The Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service have failed in their attempts to improve the condition and suitability of the prison estate. Despite promises to create 10,000 new-for-old prison places by 2020, just 206 new places have been delivered so far, and prisoners continue to be held in unsafe, crowded conditions that do not meet their needs. Budget cuts imposed at a time of much promised reform across the department have exacerbated the challenges to these ambitious programmes which have been on the cards for over a decade. As we saw with the Ministry’s inability to successfully contract out services during probation reforms, the Ministry has once again exposed taxpayers to higher than expected costs as a result of inadequate planning, unrealistic assumptions and poor performance whilst managing facilities within prisons. HMPPS has allowed a staggering backlog of maintenance work to build up that will cost more than £900 million to address. This means that 500 prison places are taken permanently out of action each year due to their poor condition. Prisons play a crucial role in supporting prisoners to stay away from crime on their release and reduce the £18.1 billion cost to the economy of reoffending each year. The poor condition of many prisons, coupled with high levels of overcrowding, are contributing to dangerously high levels of violence and self-harm in prisons. Despite our recommendations in May 2019, there is still no sign of a cross-government strategy for reducing reoffending.
Although COVID-19 has eased pressure on demand for prison places in the short-term, we are concerned about the Ministry’s ability to both improve the condition of the estate, and meet rising demand through building new prison places in the medium to long-term. The Ministry’s track record does not inspire confidence, and there is limited headroom in the prison estate to allow the space for vital maintenance work. The Ministry is now optimistic about both its capacity and capability to improve the prison estate and its future financial position. But it will need to demonstrate it has learnt lessons from its past failures and that it has a coherent long-term and fully funded plan in order to make genuine progress.
Published: 11 September 2020