Social Justice

Prisoners could be released 60 days early to ease prison overcrowding

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk announced low-level prisoners will be released early with a reported 350 spaces left in prisons

prison population

A rise in the number of police officers and a change in policy to keep serious offenders in prison for longer is behind a projected rise in the prison population over the next few years. Image: Ron Lach / Pexels

Low-level prisoners could be released up to 60 days earlier than planned as part of government efforts to ease prison overcrowding, according to the justice secretary Alex Chalk.

Chalk said custody supervised licence measures would be extended to around 35 to 60 days for a time-limited period in a ministerial statement on Monday (11 March).

The cabinet minister’s announcement comes as just a few hundred prison places remain. Just 238 of 85,000 spaces remain in male prisons, according to reports in the Daily Telegraph, while there are just 118 spaces vacant in female prisons.

“We will always ensure we have sufficient prison capacity in order to lock up the most serious and dangerous offenders,” said justice secretary Chalk.

“We are on track to deliver 10,000 new prison places by the end of 2025 and have a long-term commitment to build 20,000 new prison places overall, the largest prison building programme since the Victorian era. In addition, we are doubling up cells where safe to do so.

“We need to go further to ensure we can continue locking up serious and violent offenders for longer.”

A total of 85,851 people are in prison in England and Wales, according to the most recent Ministry of Justice (MOJ) figures.

The population is set to grow in the years ahead. Numbers are set to reach 94,400 by March 2025, the MOJ projects, before potentially reaching 106,300 by March 2027.

The rises are based on factors including an increase in the number of police officers and changes in sentencing policy to keep the most serious offenders in prison for longer. Violent offenders will not be in line to be released early under the government’s plans.

But the early release policy raises questions about the impact on rehabilitation and the prospect of releasing prisoners into homelessness.

Campbell Robb, Nacro chief executive, said: “In prisons across the country overcrowding and understaffing means people are locked in their cells for up to 22 hours a day. Many people in prison are unable to access work, education and have little to productively fill their time. What hope do people have of coming out of regimes like this rehabilitated and ready to turn their lives around?

“We urgently need to address the prisons overcrowding crisis and the early release scheme is one sensible way of doing this. However, we must ensure that the people released have long-term, stable housing and the right support to come out to. We cannot simply release people from prison into homelessness, trapping them in an endless cycle of cell, street, repeat.”

Around 15% of prisoners were not housed at the point of their release from prison between April 2022 and March 2023, according to government figures.

Last year Big Issue founder Lord John Bird played a leading role in new legislation to stop prisoners being released on Fridays to reduce the risk of reoffending or falling into homelessness.

Writing into the Big Issue, Darren Nicholas, the assistant director of criminal justice at social justice charity Cranstoun, said the prison system is “at breaking point and a functioning criminal justice system is essential to keep communities safe”.

The unprecedented move has been criticised for being “snuck out” late on Monday evening with Labour warning the crisis in the prison system shows the Conservative party has “lost control”.

Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, has written to Chalk calling on the cabinet minister to come to Parliament to explain the decision.

“Successive Conservative governments have failed to build enough prison places. This has led to them granting early release to violent criminals, domestic abusers, and burglars. It’s a crisis of the Tories’ own making and it puts the public at risk,” said Mahmood.

“After 14 years of the Tories, prison violence is still rocketing, staff are leaving in droves, and high reoffending rates mean prison leavers often end up back in custody. With population projections showing even more pressure in years to come, it paints a stark picture of how the Tories have lost control of jails.

“A Labour government would get these new prisons built to ease the capacity crisis and deliver on our mission to make Britain’s streets safe.”

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