Improving the prison estate Contents

1Maintaining the prison estate

1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison & Probation Service on improving the prison estate.1

2.There were 79,393 people in prison in England and Wales on 26 June 2020 across the 117 prisons within the prison estate.2 HM Prison & Probation Service (HMPPS), an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice (the Ministry), is responsible for managing the prison estate in England and Wales and protecting the public from harm caused by offenders. It aims to rehabilitate offenders by ensuring that prisons are decent, safe and productive places to live and work. In 2018–19, HMPPS spent around £1.67 billion to operate prisons and £183 million on capital spending. This included £113 million on maintenance and £71 million on constructing prisons and reorganising the estate.3

The Ministry’s 2015 spending review settlement

3.As an unprotected department, the Ministry was subject to budget cuts over the past 10 years. In practice, this meant less money was available for prisons.4 The Ministry admitted that its 2015 Spending Review settlement was “fundamentally unbalanced” and placed it on an insecure financial footing. We asked the Ministry what had gone so badly wrong and what steps it had taken to ensure it was not in a similar position in future. It explained that, with hindsight, the settlement was based on “vastly undercooked” estimates of its resource spending and unrealistic expectations of both how much income it would receive and how much money it could drive out of the legal aid system. It admitted that “twice a year we had to go cap in hand to the Treasury, and it was not a great position for the Department to be in”. In order to balance its books, the Ministry was forced to divert capital spending from within the Department to cover day-to-day operating costs.5

4.Unrealistic expectations and the financial pressures created by the Ministry’s spending review settlement meant that the Ministry and HMPPS were unable to deliver the Prison Estate Transformation programme (the Programme) as planned. In 2016, HMPPS launched the Programme to address concerns about crowded and unsafe prison conditions and reconfigure the estate.6 It originally planned to create 10,000 new-for old-prison places by 2020 by building five new prisons and two new residential blocks.7 The Programme was expected to be part-funded by closing and disposing of old, unsuitable prisons and aimed to save £80 million each year. By January 2020, HMPPS had created 206 prison places. The Programme ran for almost three years before it was superseded by a government announcement in August 2019 committing to create a further 10,000 prison places, in addition to the 3,566 now expected to be built under the Programme.8 HMPPS now aims to deliver a total of 13,566 new prison places, including 6,500 places by 2025–26 through four new prisons.9

5.The Ministry accepted that the Programme had also been characterised by over-ambitious and unrealistic targets. It told us that its financial settlement had forced it to rely on the Treasury to bail it out, and that Treasury had withdrawn backing for the Programme as it needed the Ministry to spend the money intended for the Programme elsewhere. The Ministry therefore had to submit a new business case for the Programme on four separate occasions. We asked whether the Ministry was confident that it would not get into a similar situation in the future. The Ministry assured us that it had learned the lessons that it needed to and was now in a “better and more sustainable” financial position with the money it needed to deliver.10

6.The NAO concluded that achieving value for money within the prison estate would ultimately depend on HMPPS working with the Ministry of Justice and HM Treasury to develop a long-term, deliverable strategy that will provide an estate that is fit for purpose.11 In the absence of an approved long-term strategy, HMPPS has been focussing on the immediate needs of the prison estate, investing its resources on addressing prison population pressures and deteriorating prison conditions.12 We were concerned that this approach, together with the Ministry’s 2015 spending review settlement, had resulted in it living hand-to-mouth without an overall strategy for the prison estate. The Ministry accepted that it had been slow to develop a prison strategy, but told us that it now had the ingredients of a strategy and was confident it was moving in the right direction. It hoped that, if we were to revisit the issue in six months after the next Spending Review, it would have a strategy in place.13

Living conditions within prisons

7.Deteriorating conditions within the prison estate have been a concern for many years. HM Inspectorate of Prisons (the Inspectorate) has consistently reported that many prisoners endure unsafe, poor and overcrowded living conditions. Between 2015–16 and 2019–20, the Inspectorate rated more than 40% of prisons it inspected as ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ for safety.14 In their written evidence to us, stakeholders and academics also told us of the “dreadful … and often totally inappropriate conditions” within prisons.15 The Ministry recognised that the prison estate did not meet the basic standards of being decent and secure, and told us that this was a key driver in its aspiration to renew the estate.16

8.Poor conditions and crowding within the prison estate are in large part the result of historical under-investment in maintenance. HMPPS regularly has to take prison cells out of permanent use because of the state of disrepair. Between 2009–10 and 2019–20, HMPPS took 1,730 prison cells permanently out of use for failing to meet the required legislative and prison standards. The rate at which prison cells are lost has increased, with HMPPS taking 939 cells (54%) out of use in the last three years. Based on recent trends, HMPPS expected to lose a further 500 places annually owing to the scale of disrepair.17

9.Lack of investment has also resulted in severe maintenance backlogs within the prison estate. As at April 2019, HMPPS had around 63,200 outstanding maintenance jobs. HMPPS also estimated that it would cost £916 million to address its backlog of major capital works. It forecasts that it will need to spend £194 million each year over the next 25 years for maintenance costs. We asked it why, despite this, it had underspent its budget for capital maintenance by £24 million. HMPPS told us that its maintenance programmes relied on certainty of funding across several years in order to go ahead, and that the rising prison population meant that the programmes were more complex to schedule. It told us that it was working hard to put any underspends into prison maintenance and that the £156 million additional funding secured from government would help bring more cells back into use. It assured us that the funding available for this year would stabilise the prison estate so that it would not continue to lose 500 places per year.18 We similarly asked the Ministry what its plans were to tackle the £900 million maintenance backlog that had built up across the estate. The Ministry accepted that major investment in maintenance within the prison estate was needed to improve conditions, and told us that it was starting work on this.19

10.Research commissioned by HMPPS found that the prison environment, including the condition of accommodation, played a role in how prisoners behave.20 Between 2015 and 2018, among adult prisoners, key indicators of poor safety in prisons reached all-time highs. This included a 110% increase in prisoner assaults on staff; a 63% increase in prisoner-on-prisoner assaults; and an alarming 73% increase in self-harm incidents. In addition, between 2015 and 2018, there were 378 self-inflicted deaths in prison custody.21 We heard from Professor Dominique Moran, who told us that records levels of self-harm and violence within prisons came at immense personal cost to the prisoners and staff involved, as well as carrying significant costs for the prison system.22

11.We asked HMPPS why it tolerated such unacceptable levels of prisoner assaults on staff and what it was doing to reduce levels of assaults on staff and self-inflicted deaths. HMPPS asserted that it was very concerned by the number of assaults on staff and was working to reduce this through more staff, the introduction of key workers to improve relations between prisoners and staff, the offender management programme and other activities. It told us that in the 12 months to March 2020 the number of prisoner assaults on staff had fallen 4%, although we note this figure is nonetheless a substantial increase since 2015. HMPPS similarly told us that it was very worried by the extent of self-harm within prisons. It explained it was working to help prisoners with their mental health and to feel safe and secure in prison, including new procedures and processes for people who were of concern.23

Facilities management in the prison estate

12.Against a backdrop of worsening living conditions for prisoners, HMPPS changed the way in which it maintains prisons and launched a programme to improve the condition and suitability of prison accommodation. In 2015 it contracted Amey and Carillion to provide facilities management across the prison estate. HMPPS’ decision to outsource facilities management was driven by the need to make savings and meet spending reduction commitments made by the Ministry. It estimated that outsourcing facilities management would save £79 million a year between 2014–15 and 2020–21.24 The Ministry admitted that “everything was driven by cost savings and by price”.25

13.We last examined the Ministry’s progress in outsourcing its probation services in May 2019. We concluded that in its haste to rush through its reforms, the Ministry of Justice had not only failed to deliver its ‘rehabilitation revolution’ but left probation services underfunded and fragile. We warned that if it did not put into practice the lessons from its failed reforms, the Ministry was in danger of repeating the same mistakes again.26 The Ministry accepted that there were similarities between its transforming rehabilitation programme and its approach to outsourcing facilities management. It admitted that it had prioritised acting quickly and achieving savings that were unrealistic and had made mistakes as a result. It recognised that it had taken a complex service to a market that was brand new, with complicated contracts, cost incentives that were in the wrong place and assumptions that were not properly tested. It also explained that it had outsourced “hundreds and hundreds” of small contracts or in-house services and put them out to the sector “without what it was that we were asking the sector to do”. As a result, providers had taken on the facilities management contracts without being able to fully understand what they were taking on.27

14.We asked the Ministry why it kept making the same mistakes when it came to contracting out services and how it would avoid these in future. The Ministry told us that it would no longer let contracts using the approach that it took in 2015. It explained that the main lesson it had learned from first-generation outsourcing was that it needed to know what it was outsourcing in much more detail. It told us that in both transforming rehabilitation and facilities management, it had been a mistake to try to outsource a problem, and that it would have been better to first work out what the problem was, fix it and then outsource the service. It assured us that with the next generation of contracts it was taking its time, including undertaking a comprehensive asset survey, and that it was pricing the contracts correctly to incentivise quality rather than cost.28

15.Following Carillion’s collapse in January 2018, the Ministry established Gov Facility Services Limited (GFSL), a not-for-profit government company, to assume responsibility for its work.29 The Ministry told us that its contract with Carillion was “a mess” and badly managed.30 It explained that it had known that its contract with Carillion was going “badly wrong” and it had looked at whether it could exit. It explained that it had been locked into the contract and it would have been very expensive to exit and bring the services in-house. The Ministry told us that it now had a much stronger commercial function, with skilled and capable staff, and that the Crown commercial function was also stronger, so it was confident it was now much better at outsourcing.31

16.One of the consequences of the Ministry not understanding its assets prior to letting the contracts was that demand for reactive maintenance work as a result of poor-quality assets or vandalism cost the taxpayer almost £143 million more than expected between 2015–16 and the first half of 2019–20.32 We asked why it had taken HMPPS so long to understand the condition of the assets in the prison estate. HMPPS told us that, under the first generation of contracts, providers were responsible for producing a detailed survey but the quality of what was provided was mixed so it had decided to undertake this centrally. It expected to start the survey in January 2019 but had difficulty finding providers to take on the work due to a lack of interest. HMPPS started a pilot survey using its own staff in two prisons in April 2020. It told us that it was now two-thirds of the way through its asset survey and had captured data for three-quarters of the sites it needed to include in the survey. It also told us that two prisons, at Birmingham and Onley, were now using live asset data to manage their day-to-day operations. Prior to the pandemic, HMPPS expected the pilot surveys to be complete by August 2020.33 It explained it had revised its timetable and was now “working quickly”. HMPPS accepted that it had been somewhat naïve to expect providers to be able to produce a better quality asset registers than it was able to, and asserted that it had learned lessons from this experience.34 Both the Ministry and HMPPS told us that the survey that was now being undertaken would provide a much more comprehensive and detailed inventory of the assets in the prison estate.35

The female prison estate

17.We asked the Ministry what percentage of those in prison were women and how many prisons in England and Wales held female offenders. The Ministry accepted that these were numbers that it could reasonably be expected to know, but it was not able to provide them when we asked. Of the 117 prisons in England and Wales, 12 hold female offenders. Female prisoners represent around 5% of the overall prison population.36

18.As a result of our questioning, we were concerned that the female prison estate was a Cinderella service within the prison system. HMPPS removed plans to build new places for female prisoners from the Prison Estate Transformation Programme, as its Female Offender Strategy, launched in June 2018, superseded the programme’s plans. We asked why the Prison Estate Transformation programme did not cover the female estate and how witnesses would ensure that the estate did not deteriorate because it was forgotten. The Ministry explained that the government’s strategy for the female prison estate was different to that for offenders overall to take into account the “different nature of women offending and the positions in which women find themselves when they get into trouble with the law”.37 In written evidence, De Montfort University similarly told us that women had gendered pathways into crime and therefore gendered pathways out of crime.38 The Ministry told us that the government’s strategy for female offenders was focused on community services and the women’s centres rather than on building prisons. The strategy aims to reduce demand for female prison places by emphasising earlier intervention and community-based rehabilitation, so there are fewer women in the criminal justice system and serving custodial sentences.39 Community alternatives to prison have shown to be effective for women, but to date have been starved of investment.40

19.One of the largest women’s prisons, HMP Holloway in London, was closed in 2016. HMPPS sold the prison in March 2019 and generated £81.5 million from the proceeds.41 We were concerned that such a large amount of money had come out of the female prison estate but appeared to have been spent on improving the men’s prisons estate. We therefore asked how much of the money raised by the sale of HMP Holloway was reinvested in the female prison estate. HMPPS told us that some of the money was used in the female prison estate but did not tell us how much this was. It said that the money from the sale was returned to the Ministry and subsequently used for “a number of purposes”. The Ministry confirmed that that the money went partly to its programme to build new prisons and partly to fund its general overspend.42

20.We acknowledged that the female prison estate was a small part of the overall prison estate, but asked whether the Ministry thought it was nonetheless important to ensure that some of its reinvestment benefitted women prisoners to avoid them becoming more marginalised. The Ministry committed to ensuring that “the right amount and proportion of the money available to us is invested in the women’s estate”.43 HMPPS accepted that a lot remained to be done in investing in the women’s estate and it needed to think carefully about the issue. It told us that it had not yet decided how many of its planned new prison places, or its investment in maintenance to bring accommodation back into use, would be within the female prison estate.44 The Ministry confirmed that its promised strategy for the prison estate would include the female prison estate when it was published later this year.45

21.In its written evidence, De Montfort University told us that ‘softer’ services such as contact with family, education, work based training, peer support and therapy were of huge importance in the rehabilitation of prisoners. It also told us that therapeutic community-based interventions had a greater success rate for female offenders than a prison sentence.46 Despite there being other issues with the condition of the prison, HMP Holloway had a good reputation for therapeutic interventions. We were concerned that prisoners who would have been held at Holloway were now held in prisons outside London and no longer had access to the services it provided. HMPPS told us that it had tried to keep some of the good practice that had been established in Holloway and to ensure prisoners have access to therapeutic activities. In 2016, 22 women died in prison, of which 12 were self-inflicted deaths, the highest level on record. We asked HMPPS whether it thought there was any links between the closure of HMP Holloway in 2016 and the number of women who die in prison. HMPPS told us that it had not seen any evidence to suggest that there was a link between the two. It confirmed that it was concerned about the extent of self-harm within women’s prisons, and was focused on ensuring people had access to the right support.47

22.We also received written evidence from the Prison Reform Trust, which told us that women continue to serve their sentences largely in prisons designed for men and in locations far from home.48 We were therefore concerned that there were no female prisons in Wales. HMPPS recognised that enabling offenders to keep in contact with their families was important. It told us that it tried to place women as close to their home as possible, but that this was difficult for offenders from Wales. It explained that it had prioritised introducing in-cell technology within the female prison estate so that female offenders could stay in contact with their families. The Ministry confirmed that five of the 12 women’s prisons now had in-cell technology, and that four more would receive it this year, meaning that all closed women’s prisons would then have in-cell technology. HMPPS told us that women prisoners had found the in-cell technology enormously beneficial. We also welcomed HMPPs’ confirmation that it would be introducing a women’s centre in Wales as an alternative to custody.49


1 C&AG’s report, Improving the Prison Estate, HC 41, Session 2019–20, 7 February 2020

2 Qq 1, 21, IPE0009 - Improving the prison estate, Howard League for Penal Reform, 1 July 2020

3 C&AG’s report, paras 1.1–1.2, IPE0006 - Improving the prison estate, Professor Nicola Padfield, University of Cambridge, 1 July 2020

4 Qq 53–54, C&AG’s report, para 1.2

5 Qq 34, 53–55

6 C&AG’s report, paras 13, 3.1

7 C&AG’s report, Figure 9

8 Qq 1, 107, 111, C&AG’s report, paras 3.1–3.3

9 Qq 6–8

10 Qq 53, 56

11 Q 112, C&AG’s report Appendix 1

12 C&AG’s report, para 1.17

13 Qq 95, 112

14 Q 32, C&AG’s report, para 5, 1.4–1.5

15 IPE0006 - Improving the prison estate, Professor Nicola Padfield (Professor of Criminal and Penal Justice at University of Cambridge), 1 July 2020; IPE0008 - Improving the prison estate, Transition to Adulthood Alliance, 1 July 2020; IPE0003 - Improving the prison estate, Prison Reform Trust, 1 July 2020

16 Q 29

17 Q 31, C&AG’s report paras 8, 1.4, 1.12

18 Qq 34–37, C&AG’s report paras 8, 1.13–1.14

19 Qq 31–33

20 HM Prison & Probation Service, Understanding prison violence: A rapid evidence assessment, analytical summary, 2018, C&AG’s report, para 1.4

21 Qq 47, 52, C&AG’s report, para 1.4

22 IPE0002 - Improving the prison estate, Professor Dominique Moran, 1 July 2020

23 Q 47–50, 52

24 C&AG’s report, para 2, 2.2–2.3

25 Q 63

26 Committee of Public Accounts, Transforming Rehabilitation: A progress review, Ninety-Fourth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 1747, 3 May 2019

27 Qq 53, 63, 65

28 Qq 63, 65

29 C&AG’s report, para 2.3

30 Qq 63, 77

31 Qq 67–68

32 Q 77, C&AG’s report Figure 6

33 Qq 69, 71–72, C&AG’s report, para 2.9

34 Qq 70, 72

35 Qq 65, 69, 73

36 Qq 79–80, 82, C&AG’s report Figure 1

37 Qq 81–82, C&AG’s report, Figure 9

38 IPE0004 - Improving the prison estate, DeMontford University, 1 July 2020, para 27

39 Q 81, C&AG’s report, Figure 9

40 IPE0003 - Improving the prison estate, Prison Reform Trust, 1 July 2020; IPE0004 - Improving the prison estate, DeMontfort University, 1 July 2020; and IPE0009 - IPE0009 - Improving the prison estate, Howard League for Penal Reform 1 July 2020

41 Qq 84–86, 89, HMPPS, Annual Report and Accounts 2018–19, HC 2291, 18 July 2019

42 Qq 86, 91

43 Q 92

44 Q 86

45 Q 82

46 IPE0004 - Improving the prison estate, DeMontford University, 1 July 2020, para 20

47 Qq 88–90, IPE0002 - Improving the prison estate, Professor Dominique Moran, 1 July 2020

48 IPE0003 - Improving the prison estate, Prison Reform Trust, 1 July 2020

49 Qq 82, 86–87, 90, 93




Published: 11 September 2020