Prison cells

As watchdogs warn of a ‘powder keg’, how overcrowded are London’s prisons?

Watchdogs and prison officers in England and Wales have warned of a prison system creaking under the weight of overcrowding and intensified violence, but how does the situation look in London?

Last week Labour MP for Hammersmith Andy Slaughter asked the Justice Secretary why prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs were getting as little as one hour out-of-cell time each day and why prisoners were being forced to share single occupancy cells.

The Independent has also reported watchdogs have called prisons nationwide a ‘powder keg waiting to blow.’

But just how bad is the London prison overcrowding problem?

According to government data, 77% of prisoners in HMP Wandsworth are held in crowded accommodation.

Meanwhile, Pentonville was operating at 76%, Brixton at 41%, and Wormwood Scrubs at 10%.

In Wormwood Scrubs’ last inspection it was found “too many prisoners continued to live in overcrowded conditions.”

The prison population in England and Wales stands at 85,851 and is increasing all the time, with England and Wales incarcerating more people than any other European country.

The overall prison population in the UK has quadrupled since 1900, with half of this growth coming since 1990 and prisons have struggled to manage.

Rob Preece, communications manager at prison reform charity The Howard League, said: “People in prison should be engaged in exercise, education, employment and training, which overstretched jails are unable to provide. 

“Instead, people are warehoused in unsafe conditions for hours on end with nothing to do.” 

In addition, a mass exodus of prison staff is expected if conditions do not change, with a survey in June finding 80% of prison officers are unhappy in their work partly due to the risks posed by working in overcrowded prisons including increased risk of assault, harassment, and overwork.

The consequences of this overcrowding can also be seen in the Ministry of Justice’s annual custody safety statistics as well as in reports by the prisons watchdog.

Overcrowding can lead to poor sanitation, lack of space, and minimal purposeful activity that is key to rehabilitation, but it can also lead to extreme violence and self harm.

A report into Wandsworth last year found that: “All living conditions, including the inpatient unit and Trinity unit, should be improved to safe and decent standards.”

Although incidents involving assault have fallen in the last couple of years due to the Covid-19 pandemic resulting in prisoners being kept apart for longer, incidents of self harm remain an issue.

Incidents of self-harm have more than doubled in the last ten years with the real number likely to be far higher due to difficulties in collecting data.

The last report on Wormwood Scrubs from His Majesty’s Prisons Inspectorate from 2021 showed that shared cells ‘had proven challenging during the pandemic, when they had been locked in their cells routinely for as many as 23 hours a day’ and according to the results of a visit made by Slaughter, this has not changed.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The Government has now built more than 5,000 of the 20,000 places promised as part of its £4 billion construction programme – the biggest expansion of the prison estate since the Victorian era.

“We are only doubling up spaces where it has been assessed as safe to do so and we won’t be taking any measures which jeopardise the safety of prison regimes.”

Feature image credit: Tom Blackout

Related Articles