REVEALED: Where are Britain’s most overcrowded prisons?


From serious assaults behind bars to inmates let out in error, it is clear to see that there is no more room left in the British prison system. A recent prison population bulletin from the Ministry of Justice has confirmed that last month we were a whopping 13,076 prisoners over capacity, meaning we have overcrowded prisons.

But which British regions are home to the most jam-packed prisons?

Here at, we have examined the monthly prison population bulletin from the Ministry of Justice, alongside investigative research on the issue of prison overcrowding, to reveal where our busiest jails are found and what impact this is having on the justice system.

We used the Ministry of Justice’s definition of ‘overcrowding’, which is outlined as “where operational capacity of a prison is higher than the Certified Normal Accommodation (CNA)”.

Photo credit: photocritical/Shutterstock 

Research has revealed the regions where the prison system is most strained

The population of prisons in England and Wales has increased by a dramatic 90% in the years between 1991, where there were a recorded 45,000 prisoners, to 2016 where the population of prisoners hit over 85,000. 2011 saw a record number of prisoners, of around 88,000, due in part to the sentencing of individuals following the August riots that took place in England that year.

Of those 85,000 prisoners recorded in 2016/2017, 24.5%, or almost a quarter, were held in crowded conditions due to a lack of space in our prison system.

Since 2011, 18 prisons have been shut due to expensive upkeep, creating increasing pressure on our existing prisons. Using the Ministry of Justice’s prison population bulletin, have mapped-out the regions under the most strain from overflowing cell conditions:

Comparing prison population bulletins from 2017 and 2010, it can be seen that there has been a 7% increase in surplus prisoners, and England and Wales currently have a total of 13,076 prisoners too many. This has caused 100% of prisons in these areas to be either at capacity or overcrowded. The situation currently stands as 24% of prisons being already at capacity, and 76% operating over capacity.

Figures show that prisons in London and Wales are the most overpopulated, both operating 27% over the recommended population of prisoners set out by HMPPS. Wandsworth prison, a category B prison in south west London, recorded 685 prisoners over capacity in August 2017. This was the highest breach of population out of any prison in England and Wales.

In contrast, the region with the fewest overcrowded prisons was Kent and Sussex. Although this doesn’t mean they have any spare cells, as they are still operating at 7% more prisoners than is ‘certified normal’.

The data has revealed that over one third of prisons in England and Wales exceed their recommended population by more than 100 prisoners, with just over 1 in 10 prisons operating at 300 prisoners over recommended capacity.

According to research, the population of prisons is projected to remain constant until at least March 2021.

Photo credit: jax10289/Shutterstock 

Why are prisons in England and Wales under pressure?

According to another Ministry of Justice report on the history of prison population, the offence make-up of the prison population is changing, and we are seeing more serious cases come before the courts, such as sexual offences or offences involving violence. Naturally, this has resulted in offenders receiving longer custodial sentence lengths, which in turn places an upward strain on the prison population.

Indeed, in 1993, violence against the person (VATP), sexual offences and drug offences together accounted for around two in every five sentenced prisoners. By 2016, this had increased to three in five. With longer determinate sentences being handed down by the courts, the average time spent in prison is seeing an upward trend. Since 1999, time spent in prison by the average inmate has increased by 22%, or from 8.1 months to 9.9 months. In fact, reports reveal that last year, only 34% of prisoners were serving sentences of ‘less than four years’, compared to 54% of the prison population back in 1993.

The inevitable chaos within prisons as a consequence of excess population has become evident with disturbances amongst inmates at Lewes, Bedford and Swaleside to name a few. Reports by the Ministry of Justice have revealed almost 70 assaults happening a day, with a 28% increase in so-called ‘serious’ attacks. 2016 also saw over 6000 attacks on members of staff, up 40% from 2015.

This dire atmosphere could also explain the record high in self-harming incidents amongst inmates, of which there were 37,784 last year alone. 119 of these resulted in death, a record number since 1978. These depressingly high numbers are insightful as to the conditions behind bars.

High prison population is also resulting in an increase in cases of human error, as staff’s time becomes increasingly strained. In 2016-2017, 71 prisoners were released in error. This is an 11% increase compared to 2015-2016, and is the highest in any financial year since the time series began in 2006-2007.

Photo credit: Sherry Saye/Shutterstock 

Leave a Reply