‘Overcrowding is the cancer’

‘Campaigners have warned that Britain’s overcrowded prisons are putting lives at risk,’ it is reported today. Meanwhile,  we’re told that Liz Truss, the justice secretary, will make a speech saying ‘she does not intend to bow to calls from her predecessors to reduce the number of prisoners from 85,000 to 45,000. Numbers were last at this level in 1990.’

 So were things any better back then? How about a decade before that? Here’s a random sampling of newspaper reports taken at five-year intervals from 1980 onwards:

‘[An] inquiry into the prison service under Lord Justice May … found that prison morale was low, but that part of the problem would disappear if the overcrowding could be reduced.’ – The Economist 26 January 1980

‘The home secretary, Leon Brittan, has expressed optimism that this century’s biggest prison-building programme, costing some £246 million, will solve the overcrowding problem by the end of the decade.’ – Guardian 10 January 1985

‘Kenneth Baker, the home secretary, said he was greatly concerned about the number of suicides in prisons, particularly among young people. While conditions in many overcrowded local jails and remand centres were unsatisfactory the government was committed to finding a solution.’ – The Times 20 December 1990

‘Drug abuse, overcrowding, rising suicides and boredom among inmates are the four main problems in Scottish prisons, according to a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland.’ – Independent 1 September 1995

‘The [Prison Reform] Trust says problems like overcrowding and over-stretched prison staff are largely to blame for rising death tolls. Latest Home Office statistics show that there is a suicide once every four days in Britain’s prisons on average – and that figure is rising every year.’ – Leicester Mercury 24 March 2000

‘Politicians who call for tougher sentencing on crime contribute to the rise in prison suicides, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned yesterday. Anne Owers said demands for longer sentences have led to an overcrowding “crisis” which will mean “more people are going to die in prison”.’ – Western Daily Press 23 August 2005

‘There is nothing progressive about presiding over a grossly overcrowded prison estate – it has been blamed for increases in prison suicides, stubbornly high re-offending rates and the practice of holding prisoners hundreds of miles away from their families.’ – The Times 29 January 2010

‘According to Lord Woolf, overcrowding is the cancer that destroys everything in a prison, and the system is bursting at the seams. The jail population has doubled in 20 years to about 85,000 and this country now has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. More than a quarter of prisoners live in overcrowded prisons, with many doubled up in cells made for one. Violence is rising. There were 267 deaths in custody in the year to September, an increase of 14 per cent on the previous year.’ – The Times 9 December 2015


Liz Truss



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