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Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
How prisons became so busy
By Duncan Walker
BBC News website

The population of prisons in England and Wales has soared in recent years - up 85% since 1993. Is it the result of a crime wave or a punishment wave?

Prisoners
There could be 90,000 prisoners in England and Wales by 2010

Such is the national propensity for sending people to jail, that the prison system could be "entirely full" by the summer, the Prison Reform Trust warns.

Whether such fears become a reality - and the Prison Service does say it has spare capacity - there is no denying there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people behind bars.

In January 1993 - when the prison population began rising - there were 41,561 in jail in England and Wales. The current population is 77,004.

So where did they all come from?

James Bulger

One answer lies in the way crime is perceived, says Rob Allen, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, at King's College, London.

"Political and media debate about how to deal with crime has become a lot less tolerant and more punitive and that in turn has led to some changes in legislation and practice," he says.

Facts and figures on prisons in the UK

It has been suggested by some commentators that specific events may have played their part in this.

The start of the rise in prison numbers certainly coincided with the murder of the toddler James Bulger by two older boys in February 1993.

"When you get high-profile and very disturbing cases of that kind you can get a distorted reaction and punishment levels can rise," says Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust.

And it has similarly been suggested that the existing record population of 77,774, reached in October 2005, was partly the result of harsher sentencing after the 7 July bombings.

'Prison works'

At about the same time as the Bulger killing another important change took place - the appointment of Michael Howard as home secretary.

His tenure is widely remembered for the slogan "prison works".

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This was a "turning point", says Mr Allen, not least because it coincided with Tony Blair's time as shadow home secretary and then Labour leader.

"Tony Blair, I think, took the view that Labour had traditionally been seen as rather weak and wishy-washy about crime and repositioned the party."

By the time Labour came to power the prison population had increased to more than 60,000 - a rise of about 45% in four years.

Under Labour, elected with the pledge to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", the population is expected to reach 80,400 by 2007. Projections for 2010 suggest more than 90,000.

'Creeping inflation'

Although many people might expect the tougher line on crime to be connected to an increase in offences, this has not been the case, the Prison Reform Trust says.

In a new study it says the reason for the increase is the "creeping inflation of sentences and a lack of confidence in effective community measures".

PRISONS IN THE UK
The BBC News website is looking at prisons in the UK in a series of features which starts today. We will look at life in prisons, whether the system works and some of the changes under way.

The number of people found guilty by the courts has remained "comparatively static", rising from 1.7 million to 1.8 million between 1993 and 2004.

It also reports that there has not been an increase in the number of serious crimes.

What has happened, the charity suggests, is that many people whose offences would not have attracted a custodial sentence in the past are now being sent to prison.

And for those convicted of some of the more serious offences, sentences are getting longer.

'Out of road'

Despite the stable crime levels, a factor other than the political climate which may have contributed is a change in the pattern of offending, particularly where drugs are involved.

Prison guards
The role of prisons is being examined by the government

There are now more people appearing before the courts with long strings of convictions who have failed to comply with non-custodial sentences, says Mr Allen.

It may be that courts believe "these people have run out of road... and prison is inevitable", he says.

Another factor is the 250% rise in the number of people recalled to jails for breaching release conditions.

Some 11,081 inmates were recalled in 2004/05, compared with 3,182 in 00/01 - a "staggering" increase, Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers reported in January.

'Right or fair'

The rapid increase in the prison population has divided people.

There are those, like the Prison Reform Trust, who argue that prison is being used too readily.

Many newspapers and members of the public, however, argue against a "soft" line on crime and back the use of prisons.

Dee Edwards, of campaign group Mothers Against Murder and Aggression, said she was concerned by those who think "nobody should be in jail" at a time when "there's already a lot of high risk criminals coming out onto our streets".

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said the murders of financier John Monckton and teenager Mary-Ann Leneghan by people on probation "demonstrate only too clearly that it would be dangerous to replace prison with a non-custodial sentence".

'Tough punishment'

The immediate question is what happens next - should more prisons be built, or the way they are used changed?

Responding to the Prison Reform Trust report, Home Secretary Charles Clarke said a five year review of jails was under way.

"The fact is that what we have to do is focus the whole system on reoffending and overcrowded prisons make that much more difficult," he said.

Mr Clarke's willingness to look at overcrowding has been welcomed by campaigners, but for the moment the prison population continues to rise.


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