Almost 20,000 prisoners were kept in overcrowded cells last year, figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveal today (2 September).

New research by the charity illustrates the true scale of prison overcrowding in England and Wales – showing that the problem is far greater than ministers have suggested.

The figures show that, during the financial year 2012-13, about 19,140 prisoners on average were forced to share a cell designed for one person.

A further 777 prisoners were made to sleep three to a cell, when the cells were designed to accommodate only two.

Official government prison population announcements mask the full extent of overcrowding because they do not state how many cells are holding more prisoners than they are designed to.

The worst-affected prison in England and Wales was Wandsworth, where on a typical day 835 prisoners were forced to share cells which contain an open toilet.

Other overcrowded prisons included Altcourse, Doncaster, Birmingham, Pentonville, Preston, Manchester, Elmley, Nottingham and Durham.

The figures come less than a week after a report showed prison staff numbers have fallen by 17% over the last four years.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “At last, we have the picture of the real state of overcrowding in our prisons. It’s far worse than anyone imagined: one in four people behind bars are packed like sardines into cramped cells.

It should come as little surprise that such crowded conditions leave staff hugely overstretched, especially as more are being laid off. This means there are little to no opportunities for prisoners to work, learn or take courses to turn them away from crime.

Prison Bars by Andrew bardwell via Wikimedia Commons

Prison Bars by Andrew bardwell via Wikimedia Commons

Staff cuts and overcrowding mean that grown men spend all weekend and up to 22 hours a day during the week cooped up like battery chickens – no wonder violence and self-injury is rife.

If the Ministry of Justice is serious about reducing reoffending it must tackle overcrowding now. Successive governments have peddled the lie that you can build your way out of a prisons overcrowding problem.

While public services are being cut, ministers should look at more effective and affordable solutions. They need to address the fact the prison population has doubled in just 20 years and move people on to community sentences.

Government assessments published last month show that every probation service in the country is working efficiently at keeping the public safe, whilst failing prisons contribute to the crime problem.

We can have the prisons that taxpayers deserve – ones that turn lives around rather than coop people up and make them more dangerous – but only if numbers are seriously reduced.

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