Starmer ‘shocked’ at prison overcrowding as PM nears early release decision

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Sir Keir Starmer has warned the “shocking” prisons capacity crisis is worse than he realised before entering Downing Street, as he heaped blame on the “reckless” previous Conservative administration.

The UK prime minister highlighted the dire extent of overcrowding across the prison estate in England and Wales as one of the nastiest surprises lurking in his in-tray after winning last week’s general election.

Labour is expected to announce this week that it has taken drastic steps to reduce the prison population by lowering the automatic release point for non-violent offenders from 50 per cent of time served to 40 per cent, according to one official.

“Some of what we’ve found is shocking,” the prime minister said while en route to a Nato summit in Washington on Tuesday. “The situation is worse than I thought it was. I’m pretty shocked that it’s been allowed to get into that situation. It’s reckless to allow them to get into that place.”

New justice secretary Shabana Mahmood was briefed over the weekend that the male prison estate only has about 700 free spaces, and that courts may grind to halt and police may stop arresting people once the jails are full, according to one official.

One person with knowledge of the prison situation said capacity can fluctuate, and in recent weeks it has fallen below 500.

Tom Wheatley, president of the Prison Governors’ Association, told the Financial Times that jails would reach “operational breaking point”, where they could no longer safely accept more inmates, within a “week or two” of the election.

The justice ministry, under the Conservatives, had released some prisoners 70 days early on an ad hoc basis since October.

The crisis facing the prison service was one of the six immediate risks singled out by Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray ahead of last week’s poll. The justice department is one area that is expected to undergo major reform under the Labour government.

The prison system, which is already stretched by the doubling up of prisoners in cells, has a capacity of 88,815 in England and Wales.

Prison spending fell in real terms between 2010 and 2015, before increasing until the first year of the pandemic, according to the Institute for Government think-tank.

James Timpson, the businessman and rehabilitation campaigner who was appointed prisons minister by Starmer, previously said that about a third of the UK’s jail population does not need to be locked up, and accused the UK of being “addicted to sentencing”.

Before it left office the Tory government was not presented with a “radical list of options” by civil servants to reduce inmate numbers beyond reducing the automatic release point to 40 per cent, according to one person familiar with these proposals.

The person added that lowering the automatic release point would take weeks to trickle through the system due to sentences having to be recalculated.

Starmer is expected to ban the early release of prisoners convicted of serious violent or sexual offences. He highlighted that he had previously heaped pressure on former prime minister Rishi Sunak over the early release of a prisoner “considered a risk to children” from HMP Lewes.

Legal commentators warn Mahmood’s team will need to find longer-term solutions. This could include reinvigorating the previous government’s plans to introduce a presumption against short sentences of less than a year. These proposals featured in the Sentencing bill, which fell at the close of the previous parliament following a backlash from rightwing Tory MPs.

Labour officials said they would not pre-empt a review of sentencing and probation services that was featured in the party’s manifesto, including assessing whether a devolved probation model could help produce a better outcome. 

Mahmood previously committed to designating prisons “sites of national importance” on public safety grounds to place the power to greenlight new planning applications solely in ministers’ hands.


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