The situation today

The situation today

All statistics are from the Prison Reform Trust's summer 2021 Bromley briefing unless other links are provided.


The prison population in England and Wales has increased by 74% since 1990, from just over 40,000 to 78,000, and is projected to rise by a further 20,000 people by 2026.

In England and Wales we overuse prison for petty and persistent crime. Over 40,000 people were sent to prison in 2020; 63% had committed a non-violent offence and 44% were sentenced to serve six months or less.


16% of people in prison are on remand, of which 68% are awaiting trial and the rest are awaiting sentencing. Black men are 26% more likely and mixed ethnicity men 22% more likely to be remanded in custody at the Crown Court than white men. 28% of self-inflicted deaths in 2020 involved people held on remand (far higher than the proportion of the prison population they represent). Around one in four people on remand go on to receive a non-custodial sentence or to be acquitted, which makes it hard to justify the policy of remanding people in custody on either cost or fairness grounds.


Short prison sentences are less effective than community sentences at reducing reoffending. Community sentences are particularly effective for those who have a large number of previous offences and people with mental health problems, but their use is a third of the level of a decade ago. Research by NEF found that for every pound invested in support-focused alternatives to prison, £14 worth of social value is generated to women and their children, victims and society over ten years. At the same time, the supervision of community sentences for minor crimes by privatised probation providers (community rehabilitation companies) has been disastrous.


Rehabilitation is failing. 48% of adult prisoners are reconvicted of another offence within a year of release. Only 10% of people are in employment six weeks after leaving prison, and after a year, the figure rises to just 17%. Only half of people released from prison in 2019/2020 had settled accommodation on release, and more than one in six were homeless or sleeping rough.

Ethnic minorities

There are multiple disparities in the way that people from ethnic minorities are treated by the criminal justice system. For example:

  • 27% of the prison population are from ethnic minorities. If our prison population reflected the make-up of England and Wales, we would have over 9,000 fewer people in prison - the equivalent of 12 average-sized prisons.
  • Black men are 228% more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.
  • Black people are 53%, Asian 55%, and other ethnic groups 81% more likely than white people to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court.
  • The 2017 Lammy Review found that BAME individuals still face bias, including overt discrimination, in parts of the justice system, and that BAME disproportionality in the criminal justice system costs the taxpayer at least £309 million per year. It also found that BAME men are more than 50% more likely than white men to plead ‘not guilty’ at Crown court, which could be influenced by “the legal advice they receive, the type of legal representation they have, if any, the level of trust they place in any sentencing discounts they may receive for early guilty pleas, the defendant’s assessment of their chances with a jury, as well as whether they actually committed the offence with which they were charged”.

5% of men and 7% of women in prison say that they are Gypsy, Roma or Traveller, compared to an estimated 0.1% of the general population in England. Inspectors found that most prisons they visited were still not aware of their existence or needs. A report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons said that more needs to be done to understand and address the reasons for their over-representation, but suggested that they "lie outside the prison service".

Indeterminate sentences

Many people in prison don’t know if, or when, they might be released. 10,676 people are currently in prison serving an indeterminate sentence - 16% of the sentenced prison population, up from 9% in 1993. 6,954 people are serving a life sentence and a further 1,784 people are serving sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP). IPPs were abolished in 2012 by then Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, who said that IPPs were “unclear, inconsistent and have been used far more than was ever intended... That is unjust to the people in question and completely inconsistent with the policy of punishment, reform and rehabilitation.” But the abolition was not applied retrospectively, and 96% of people still in prison serving an IPP sentence have passed their tariff expiry date - the minimum period they must spend in custody and considered necessary to serve as punishment for the offence. IPP prisoners are more vulnerable to self-harm and suicide; with fewer releases, and a rise in people recalled to indefinite custody (often for behaviour that appears to fall well short of the tests set in official guidance), growing numbers are ending up back in prison.

Joint enterprise

Many people are convicted under ‘joint enterprise’ provisions, which lead to many people being convicted unfairly and in particular lead to unequal outcomes for young black and minority ethnic people. A 2016 report based on a survey of 250 prisoners convicted under joint enterprise found that more than three-quarters of the black and minority ethnic prisoners reported that the prosecution claimed that they were members of a ‘gang’, compared to only 39 percent of white prisoners. Their apparent ‘gang’ affiliation’ was used to secure convictions, under joint enterprise provisions, for offences that they had not committed. While some recognised connections to co-defendants through family or friendship ties, the overwhelming majority disputed that these reflected ‘gang’ involvement.


The appeals process is not working as it should. The public watchdog for miscarriages of justice, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), has only referred 771 cases to appeal out of 28,058 received since it was set up in 1997 (fewer than 3%). A 2021 inquiry by the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice concluded that the CCRC’s mandate, structure and criteria need to be improved, and in particular that it should refer cases wherever ‘it considers the conviction may be unsafe, the sentence may be manifestly excessive or wrong in law, or that it is in the interests of justice to make a referral’, rather than only where it considers there is a ‘real possibility’ that the Court of Appeal will overturn the conviction or sentence.

Learning disabilities

A third of people assessed in prison in 2017–18 reported that they had a learning disability or difficulty. 7% of people in contact with the criminal justice system have a learning disability - this compares with only 2% of the general population. Inspectors have found that “little thought was given to the need to adapt regimes to meet the needs of prisoners with learning disabilities who may find understanding and following prison routines very difficult”.

Drugs and mental health

Drug addiction in prisons is rife. Various surveys suggest that around one in five prisoners acquired a drug habit since entering prison. The independent review of drugs found that “too many drug users are cycling in and out of prison, while prisons are overcrowded, with limited meaningful activity, drugs easily available, and insufficient treatment. Discharge brings little hope of an alternative way of life. Diversions from prison, and meaningful aftercare, have both been severely diminished and this trend must be reversed to break the costly cycle of addiction and offending.”

The data on how many people in prison have mental health problems and how much government is spending to address this is poor, and needs to be improved. While the quality of clinical care is generally good for those who can access it, the rise in rates of prisoner suicides and self-harm suggests a decline in mental health and well-being overall.


Despite a recent decline, there are still twice as many women in prison today as there were 27 years ago. Many women in prison have high levels of mental health needs and histories of abuse. Rates of self-harm and self-inflected deaths among women prisoners have risen in recent years. 71% of women in prison reported that they had mental health issues compared with 47% of men. 36% left prison in the year to March 2021 without settled accommodation; 18% were homeless and 4% were sleeping rough on release.

Public attitudes

The public doesn’t believe in prison; surveys show that fewer than one in 10 people think that having more people in prison is the most effective way to deal with crime, despite the aggressive and influential tough-on-crime tone of much of the right-leaning media. Early intervention, such as better parenting, discipline in schools and better rehabilitation, are all seen as more effective responses.


The justice system is also increasingly failing victims. A recent report from the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales found that chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system has left victims under-supported and with a lower chance of seeing justice. The report said that the backlog of cases in the crown courts, exacerbated by the pandemic, was resulting in an increasing number of people dropping out of the system (government figures showed that there were almost 60,000 cases waiting to be dealt with by crown courts at the end of March 2021, a 45% increase on the previous year).