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Howard League blog · 16 Jun 2023

HDC and solutions to prison overcrowding

The last 12 months have brought a population explosion in prisons in England and Wales. There are 5,060 more people in cells today than there were at this point last year. The crisis has become so extreme that police forces have been asked to make room for people who can no longer be kept in jails. And a long line of inspection reports has shown how overcrowding, combined with chronic staff shortages, has contributed to dire conditions behind bars.

Pressure eased, ever so slightly, in early June. Statistical bulletins from the Ministry of Justice show that the prison population went down by eight in the week of the late May bank holiday, followed by a much bigger drop, of 161, the week after. But today’s update shows that the population went up again this week, by 174, taking it to 85,420 – its highest mark since 2017.

This week’s rise is particularly concerning as it comes in spite of changes, introduced on Tuesday 6 June, which enable people to spend longer on Home Detention Curfew (HDC) than before – from 135 days (about four-and-a-half months) to 180 (about six months). The number of people out of prison on HDC has risen from 1,820 a fortnight ago to 2,109 today, and this is a step in the right direction, but clearly more needs to be done to address the issue.

HDC is a scheme that allows certain people in prison to spend part of their sentence at home, or at another suitable address, on a ‘tag’. It was introduced in January 1999 by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who had set out his reasoning in a statement to the House of Commons 14 months earlier.

“The case for introducing an element of tagging into the last part of a short-term prison sentence is very strong in any event,” he said, “but it has been reinforced by the recent rise in the prison population.” (At that time, the prison population was about 61,000; it has since grown by 40 per cent.)

Straw continued: “No one wants to see an unnecessarily overcrowded prison system and it would be the height of irresponsibility not to take advantage of modern technology to help prevent that.

“The alternatives are bound to be at the expense of constructive prison regimes, and at the expense of improving the prisoners’ prospects for resettlement – in other words, at the expense of the law-abiding public.”

Much has changed in Westminster in the 26 years since that speech, but concerns about prison overcrowding, and the impact it has on public safety, remain.

Using HDC more effectively not only helps to ease prison overcrowding; it helps to reduce crime.

In a letter to the Lord Chief Justice in February this year, reported by Inside Time, the then Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, wrote: “You will appreciate that operating very close to prison capacity will have consequences for the conditions in which prisoners are held.

“More of them will be in crowded conditions while in custody, have reduced access to rehabilitative programmes, as well as being further away from home (affecting the ability for family visits).”

Earlier this month, we wrote to Raab’s successor, Alex Chalk, to offer constructive suggestions on how the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) could mitigate the overcrowding crisis. Improving HDC was one of several ideas that we raised.

We noted that, according to data provided by the MoJ, HDC had not been used in a timely manner, or at all, for many eligible people in prison. The HDC caseload as at 26 May was down some 14 per cent from its level at the same time last year. More than two in three prisoners who were “potentially eligible” for HDC in the year ending 30 April 2022 were instead released at their conditional release date.

MoJ data for the year ending 30 April 2021 showed that, of those who were released, about half were released prior to their conditional release date but after the date from which they were eligible – i.e. delays in the system meant that they spent anywhere from an extra month to three months in prison.

Using HDC more effectively not only helps to ease prison overcrowding; it enables more people to get support from family, friends and key services, rebuild their lives and move on. It helps to reduce crime.

It is encouraging to see the government act by increasing use of HDC, but today’s figures reveal that this will not be enough to ease pressure on a system that has been asked to do too much, with too little, for too long. Our letter set out further solutions, such as reducing the number of defendants on custodial remand or curbing administrative recalls, particularly for people convicted of non-violent offences. More could be done to speed up the process for people who have been deemed safe for release by the Parole Board. The Prison Governors’ Association has called on ministers to implement an early release scheme to alleviate overcrowding.

Ministers and governors are having to respond to an emergency, but it would be far better, of course, to fix the problem for good. The prison population has ballooned in spite of long-term falls in overall crime estimates, and it is time for a rethink. It makes no sense to waste billions on prisons when we could instead be stemming the tides of poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse and substance misuse that sweep so many people into the criminal justice system in the first place.

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.)


  • Mark says:

    The hdc tag needs to be given to all the low risk prisoners in open conditions to ease the prison population and let people start building a new life sooner

  • ALFRED SMITH says:

    I feel. that if we made home detention, more unpleasant and tougher. we could use it as the primary. sorts of punishment. for longer sentences. with daily drug tests. forts work. at the minimum wage. and being made to pay for their punishment. 30%. of inmates. or more. could be released from prison.

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