pc below 2009/10 levels, according to the IfG.

An election issue

Sue Gray, Labour’s chief of staff, has added overcrowding in prisons to what has been described as a “s--t list” of impending crises that a new government will urgently need to tackle.

The looming crisis may have influenced Sunak’s decision to call an election in July. Economists were expecting the Prime Minister to call an autumn election to allow as much time as possible for the economy to improve.

GDP is forecast to rise, real wages are increasing as inflation cools and the Bank of England could start cutting interest rates this summer.

But the longer anyone waits, the more time there is for Britain’s prison crisis to erupt.

Labour is trying to capitalise on the prisons crisis.

Shabana Mahmood, the shadow justice secretary, has blamed the overcrowding on “14 years of Conservative failure”. She has promised to “deliver on our mission to raise confidence in the criminal justice system to its highest level within a decade”.

The POA has been vocal in its criticism of Sunak’s government, but Fairhurst is still unconvinced by Labour.

“Our general secretary has met with Keir Starmer twice,” he says. “We’ve met the prisons minister a couple of times. And I’ve met the shadow secretary of state. They have all been non-committal. I bet nothing is in their manifesto about prisons.”

Shabana Mahmood Labour MP for Birmingham and Ladywood
Shabana Mahmood has sought to blame overcrowding on Tory failures - Nicola Tree/Getty Images

Pavan Dhaliwal, chief executive at Revolving Doors, adds: “Labour haven’t really said anything in terms of what their long-term policy is going to be.”

The election itself will make the problem worse, warns Fairhurst. The Justice Secretary Alex Chalk’s Sentencing Bill will be cast aside in the run-up to the election, meaning further stop-gap measures will not materialise for months.

A key policy in the Bill included creating a legal presumption that offenders would not be sent to jail for sentences of under 12 months and should instead be punished with community service.

This would have kept as many as 23,000 criminals out of jail, according to analysis by Rory Geoghegan, a former No 10 adviser on crime and founder of the Public Safety Foundation.

Labour has expressed interest in this policy, which prison campaigners favour as they argue short-term sentences are a root cause of prison overcrowding.

The Government had planned to use the Bill to allow prisoners to be released after serving just 43pc of their sentences, rather than 50pc, which should have freed up further space. “That’s now not going to happen, because of the election,” says Fairhurst.

But the measures would have done little to solve the longer-term issues, says Coomber. “It would have relieved 3pc to 4pc of the capacity, it was only going to be a short-term measure itself,” he adds.

Labour’s Mahmood has said the party will use new planning rules to build more prisons if it claims victory at the polls.

The Tories have been scrambling for years to fix the problem. In 2021, the Government said it would spend £3.75bn on delivering 20,000 new prison places by the mid-2020s.

It said 5,600 were delivered by the end of 2023, primarily via two new prisons, which opened in 2022 and 2023 with a combined 3,400 beds.

A third 1,500-person prison is under construction, but three other projects have been delayed after their planning applications were initially rejected.

Campaigners say this is the wrong approach.

“You can’t build your way out of this. If you build more prisons, you fill them up,” says Fairhurst. Most of the new prisons being built are privately run, meaning construction is funded by the taxpayer, with a contract then given to a private company. “They’re running a profit off people’s misery.”

The funding for new prisons will also only cover the construction costs. A prisoner costs the state around £50,000 per year – an extra 20,000 of them would cost £1bn a year.

It would be better and more cost effective for the Government to direct that money into improving conditions in prisons to make criminals less likely to reoffend, says Coomber.

Even if Labour can unlock the planning system, it will not happen quickly enough. “It’s entirely possible that the new government’s going to have to take really drastic measures to take people out of prison,” says Coomber. This could mean letting people out even earlier in their sentences, or granting people bail who have currently been refused.

But policy measures aside, the biggest problem for any new government may simply be the weather. Summer raises a more basic problem. Prisons are about to get hot.

“The ventilation in cells is really poor,” says the POA’s Rigby. “Stuck behind a door, they get hot and frustrated. And at some point one of those guys has got to open that door.”

Fairhurst says: “If there’s going to be a riot, it will be in the summer.”