The Disturbing Truth about the UK Prison Population


The most striking truth about the UK’s prison population is that it has virtually doubled over the last 19 years, and that a hugely significant factor in this increase has been the UK government’s own ‘war on drugs’.

In May 2014 the prison population in England and Wales was 84,305. Between June 1993 and June 2012 the prison population in England and Wales increased by 41,800 prisoners to over 86,000. Almost all of this increase took place within those sentenced to immediate custody (85% of the increase) and those recalled to prison for breaking the conditions of their release (13% of the increase).

The authors of a Ministry of Justice report provide the following explanation:

“Legislative and policy changes have made sentence lengths longer for certain offences (e.g. through the introduction of indeterminate sentences for public protection, mandatory minimum sentences and increased maximum sentences) and increased the likelihood of offenders being imprisoned for breach of non-custodial sentences or recalled to custody for failure to comply with licence conditions (as imposed on release from prison).”

They go on to reveal that:

“The numbers in prison serving sentences for drug offences grew rapidly between 1993 and 2001, reflecting a large increase in volumes sentenced by the courts, a slight increase in the proportion receiving custodial sentences, and an increase in the average custodial sentence length.”

Indeed, according to Ministry of Justice data cited in a House of Commons report in 2012 there were more prisoners serving immediate custodial sentences of 4 years or more (and 2 years to less than 4 years) for drug offences than any other type of offence.

15% of men and women in prison are serving sentences for drug offences, which is more than robbery (12%), burglary (10%) and only 1% less than sexual offences. That’s over 12,500 people in prison for the non-crimes of using, possessing and selling drugs, with nearly half of them serving sentences of at least 4 years. The total cost of imprisoning just those given sentences of 4 years or more is at least £840 million, or 26% of the total spend on public order and safety by government.

There is an offence category called ‘other offences’ that accounts for 11% of the prison population and includes all those sentenced for fraud, forgery and all indictable offences other than those involving violence against the person, sexual offences and drug offences. This is a long list of over 650 offences and, as you might expect, is a mixture of genuine criminal actions (e.g. armed robbery) and non-criminal ones which are merely refusals or failures to obey State edicts (e.g. tax evasion or possession of a firearm).

In its report from January 2014 HM Revenue & Customs boasted that:

“In the last three years we have prosecuted 2,343 individuals, including some very high-profile barristers, accountants and lawyers, securing a collective total of 2,500 years in custodial sentences.”

This means about 30% of the people grouped under the ‘other offences’ category were imprisoned for tax evasion. Also, we shouldn’t forget that some fraction of the ‘fraud and forgery’ category will include people who printed their own Pound notes. Tut tut! Only the government is allowed to print worthless paper money.

Overall about 17% (around 12,500) of the current prison population did not actually commit an act of violence against someone else or violate their property rights. They merely used, possessed or sold certain types of plants, or they tried to avoid having money taken from them coercively them by the State. We should also note that many of the acts under the ‘motoring offences’ category are not genuine criminal acts – such as driving without a licence, insurance or failing to provide a roadside breath test.

The startling truth is that, aside from non-sexual violence against the person, the most common reason for imprisonment in the UK today is peacefully disobeying the State.


The more actions the State declares to be criminal, the more ‘criminals’ there are to be imprisoned, and the more prison space is then required. But according to the Prison Reform Trust and perhaps unsurprisingly this is one thing the State is struggling with.

“In 2013–14 an average of 19,383 prisoners were held in overcrowded accommodation, accounting for 23% of the total prison population. The average number of prisoners doubling up in cells designed for one occupant was 18,515 (22% of the total prison population).”

There’s two things that the State can do to solve this worsening problem. It can either stop imprisoning people for non-criminal actions such as possessing and selling drugs, which would most probably resolve the issue of prison overcrowding almost overnight, or it can continue to imprison innocent people and spend more money on building more prisons. This, however, would mean raising taxes, borrowing even more or cutting State spending in some other area. Ending or even just massively scaling down the war on drugs would not cost the public anything in terms of money, services or benefits. This, I think, makes this outcome the more likely at a time when the UK’s economy is stagnating and most people are feeling the pinch.

If the staggering cost of the war on drugs is what ultimately turns the public against it then so be it, but it must happen because legalising (not merely decriminalising) drug use/trade would not only stop the State imprisoning innocent people, but it would also make people safer and greatly reduce drug-related crime by bringing the drug trade out of the back alleys and into the open, self-regulating and accountable markets of civilised society.

Fundamentally, the persecution of drugs users and sellers must end for the same reason all State interventions into the private economic exchanges of individuals must end: because it is illiberal and unethical.

Here’s some other facts of interest about or related to the UK prison population:

– 37,527 people entered prison in 2013 to serve sentences of less than or equal to six months.

– 46% of adults are reconvicted within one year of release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 58%. Over two-thirds (67%) of under 18 year olds are reconvicted within a year of release.

– The average annual overall cost [to taxpayers] of a prison place in England and Wales for 2012-13 was £36,808. This includes prison related costs met by the National Offender Management Service, but excludes expenditure met by other government departments such as health and education.

– Approximately 200,000 children in England and Wales had a parent in prison at some point in 2009. This is more than double the number of children affected in the same year by divorce in the family.

– Fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care,15 but looked after children make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody.

– Average sentence length has also been increasing, it is now 3 months longer than in 2002. The average sentence is 15.4 months.

– The proportion of the sentenced prison population serving a life or indeterminate sentence for public protection increased from 9% in 1993 to 19% in 2013.

– 39% of children in custody in 2012-13 were there for non-violent crimes.

– In March 2011, 30% of children were held over 50 miles from their home, including 10% held over 100 miles away.

– Prison Reform Trust research found that one in eight children in prison had experienced the death of a parent or sibling. 76% had an absent father, 33% an absent mother. 39% had been on the child protection register or had experienced neglect or abuse.

– 46% of women in prison report having suffered a history of domestic abuse.

– 53% of women in prison reported having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, compared to 27% of men.

– Only 9% of children whose mothers are in prison are cared for by their fathers in their mothers’ absence.

– Children of prisoners have about three times the risk of mental health problems and/or anti-social behaviour compared to other children.

– On 31 March 2014, 26% of the prison population, 21,769 prisoners, was from a minority ethnic group. This compares to around one in 10 of the general population.

– Out of the British national prison population, 11% are black and 6% are Asian. For black Britons this is significantly higher than the 2.8% of the general population they represent.

– According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, there is now greater dis-proportionality in the number of black people in prisons in the UK than in the United States.

– Imprisoning mothers for non-violent offences carries a cost to children and the state of more than £17 million over a 10 year period.

It is clear from the graph at the top of this post that the UK’s prison population has been steeply rising since around the end of the second world war. As I wrote about in another piece recently, the number of acts of State legislation has also increased by 6,000% in that same time span. In other words the number of actions defined as criminal has exploded over the last 70 years.

This is one of the long-term consequences of intellectuals, policy makers and politicians of a certain ideological bent conceiving of the State as a tool for social engineering through positive law, rather than merely an apparatus to enforce the rights of individuals through common law. Such people were convinced interventionism, that is to say coercion could be used to make society a better place – all with a total disregard for the autonomy and rights of the individuals they were exerting increasing control over the lives of. This was and still is the amoral and unreasoning quest for the ‘greater good’ embarked upon by the kind of power-obsessed people of immense hubris that government attracts.

One way or another the great post-war experiment in interventionism will end. Either it will happen willingly and in a controlled fashion through its intellectual abandonment or suddenly due to the bulk of the State apparatus being brought to a grinding halt by the laws of economics like a rock being brought back down to earth by the laws of physics. My money is on the latter.

Story of the Prison Population – Ministry of Justice
Prison Factfile – Prison Reform Trust
Prison Population Statistics – House of Commons Library


  1. The Western industrialized countries are lemmings, leaping to their deaths off the same racist, sexist, classist, misguided and greedy economic, educational, social, environmental, nutritional/GMO, animal-endangerment and political cliffs the USA has led everyone to believe were good places to go until they STOP and THINK differently. Until then, their following in the USA’s horrifying footsteps to march to destruction is inexcusably idiotic.


  2. If you want to abolish crime, then you need to take a look at Singapore. The evil and wicked who are stupid enough to commit crimes have a very high chance of getting caught. And the punishment is sufficient to deter them and others from further crime. And no, they don’t have a society destroyed by drugs, although maybe for the safer recreational drugs they could lighten up a bit.


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