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Prisons overcrowding crisis ‘worse than I thought’, says Starmer

The Prime Minister said he was ‘pretty shocked’ at the scale of the situation and claimed the previous government was ‘reckless’.

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The prisons overcrowding crisis is “worse than I thought” the Prime Minister admitted as the new Labour Government looks set to free more criminals early.

Sir Keir Starmer said he was “pretty shocked” at the scale of the situation and claimed the previous government was “reckless”.

It comes after his Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, warned there was no “quick fix” to easing pressure on jail space.

Ms Cooper previously accused the Conservatives of leaving behind a “legacy” of “chaos” and crisis in prisons as ministers reportedly decide whether to free inmates after less than half of their sentence to ease pressure on space in prisons.

Sir Keir is said to be expected to authorise emergency measures this week which could see criminals automatically freed after serving 40% of their sentence, with an announcement on what measures are to be taken anticipated in the coming days.

“It is shocking for our country to have got into a state where we have too many prisoners and not enough prison places.

“To a point where any government is now in a position where it has to release prisoners early. That is a shocking indictment. That is a total failure of government,” Sir Keir said.

Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood has been told the move could stop prisons running out of space within weeks, reports suggest.

Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer speaks during an interview at the Senedd, in Cardiff, Wales, during his tour of the UK following Labour’s victory in the 2024 General Election
The Prime Minister said he was ‘pretty shocked’ at the scale of the situation (Alastair Grant/PA)

As of Friday last week, Government figures show the adult prison population in England and Wales stood at 87,453 with a “usable operational capacity” of 88,864, indicating 1,411 spaces are available.

This gives an idea of how much free cell space there is in men’s and women’s prisons.

Officials always try and keep a number of cell spaces free as a contingency measure, so prisons have the capacity to operate safely and respond to any urgent or unforeseen circumstances.

The next figures are due to be published on Friday.

The previous government expanded measures by which some inmates could be released from jail up to 70 days early, in a bid to free up prison cells, but concerns were raised that dangerous criminals could end up being eligible despite officials insisting offenders would continue to be supervised under strict conditions.

Asked what would happen if someone who was freed early offended again, Home Office minister Dan Jarvis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve inherited a situation where our prisons are in crisis, and across Government and led by the Secretary of State for Justice, Shabana Mahmood, decisions will be taken in the near future about how best to proceed.

“We need to keep the public safe. We will always act to keep the public safe, but we will have to make decisions in the coming days about prison population.”

The Ministry of Justice was already building six new prisons to create an extra 20,000 places as demand grows for cell spaces, partially because of the Government’s recruitment campaign to hire 20,000 more police officers.

About 6,000 spaces have been created already and about 10,000 will be built by the end of 2025.

Labour has said it wants to build more prisons but whether the programme will continue as planned since the change in government remains to be seen.

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