Spending on prisons fell over the past six years, leading to a large reduction in the number of prison officers, while the prison population remained the same. A sharp rise in violence and safety concerns eventually forced the Government to announce an additional 2,500 prison officers by 2018. 

Spending on prisons decreased in real terms by 21% between 2009/10 and 2015/16. 

Change in spending on prisons in England and Wales

In 2009/10, spending on prisons was £3.48bn. This decreased by 21% to £2.75bn in 2015/16, which accounted for 41% of Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spending (£6.7bn) that year. 

The prison population remained relatively static over the past six years. 

Prison population in England and Wales, 2009–2016

In June 2009, the prison population was 83,391. This increased by 2,657 prisoners to over 86,000 in June 2012; since then, the prison population has remained steady – ending a long-term increase in numbers over the previous decade. As of June 2016, the total prison population was 85,134.[72]

Prisons are not more overcrowded today than they were six years ago. In 2009/10, the prison population as a whole stood at 109% of in-use ‘certified normal accommodation’ (CNA), the level at which a decent standard of accommodation can be provided to all prisoners. It decreased to 106% in 2012/13 and returned to 108% in 2015/16. This meant that 6,434 more prisoners were held in prisons than they were designed to accommodate.[73]

Although the total prison population has remained the same, and overcrowding is not a new challenge, the complexity of that demand has increased with a more serious mix of offence groups coming before the courts (for example, those committing violence against the person, drug offences and sexual offences). This has made the prison population harder to manage.[74]

There are now a quarter fewer prison officers than in 2010, responsible for similar numbers of prisoners. 

There are now a quarter fewer prison officers than in 2010

Between 2010 and 2014, the total number of core operational staff in public sector prisons – band 3 prison officers, band 4 officer specialists and supervising officers, and band 5 custodial managers – decreased by over a quarter (27%), from 24,830 in March 2010 to 18,251 in March 2014.[75] Since then, the headcount has remained broadly stable. Alongside the reduction in staff numbers, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) made changes to pay and terms and conditions (for example, by offering lower starting salaries and freezing pay), and closed down 16 older prisons as part of a wider efficiency drive.[76]

These policies helped to keep spending under control, but strains are now appearing in the workforce. For instance, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit and retain experienced officers (many of whom left the service through voluntary redundancy arrangements).[77] The Prison Service Pay Review Body report in 2016 also highlighted staff shortages, increased workloads, unsociable working hours and inadequate pay as common complaints.[78] This is reinforced by the 2016 Civil Service People Survey,* in which less than half (47%) of those who responded felt that they had an acceptable workload, less than a quarter (23%) were satisfied with their total benefits package and only 16% agreed that when changes are made in the prison service, they are usually for the better.[79] Although morale in the prison service has never been high (and has in fact improved since last year),[80] the recent sharp rise in violence is creating an increasingly challenging operational environment. 

Violence in prisons is rising sharply – assaults on staff have increased by around 70% since 2009. 

Percentage change in the number of prison assaults

Up until 2011/12, safety outcomes were on an upward trajectory (continuing a trend seen since 2006/07). However, in 2014, the direction of travel changed and the situation began to worsen rapidly. Safety outcomes are currently worse than at any time over the past decade, and levels of violence are soaring.[81]

In the 12 months to March 2016, there were 22,195 assaults in prisons – an increase of 40.7% since 2009. During this period, the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults rose by nearly one-third from 12,674 to 16,724. However, the sharpest rise was seen in the number of prisoners assaulting staff, which increased by around 70% from 3,191 to 5,423. Of these, assaults designated ‘serious’ more than doubled, from 282 to 646, with some managers having been taken hostage in their own prisons.[82] In extreme cases, order has completely broken down – as the riots at HMP Bedford and HMP Moorland in November 2016 demonstrate.

Rising levels of violence across the board (see Box 5.1) are placing an already-stressed workforce under severe pressure.[83] The HM Inspectorate of Prisons annual report highlighted that prisons are struggling to resource safer custody teams,[84] and nearly one-third of prisons (29.7%) in 2015/16 did not have effective strategies in place to respond to growing levels of violence.[85]

In November 2016, staff shortages and escalating violence in prisons sparked mass walkouts by prison officers. In response, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced a £104m recruitment drive for an additional 2,500 prison officers by 2018 ‘to tackle urgent prison safety issues’ and help prisoners turn their lives around.[86] The extra prison officers represent a 13.6% increase on the existing 18,327 officers, in effect reversing nearly half of the staff cuts made since 2010. It will take time, however, for new staff to get up to speed and fully operational.[87]

Box 5.1: Violence in prisons

Self-harm: In the 12 months to March 2016, there were 34,586 self-harm incidents – an increase of around one-third on 2009 levels (with over 25% more incidents than in the 12 months to March 2015).

Self-inflicted deaths: In the 12 months to June 2016, there were 105 self-inflicted deaths – an increase of two-thirds on 2009 figures.


Increasing violence in prisons is linked to the prevalence of new synthetic drugs, but there has been a steep drop in the number of offenders completing substance misuse programmes… 

there has been a steep drop in the number of offenders completing substance misuse programmes

According to HM Inspectorate of Prisons, much of the violence in prisons can be linked to the availability of new psychoactive substances (NPS), which exacerbate problems of debt, bullying, self-harm and violence. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman recently identified 39 deaths in prisons between June 2013 and June 2015 that can be linked to the use of NPS, but noted that many prisons did not have effective strategies in place to tackle drug trafficking.[88]

Indeed, there have been sharp reductions in the types of activity that could help to tackle drug dependency – for example, there has been an 88% fall in the number of offenders completing accredited substance misuse programmes, from 7,655 in 2009/10 to 931 in 2014/15. The turning point was 2012/13, which marked the largest drop in substance misuse programme completions. This can be partly explained by the transfer of responsibility for funding and commissioning substance misuse interventions from the MoJ to the Department of Health in April 2011.[89]

In November 2016, the Government announced a number of reforms to tackle the drug problem in prisons – for example, by introducing mandatory testing of all offenders on entry and exit from prison and creating ‘no-fly zones’ over jails to address the new use of drones to drop drugs over prison walls.[90]

…and prisoners have fewer opportunities to engage in physical exercise, education and work that could aid rehabilitation. 

prisoners have fewer opportunities to engage in physical exercise, education and work that could aid rehabilitation

Despite the rhetoric surrounding the Coalition Government’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has found that acute staff shortages are forcing some prisons to introduce restricted regimes and limit access to purposeful activities, such as physical exercise, education and work.[91] For example, the total number of offenders achieving level 1 or 2 qualifications in English sharply declined by 59% from 11,760 in 2010/11 to 4,830 in 2012/13, while the number of offenders achieving level 1 or 2 in maths fell by nearly half (46%) over the same period, from 10,950 to 5,950. Since then, the rate of achievement has improved, but still remains much lower than in 2010/11.

MoJ and NOMS – soon to become HM Prisons and Probation Service – do have revised plans in place to address these difficult issues. In November 2016, the Secretary of State for Justice Liz Truss announced new measures to support rehabilitation in prisons, including giving governors greater control over education and health budgets.[92]

Time will tell whether this will have an impact on reoffending rates. The latest available data is for offenders released from custody between April 2014 and March 2015 – their reoffending rate was 44.7%. This represents only a 1.1 percentage point fall compared with the previous year, and a 3.9 percentage point fall since 2004.**

* The response rate was 29% (compared with a civil service average of 65%).

** For a definition of how reoffending is measured, see Ministry of Justice, Statistics Bulletin: Proven reoffending statistics quarterly bulletin, January to December 2014, England and Wales, 27 October 2016, p. 3.