Criminal justice institutions – UK Government assessment
Limited time out of cells, overcrowding, poor conditions, use of force, solitary confinement and self-harm in prisons are commonplace and, in some cases, increasingly frequent. Restrictions imposed during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continue to have a significant negative impact on human rights standards. Imprisonment rates are high, ethnic minority people are over-represented, and mental health services continue to be inadequate. Proposals in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will significantly increase time spent in custody and are likely to lead to a larger prison population. There have been some positive policy developments, such as reforms to probation and the Female Offender Strategy, although implementation of the strategy remains slow.
- In the year to March 2021, the average prison population in England and Wales was 79,043. According to data from 2020, this is one of the highest imprisonment rates, per 100,000 inhabitants, in Europe.
- Restrictions imposed to manage the risks of COVID-19 infection have exacerbated existing problems and had a significant negative impact on human rights standards in custody, including increased time in cells, suspension of visits, activities and education, worsening mental health, and reduced independent scrutiny.
- In September 2020, the Public Accounts Committee reported that 60% of adult prisons are overcrowded. Many prisons have poor living conditions.
- People from ethnic minorities are more likely than White defendants to receive prison sentences, and are significantly over-represented in prison.
- The UK Government has committed to implement recommendations from the Lammy Review, and some progress has been reported. However, significant further action is needed to eliminate race disproportionality.
- The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment made recommendations in 2021 to address, for example, the over-representation of ethnic minority groups in the criminal justice system.
- A significant number of prisoners spend more than 22 hours a day in their cells, amounting to solitary confinement contrary to human rights standards.
- Incidents of self-harm in custody have increased significantly since 2016.
- The number of recorded apparent self-inflicted deaths in prison custody remains high when compared to other European countries, with 79 recorded in the year to March 2021 in England and Wales.
- HM Inspectorate of Prisons identified high levels of force used on prisoners in 2019–20. Use of force increased in the year to March 2020 in more than half of the male prisons it visited and governance was often weak.
- There are concerns that existing failures to identify and address the mental health needs of those in prison will be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Groups at particular risk include trans people, women, those on remand, and ethnic minorities, specifically ethnic minority women.
- The decision to introduce PAVA spray to adult male closed prisons in England and Wales without the agreed safeguards increases the risk of breaching prisoners’ human rights.
- Analysis shows that the UK Government has implemented less than half of the commitments in the Female Offender Strategy. Its announcement of 500 new prison places for women potentially undermines the strategy’s commitment to shift emphasis from custody to the community. In addition, the UK Government already anticipates a 50% increase in the female prison population by 2026.
- The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, if passed, will lead to more, and longer, custodial sentences, including for low-level crimes. The proposals are likely to lead to an increased prison population, on top of existing growth projections.
Read more about the UK Government’s actions on criminal justice institutions.