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Performance Tracker 2022/23: Spring update - Prisons

The prison workforce is insufficient to safely staff all prisons, with some prisoners still being kept locked in their cells for most of the day.

Prison officer in a prison wing, Winchester Prison

Prisons were placed in stringent lockdown regimes throughout the pandemic, with many restrictions still in place. This successfully limited the spread of Covid and the number of prisoner deaths, but led to several harmful consequences. Long periods spent in cells, delays for routine health appointments and severely reduced access to education, training and work have all harmed prisoners’ wellbeing and prospects. And though prison governors have, since May 2022, been able to lift Covid restrictions, poor leadership and workforce shortages mean some prisoners are still being kept locked in their cells for most of the day.

This chapter considers the 119 publicly and privately run prisons in England and Wales. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), an executive agency within the Ministry of Justice, runs 105 of these, while Serco, G4S and Sodexo run the remaining 14. 

Spending on prisons fell in 2021/22

Spending on prisons had been increasing since 2015/16 and this trend continued in the first year of the pandemic, when a number of Treasury-approved schemes were implemented to ensure the continued supply of staff and to minimise the risk of unrest. Day-to-day spending rose 5.6% in 2020/21, but was expected to fall by around 8% in real terms in 2021/22 as Covid support measures come to an end.*, 67 Ministry of Justice, ‘Costs per place and costs per prisoner by individual prison’, HMPPS Annual Report and Accounts 2020-21, Management Information Addendum, 27 January 2022,…

Investments have been made in the prison estate during the pandemic. In 2020/21, HMPPS bought and installed 1,150 temporary accommodation units to make it easier to spread out and isolate prisoners. 68 HM Prison and Probation Service, Annual Report and Accounts 2020/21 (HC 770), 16 December 2021, It has also expanded the availability of video and telephone facilities. Video-calling between prisoners and their friends and family was first introduced in March 2020 and all prisons had this capability by the end of the year. Between March 2020 and August 2022, in-cell telephones were installed in 31 establishments, leaving 12 closed prisons 69 Data provided by Ministry of Justice. and 12 open prisons 70 House of Lords, Written questions, answers and statements, ‘Prison Accommodation: Males’, Question for Ministry of Justice, tabled on 18 January 2022, answered on 1 February 2022, still to have these installed. 

* Spending figures for 2021/22 had not been released at time of publication.

The number of prisoners fell 6% during the pandemic but rose in the first nine months of 2022/23

The prison population fell substantially at the start of the pandemic and by 6% between March 2020 and July 2021, reducing the total number by nearly 5,000. This was largely due to fewer people being sent to prison as a result of the initial closure of courts and subsequent social distancing requirements, which reduced the number of cases heard. The population remained below 80,000 for all of 2021/22 but had risen above this in this financial year, reaching 82,905 on 30 November 2022 but falling back to 81,806 a month later. 76 Ministry of Justice, ‘Offender management statistics quarterly, prison population: 31 December 2022’, Table 1.1, retrieved 26 January 2023,

The Ministry of Justice projects that the prison population will grow dramatically over the coming years, up to 97,500 in 2025, 77 Ministry of Justice, ‘Prison population projections 2021 to 2026, England and Wales’, Table 1.1, 25 November 2021, retrieved 9 May 2022, primarily as a consequence of the government’s policy to increase the number of police officers by 20,000. However, as of July 2022, the prison population was almost 4,000 lower 78 Ministry of Justice, ‘Population bulletin: weekly 29 July 2022’, retrieved 21 September 2022, than the government anticipated when these projections were published in September 2021, again due to delays in the courts. 

Despite being lower than anticipated, there is insufficient capacity in adult male prisons and the government found it necessary to request the temporary use of up to 400 police cells on 30 November 2022. 79 House of Commons, Hansard, ‘Prison capacity’, 30 November 2022, col 915,  

Staff numbers rose due to higher recruitment – but retention worsened 

The number of prison officers increased slightly during 2021/22, having remained flat during the first 12 months of the pandemic. But retention worsened substantially, with 3,387 officers leaving in 2021/22, compared to 2,116 in 2020/21. This was more than offset by the recruitment of 3,845 staff, an increase of 1,435 compared to the year before. 80 HM Prison and Probation Service, ‘HMPPS workforce quarterly’, Table 8, May 2022, retrieved 21 September 2022, Interviewees noted the success of recruitment campaigns but added that it was increasingly hard to retain staff due to better pay and conditions elsewhere, including other parts of the public sector, particularly the police.

The workforce is insufficient to safely lift restrictions in all prisons

Lockdown regimes were eased from summer 2021 but prisons were required by MoJ to reimplement Covid measures in January 2022 to contain the Omicron wave. Since 9 May 2022, prison governors have freedom to lift all restrictions.

However, prison regimes vary substantially across the country, even between prisons of the same category. 84 Taylor C, ‘Chief inspector’s blog: are lockdowns the solution to prison violence?’, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, updated 24 January 2022, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found that “many prisoners were still locked up for almost 22 hours a day”, even as restrictions in prisons were lifted, citing a lack of ambition from some prison governors. 85 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Annual Report 2021-22 (HC 411), The Stationery Office, 13 July 2022, p. 51 We were told by interviewees that some prisons still do not have enough staff to safely return prisons to pre-pandemic regimes and that in some only half of a prison wing were allowed out of their cells at any one time. 

The situation has been exacerbated by high levels of staff sickness. In 2021/22, more than 350,000 days were lost to sickness, 21% higher than in 2020/21 and 43% more than 2019/20. Covid-related absences still accounted for more than 20% of the total in 2021/22, with a further 10% due to other respiratory illnesses. 86 HM Prison and Probation Service, ‘HMPPS workforce quarterly’, Table 20, May 2022,

As a consequence of the high staff turnover noted above, the prison workforce is also relatively inexperienced, with more than a quarter of prison officers having been in post for less than two years. 89 HM Prison and Probation Service, ‘HMPPS workforce quarterly’, Table 4, September 2022, Newer staff are less likely to have the trust of prisoners or the interpersonal skills that more seasoned officers have, and will tend to be less effective at de-escalating potentially violent situations – something that also has implications for how safely prisons can accommodate the expected rise in the prisoner population.

Continued lockdowns in prisons have reduced access to purposeful activities 

Enhanced lockdown regimes in prisons meant that fewer prisoners have been able to access purposeful activities. Inspections by HMIP and Ofsted found that education was badly disrupted with, for example, reading mentors unable to leave their cells to provide sessions for fellow prisoners. 90 Taylor C, ‘Chief Inspector’s blog: why don’t prisoners learn to read?’, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 12 April 2022,

There was a big reduction in both starts and completions of accredited programmes in 2020/21. Just 744 accredited programmes were started, down from 5,726 in 2019/20, a fall of 87%, 96 Ministry of Justice, ‘HMPPS Annual Digest’, Table 6.1, April 2020 to March 2021, retrieved 2021, with completions following a similar trajectory. Interviewees told us that the prison education service has also found it difficult to recruit and retain staff.

Prisoners have also been able to work less during the pandemic. The average number of active prisoners* fell by 45% between 2020 and 2021. Work increased substantially in 2022, but there were still 2% fewer active prisoners per month than in 2020. 97 Ministry of Justice, ‘HMPPS Annual Digest’, Table 5.2, April 2021 to March 2022, retrieved 2022,

As the access to traditional purposeful activity was limited due to Covid restrictions, prisoners have been given in-cell activity packs and some elements of education courses have been made available to be completed from a cell. However, HMIP’s annual report is highly critical of the slow pace at which face-to-face purposeful activity has resumed, blaming a lack of ambition from some governors and the prison service, as well as the reluctance of some providers to come back into prisons. 98 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Annual Report 2021-22 (HC 411), The Stationery Office, 13 July 2022, p. 6

* The number of prisoners who received a salary.

Violence has increased as prison lockdown regimes have been eased

Violence in prisons rose substantially after 2014/15 but had started to fall before the onset of the pandemic, thanks to a wide-ranging safety programme. 99 HM Prison and Probation Service, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service: Annual Report and Accounts 2019- 20 (HC 708), The Stationery Office, 24 September 2020, p. 64  

It then fell dramatically following the introduction of lockdown regimes at the start of the pandemic – unsurprisingly, with prisoners separated for long periods. But incidents of assault rose again as prisons lifted restrictions and face-to-face contact between prisoners, and between prisoners and staff, increased. This situation was probably exacerbated by the noted inexperience of staff, as well as other factors such as “paying off of debts” and frustration at prolonged restrictions. 100 Institute for Government interview

The rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults per 1,000 prisoners increased by 16% in 2021/22. However, the rate remains substantially below pre-pandemic levels. The rate of assaults on staff has followed a similar pattern, increasing by 9% in 2021/22.

Self-harm has fallen in men’s prisons but increased in women’s prisons

Self-harm has always been more prevalent in female prisons* but the trends have diverged during the pandemic. The rate of self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners in male establishments fell by 11% between 2020/21 and 2021/22. The rate rose by 8% in 2021/22 but remained below pre-pandemic levels.

In female prisons, self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners grew by 12% in 2020/21, by a further 7% in 2021/22, and by an unprecedented 63% in the first half of 2022/23. The average of almost 11 incidents of self-harm per individual in 2021/22 is the highest on record – and 17% higher than the pre-pandemic rate. 105 Ministry of Justice, ‘Safety in custody statistics’, Table 3, March 2022, retrieved 28 July 2022,

It is unclear what has caused the divergence but HMIP noted in its 2020/21 annual report that: “Women’s lack of contact with the outside world had led to extreme frustration and many had not seen their children for many months, leaving them feeling lonely and anxious.” 106 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales, Annual Report 2020-21 (HC 442), The Stationery Office, 20 July 2021, p. 10

To address the problem the government works with the Samaritans, and has implemented a new case management approach and training package for staff. 107 House of Commons, Written questions, answers and statements, ‘Prisoners: Self-harm’, Question for Ministry of Justice, tabled on 19 January 2022, answered on 27 January 2022,

* Self-harm in the women’s estate is characterised by a small number of women who self-harm multiple times. More than a third of female prisoners self-harm, compared to 15% of male prisoners.

Prisons experienced fewer Covid deaths in 2021/22 than in the first year of the pandemic

In March 2020, Public Health England predicted that as many as 2,700 prisoners could die from Covid. 108 O’Moore E, ‘Briefing paper- interim assessment of impact of various population management strategies in prisons in response to COVID-19 pandemic in England’, Ministry of Justice, Public Health England, HM Prison and Probation Service, 24 April 2020, However, highly restrictive lockdown regimes within prisons meant that the prison service limited the spread of Covid. There were 215 Covid-related deaths from the start of the pandemic up to the end of December 2022. These peaked over the winter of 2020/21 but have been substantially lower in subsequent waves following the rollout of vaccinations.

Backlogs have grown and prisoners are waiting longer to access services

There is limited publicly available data on backlogs in prisons. However, according to the MoJ, there are backlogs across its services, including staff training, staff annual leave, offender management assessments, offending behaviour programmes and access to health services. 117 Institute for Government interview Another interviewee told us that some prisons are keeping prisoners in their cell for even longer than usual one day a week to enable staff to undertake essential training. 118 Institute for Government interview

As a result of backlogs and staff shortages, prisoners are waiting a long time to access a wide range of routine services. Recent inspection reports found prisoners waiting several days before they could call their family after arrival, 119 HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Bedford, 10 January and 21–24 February 2022, 8 June 2022, four weeks for GP appointments, 120 HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Elmley, 28 February–1 March and 7–11 March 2022, 21 June 2022, over 26 weeks to see an optician, 121 HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Brixton, 14 and 21–25 March 2022, 30 June 2022, and “unacceptable” waits for refunds from prison shops. 122 HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Elmley, 28 February–1 March and 7–11 March 2022, 21 June 2022, Worryingly, in one establishment, vulnerable prisoners waited several weeks for a bed on a specialist wing and only 19% of prisoners said that emergency cell bells were answered within five minutes. 123 HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Bedford, 10 January and 21–24 February 2022, 8 June 2022,

The prison maintenance backlog for the highest priority capital works has also grown from £900 million in 2019/20 to £1.3 billion in 2021/22. These are projects needed to address “significant health & safety and fire safety risks, and/or critical risk to capacity”. 124 Information provided by Ministry of Justice

Performance Tracker 2022/23: Spring update

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