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There are 139 prisons in England and Wales, with 19 built since 1995. Seven prisons are private: built under the Private Finance Initiative, they are termed DCMF prisons (privately Designed, Constructed, Managed and Financed) and revert to the government after 25 years. A further two prisons are privately managed but were built with public money. The remaining prisons are operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service, an Executive Agency reporting to the Ministry of Justice. The prison population is split between local prisons, remand centres, training prisons, young offender institutes and open prisons.


Prison population

England and Wales has one of the highest rates of incarceration in Western Europe, with Scotland close behind: In 2006 an average of 148 people in every 100,000 were in prison, just ahead of Scotland with 139 per 100,000 (although these figures are far short of the 738 per 100,000 in the United States).[1]

On 22 February 2008, prisons in England and Wales had exceeded their "operational capacity" with just over 82,000 prisoners.[2] This is a near-doubling of the English and Welsh total from 42,000 in 1991; furthermore the Home Office predicts a population of 110,000 by 2010.

In 2004, each prisoner cost the taxpayer an average of £38,000.[3] The rise in the prison population has been substantially driven by harsher sentencing. In 1995, 129 people were in prison for shoplifting; in 2005, it was 1,400. In 2001, 3,000 people were sent to prison for petty theft for a first time offence. One third of petty offenders lose their home while in custody; two-fifths lose contact with their families; two-thirds lose their jobs. Around half of all prisoners have a reading age less than an 11-year old. Two in five prisoners lack basic literacy skills and four in five do not have basic numeracy.[4]

All this contributes to reoffending rates of 59% within two years. The number of women in prison has risen disproportionately - from 1,800 in 1994 to 4,500 in 2004. 40% of women going to prison have previously attempted suicide.[5]

In January 2008 it emerged that over 16,000 prisoners had been released early over the previous 7 months in an attempt to free up prison places.[6]

Early history and political influences on prison population figures

The first easily traceable rise in the prison population was the result of the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800.

"In all cases in which it shall be given in evidence upon the trial of any person charged with treason, murder, or felony, that he was insane at the time of committing the offence, and he be acquitted, the jury shall find especially whether he was acquitted on account of insanity, and if so, the court shall order him to be kept in strict custody, in such manner as it shall think fit, until the King's Pleasure be known and the King may give such order for his safe custody as he shall think fit; and so in all like cases before the passing of that Act." [7]

Perhaps James Hadfield is the best remembered character thus detained. This was despite transportation to Australia still being an option. The judiciary also understood that many people that were brought before them were too ill to have been aware that they were transgressing the law, or had not the 'wits' to avoid being taken advantage of and mislead into doing the misdeeds of others. This was not just a problem for the prisons but the workhouses as well. The County Asylums Act 1808 started to address this issue by making it possible for the Judiciary (Justicies of the Peace) in each county to construct asylums financed out of the local rate.

"Whereas the practice of confining such lunatics and other insane persons as are chargeable to their respective parishes in Gaols, Houses of Correction, Poor Houses and Houses of Industry, is highly dangerous and inconvenient"[8]

It now seems to be the opinion of many sociologists that it was the due to the poverty brought about by the wars with French, the social upheaval bought about by industrialization, the Enclosure Act and unemployment that increased the amount of ill health both psychical and mental and the resorting to crime in order to eat. Continued industrialization, required the asylums system to be constantly expanded until around the 1920's by which time the prison population had fallen to a reasonable stable low; and housing mostly the intentional criminal.

The prison population suffered a small blip during the Second World War. Most of this was due to the imprisonment of 'conscientious objectors'[9] To a lesser extent was the war-time creation of 'motivation' and 'opportunity' to commit crime occurring together. However, with law enforcement relying heavily on constables who were not considered fit enough to join the armed services, it is not surprising that most perpetuators remained at large and unknown.

Rather than falling down to pre-war levels, the post-war prison population started to slowly rise, which then started to accelerate as time went on.[10]

Part of the reason was not with the judicial service at all but by new definitions and hypothesis surrounding mental illness given legitimacy by (i) the National Health Service Act (1946) and (ii) the removal of much of the powers and experience of the Board of Control. This meant attention and resources was increasingly diverted to those who had become acutely 'seriously' ill, then discharging them as soon as they had started to recover. The resistance to admit any new patient before they had become 'seriously' ill was also increased. Both led to more opportunity for them to slip into the forensic system in the absence of an effective financed community support system. As this new 'up wave' started in a period of renewed hostilities followed by post war recession and high unemployment the conditions were very similar to those that coursed the increase in prison populations back in the latter part of the 1700s.

Another influencing factor came by way of the United Nations drug convention driven by the US war on drugs. It help shape Dangerous Drugs Act of 1964. This Act initiated the first steps to dismantling what had come to be known internationally as the British system of treating drug addiction. Max Glatt, who was the original pioneer of successfully formulating a protocol for treating addicts, wrote a detailed review in 1966 which lays out the situation as it was seen then. Forty years on, some of the report today seems quite prophetic, for instance he quotes D H Berger remarks: "...the real point of the advantage of the British method (is that) ... In England there are few, if any, crimes committed by addicts in order to obtain the huge sums demanded by (American) pushers for illicit drugs... The British by their studied hands-off policy have saved the vast majority of their un-addicted population the price of crime, broken homes, welfare payments, and the like. This is the crux of the problem. Certainly any physician who grossly abuses the trust in him... Can be dealt with by local authorities without creating a huge black market and crime wave. Should England's new regulations be too restrictive, then they will surely reap all the problems which now beset (the U.S.A.)". In 1966 the 1st edition of Peter Laurie book 'Drugs' gives a clear explanation why he thinks this convention is doomed to fail.[11]

See also


  1. ^ World Prison Population List (seventh edition) 2006
  2. ^ UK prisons now 'over-capacity' BBC News 22nd February 2008
  3. ^ name="kampfner"John Kampfner, New Statesman'
  4. ^ Sir Claus Moser, The Moser Report, "A fresh start", 1999
  5. ^ name="kampfner"
  6. ^ Straw aims for cut in reoffending BBC news, january 31 2008
  7. ^ Roberts, Andrew (1981) Criminal Lunatics glossary - Mental Health History Words. Middlesex University. Retrieved 2006-10-14.
  8. ^ Roberts, Andrew (1981). "Table of Statutes". The asylums index. Middlesex University, London, England. Retrieved 2006-09-26.  
  9. ^ Conscientious Objection in Britain during the Second World War. Peace Pledge Union; Retrieved 2006-10-14
  10. ^ Prison Statistics England and Wales (2002) The Home Office PDF; page 5 retrieved 2006-10-14
  11. ^ Laurie, Peter (1972) Drugs: Medical, Psychological, and Social Facts. 2nd edition, Pelican Books; ISBN 0-14-021104-7

External links



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