Spending on prisons is down 22% since 2009/10, and there are a quarter fewer prison officers than in 2010. Violence within prisons continues to rise, with the number of assaults on officers 124% above 2009 levels. As well as boosting prison capacity, the Government plans to recruit 2,500 extra officers as part of a broader package of safety measures – and has broken the pay cap for prison officers. Recruitment is under way, but it will take time for the impact of new staff to be felt – and problems with retention remain.

Spending on prisons fell by more than a fifth between 2009/10 and 2016/17.

Change in spending on prisons in England and Wales

In 2009/10, day-to-day spending on prisons totalled £3.48bn. This fell by 22% to £2.71bn in 2016/17. Falling prisons spending reflects sustained reductions to the overall MoJ budget since 2009/10.

In November 2016, MoJ released the Prison Safety and Reform white paper, setting out a range of measures to help tackle rising prison violence in response to growing public concern.45 At the 2016 Autumn Statement, the Government announced an additional £500m of funding for MoJ, including a £104m programme to recruit an additional 2,500 prison officers by December 2018.[46]

More officers are being recruited, but numbers remain 26% below 2010 levels.

Change in total number of core operational staff

Between 2010 and 2014, the sharp cuts to the prison budget were reflected in steeply falling staff numbers. The number of core prison staff (in public sector prisons) at Bands 3–5 – the key operational grades – fell by 27%. Numbers then began to stabilise, though they remained far below 2010 levels.*

Forced into action by rising public concern about prison violence, the Government announced plans to recruit an additional 2,500 officers by December 2018. Three months later, in January 2017, MoJ announced changes to pay and benefits for staff in 31 prisons across London and the South East, where recruitment problems have been especially pronounced. Through the package, Band 3 officers received up to £5,000 in additional pay, so that new recruits may receive starting salaries of up to £29,500.[47]

There are signs that these combined efforts are slowly increasing officer numbers. In March 2017, there were 18,403 Band 3–5 officers – a slight increase on the 18,372 in post in March 2016, but still 26% below 2010 levels. Between October 2016 and June 2017, there was a net increase of 800 FTE Band 3–5 officers, and at the end of June, a further 738 candidates had job offers and were booked onto Prison Officer Entry Level Training (POELT) courses – an indication of future officers in the pipeline, although some may drop out.[48] In September, the Government announced that it was accepting the recommendations of the Prison Service Pay Review Body and giving prison officers an average pay increase of 1.7% in order to help recruitment and retention – breaking the public sector pay cap.[49]

The combination of staff reductions since 2010, and current moves to recruit officers, means that experience levels among staff are changing, as detailed in Box 4.3.

Box 4.3: Experience among prison officers [50]

The proportion of Band 3–5 officers with less than two years’ experience is rising: from 15.7% in March 2016 to 24% in March 2017.

At the same time, the proportion of officers with 10 years’ or more experience is falling: from 63.4% in March 2016 to 61% a year later.


Many of the Government’s efforts to boost staff numbers have centred around recruitment, but major problems persist with the retention of prison officers. In the 12 months to June 2017, the leaving rate for Band 3–5 officers was 9.3%, an increase of 1.4 percentage points on the previous year.[51] High turnover also means that, to have 2,500 net new officers in place, many more will need to be recruited. The House of Commons Justice Committee previously found that, in 2015, when 2,250 officers were recruited, high leaving rates meant that the net gain was only 440 staff.[52]

The size of the prison population remains broadly constant.

Prison population in England and Wales

In June 2017, there were 85,863 prisoners across England and Wales – a slight increase on the 85,134 in June 2016. Due to the steady levels of the prison population, overcrowding has not significantly worsened in recent years. In 2016/17, 24.4% of prisoners were held in crowded conditions, compared to 24.5% in 2015/16.[53]

However, although the prison population has been stable in recent years, it has significantly increased since the mid-1990s: between 1995 and 2010 the population rose by 66%.[54] Therefore, while the number of prisoners held in crowded conditions has remained steady since 2009, it has increased over the longer term: the proportion of prisoners held in doubled accommodation – where two prisoners are held in a cell designed for one – rose from 16.5% of prisoners in 1995/96 to 23.6% in 2016/17, as the estate struggled to cope with an increasing population.[55] In February 2017, a new ‘super-prison’, HMP Berwyn, opened in Wrexham, with the capacity to hold over 2,000 inmates.[56] One month later, the Government announced plans to create 5,000 ‘modern’ prison places by 2020, by opening two new facilities and redeveloping two existing prisons.[57]

The demography of the population is also changing, creating new and future pressures. For one thing, the prison population is becoming notably older: between 2002 and 2016, the number of prisoners aged over 50 almost trebled, with 12,600 prisoners aged over 50 in 2016 – around a seventh of the prison population.[58] The number of prisoners aged over 70 is expected to rise by 35% by 2020.[59] This is partly due to changes in the mix of offences, in particular historical sex offences, which have contributed to a higher average custodial sentence length.[60] These offenders are also more likely to be older. The ageing prison population may raise new challenges for HMPPS, for example in terms of the design of prison buildings, and the provision of health care services and end-of-life care.

But rates of violence continue to rise – assaults on staff have risen by 124% since 2009.

Change in number of prison assaults

In the year to March 2017, there were 26,643 assaults in prisons – a record high. There were 7,159 assaults on staff, a 124% increase on the year to March 2009. This continues a trend seen since 2013. In the last year alone, assaults on staff have increased by 32%.[61] The number of serious assaults on staff has also risen – from 282 in the year to March 2009, to 805 in the year to March 2017. Much of this increase has also come since 2013 – rates of serious assaults on staff have almost trebled since then.[62]

Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults also continue to rise. There were 19,361 incidents in the year to March, a 53% increase on the year to March 2009. The number of serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults has risen 21% in the last year, from 2,334 to 2,825.[63]

Levels of violence are such that, of the 29 local and training prisons inspected in the last year, 21 were rated ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ in relation to safety.[64] HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) was clear that increased violence can be related, at least in part, to staff shortages, which “make it impossible to provide a decent, rehabilitative environment” and lead to restricted regimes, causing greater frustration.[65]

The increased presence of new psychoactive substances (NPS) in prisons is also thought to have worsened violence, given the specifically behaviour-altering properties of such substances.[66] Government has moved to curb NPS. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 made possession of NPS within custodial institutions an off  nce, and mandatory drug tests can now cover NPS. Greater use is also to be made of sniffer dogs in detecting drugs. However, in 2016, 225 kilos of drugs were found in prisons, suggesting that NPSs remain prevalent.[67] Some prisons have now begun to supply advice to new prisoners on how to reduce the risks of harm from drugs – although HMIP has warned that too many prisons lack eff ctive strategies to respond to the problem.[68]

And rates of self-harm have increased by 56% since 2009

Change in number of self-harm incidents

The increased presence of NPS in prisons has been linked to rising incidents of self- harm.[69] Between March 2009 and March 2017, the number of self-harm incidents in prisons across England and Wales rose by 56%, with 40,414 incidents recorded in the past year. This is a 17% increase on 2016 levels. While rates of self-harm have stabilised over the last five quarters, they have done so at record highs. The proportion of incidents requiring hospital attendance has also risen over the period, from 5.1% in 2009 to 6.9% in 2017 (a slight decrease from the 7.1% of incidents in 2016). Rising rates of self-harm and assaults led the Prison Reform Trust to conclude that those within prisons are “less safe than they have been at any point since records began”.[70]

Mental health problems among the prison population are also a persistent concern, as detailed in Box 4.4.

Box 4.4: Mental health among the prison population

Prisoners are generally more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general population, reflecting more common personal histories of complex problems such as abuse and substance misuse among the prison population.[71]

When screened on arrival at prison, 23% of prisoners report previous contact with mental health services.[72]

Surveys by HMIP suggest that at any one time, 37% of the monthly prison population have mental health or wellbeing issues.[73]

The provision of mental health services in prisons is subject to a partnership agreement between Public Health England, NHS England and HMPPS. The NAO has argued that this lacks clear objectives, and that the quality of government data about mental health in prisons must improve. It has called for a “step change in effort and resources”.[74] Although HMIP has identified good psychosocial interventions for treating substance misuse in many prisons, it also noted that in many prisons, problems with violence and staff shortages mean that prisoners struggle to attend their appointments.[75]

Opportunities for prisoners to engage in purposeful activity remain far below 2010/11 levels.

Change in offenders achieving level 1 or 2 qualifications in English and Maths

Violence can also affect the functioning of prisons in other ways. The opportunity for purposeful activity – such as work or exercise – may be curtailed as prisons run reduced regimes, keeping prisoners locked in their cells for longer each day in order to curb the chance of violence. In some prisons, inmates may spend up to 22 hours a day locked in their cells – which can also contribute to a ‘sense of frustration’ that may itself spill over into violence.[76] Disturbances at HMP The Mount in August 2017 were linked to increased hours spent locked in cells.[77] The Chief Inspector of Prisons found that in 2015/16, only 14% of prisoners were unlocked for 10 hours a day.[78]

The Government’s 2016 Prison Safety and Reform white paper clearly outlined its commitment to prisons as places of reform and rehabilitation, including through giving prisoners the opportunity to gain qualifications.[79] However, the number of offenders gaining level 1 or 2 qualifications in English and maths has not improved since 2014/15. In 2015/16, 34% fewer prisoners gained a basic English qualification than in 2010/11, and 29% fewer a maths qualification. Both of these figures were slightly down on 2014/15.

*     Workforce statistics from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) – formerly the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – cover “Staff who are employed by HMPPS, who are all civil servants. Other workers within HMPPS who are employed by third parties, either within contracted areas of delivery such as private sector prisons or CRCs or as contractors and other contingent workers, including other non-civil service public sector employees, within HMPPS are not included. Also excluded are voluntary workers, HMPPS staff on loan, on secondment out, and those on a career break”. See Ministry of Justice (2017), Guide to Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) Workforce Statistics, p.7, Guide to workforce statistics - 30 June 2017.