RECENT media reports have alluded to an apparent "prison overcrowding crisis", which is of serious concern.
We have certainly seen increases in the prison population over the last few months, for a number of reasons, including the increase in the number of convictions for historic sex abuse.
However, today's prison population is 85,359, against a total useable capacity of 86,421: meaning that we have more than 1,000 spare places.
The Government has already opened more than 2,500 new places during this Parliament and will have opened an additional 2,000 places by next April. This includes four new houseblocks which will start to open from the autumn. Ministers have agreed to make some reserve capacity available until the new prison buildings come on stream later this year. What this means in practice is that in a number of public and private prisons, a few more prisoners will be required to share a cell for a few weeks. We may not need these places, but it is a sensible precaution to take.
This Government is also taking steps to address a weakness in our prison system, in that we have no access to the kind of temporary or agency staff that you find as a matter of routine in our health and education systems.
Ministers are therefore establishing a reserve capability among former staff to give the flexibility to adapt to short term changes.
The central objective is to bring down the cost of running the prison estate while maintaining capacity levels, so that there are always enough places for those sentenced by the courts.
An important part of that is replacing older, more expensive prisons with new or refurbished capacity that is less expensive to run. This approach will save £170m over the current Spending Review period.
The Government has also launched a benchmarking programme across the prison estate to bring down costs, which was introduced in 2012 as an alternative to privatisation at the request of the Prison Governors Association and the Unions. It is clear that changes must be made to enable prisons to meet reduced budgets while continuing to protect the public and implementing essential reforms to rehabilitation services.
What this all means is that we will end this Parliament with more adult male prison places than we inherited; more hours of work in prisons than we inherited; more education for young detainees than we inherited; and a more modern and cost effective prison estate than we inherited. All of this is in contrast to the previous Government's record: they had to release more than 80,000 from custody early because there was insufficient prison capacity to hold them.