One in 10 prisons in England and Wales are barely fit for purpose and should be shut down if alternative buildings can be found, the official watchdog has said.
Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, told the Guardian that about 14 Victorian jails were so poorly designed, overcrowded and ill-equipped that they could not provide proper accommodation for inmates.
They include HMPs Wandsworth, Pentonville, Liverpool, Leicester, Lewes, Exeter, Bristol and Leeds, where prison officers are struggling to make the best of bad conditions. As a result, thousands of prisoners were being held in vermin-infested buildings with too few staff and inadequate facilities for retraining and education, Taylor said.
Taylor’s comments come amid intense scrutiny of the 135 adult and youth prisons in England and Wales after the high-profile alleged escape of Daniel Khalife, a 21-year-old former soldier awaiting trial on terror charges.
They also follow the Guardian’s disclosure that a German court refused to extradite a man accused of drug trafficking because of concerns about jail conditions in Britain.
Khalife, who is now back behind bars and has pleaded not guilty to escaping, went missing on 6 September from HMP Wandsworth in south London, which was given the lowest score – “of serious concern” – in HM Prison and Probation Service performance ratings this summer.
The jail is overrun with rats and suffers from a severe staff shortage and a high number of untrained or ill workers.
In his first interview since being reappointed as the prisons’ watchdog on Monday, Taylor said the conditions in Wandsworth were particularly poor, but were part of a pattern in inner-city jails built more than 100 years ago.
“There are a lot of inner-city local prisons that won’t be closed any time soon. But they really struggled to fulfil their purpose,” he said.
“Wandsworth was built for around 1,000 prisoners and I think has 600 over; Pentonville [in north London] was built for around 450 and I think there [are] about 1,200 prisoners in that jail. So there are an awful lot of jails that have got just far more prisoners than … they were originally designed for.
“But also the infrastructure of some of those jails really struggles. You’re probably talking about 10% of jails that struggle to be fit for purpose.”
Asked whether he believed that about 14 prisons – just over 10% of the total – should be closed in an ideal world, Taylor said “yes”.
Taylor, a former headteacher who has been scrutinising jails for three years and has his own set of keys so he can move freely through the prisons estate, said he would shut down most of the Victorian institutions in an ideal world.
“They tend to be built with very small footprints because they’re built in inner cities. And they definitely haven’t got enough activity places when the population is double the number that the prison was originally built for,” he said.
He said the constant demand for cells at Wandsworth meant that on his last visit a burnt-out cell could not be repaired before a new prisoner was moved in.
Taylor said: “We saw a cell that was ready for a first-night arrival, potentially your first night in a jail cell, having been burnt out by the previous occupant. It was just hideous. If the prison was not overcrowded, what you would say is: ‘We’ll take that out of commission and paint it and fix it up.’ But it’s just one out, one in.”
Taylor is particularly concerned by the lack of training and education, exacerbated by too few prison officers on the landing floor, which in turn leads to inmates spending longer in their cells.
This year, Taylor’s reports found that 36 out of 37 men’s prisons inspected in 2022-23 were not good enough for “purposeful activity” such as education, employment and activity that keeps prisoners meaningfully occupied.
“If they are not in the habit of getting up and going to work or college every morning, then it will come as no surprise if they commit more crime when they come out,” he said.
Solving the overcrowding crisis was vital to give staff the time to work with prisoners, Taylor said.
Official Ministry of Justice figures show there were 87,685 prisoners across the male and female estates in September. As of August 2023, 77 prison establishments were officially overcrowded, according to Taylor’s office.
His comments were echoed in an annual report released on Monday into HMP Pentonville. The prison’s independent monitoring board found that population pressures were affecting all aspects of prison life, including a lack of full-time education and with many prisoners spending an hour a day outside their cells. Alice Gotto, the chair of the independent monitoring board at Pentonville, said it remained “an unfit place for prisoners to live or to be rehabilitated”.
Entering an expected election year, Taylor cautioned politicians against promising to increase sentences without first addressing what the country wants from its prison system.
“Sentencing is a matter for the courts and ministers decide policy. But I think there should be a bigger conversation about what we want from prisons,” Taylor said. “What is our expectation of what we are going to get? Because, apart from a handful, the prisoners we lock up are coming out at some stage.”
The Prison Service plans to have another 8,000 prison places by May 2025. A spokesperson said: “The latest figures show that the majority of prisons are performing well and, where there are issues, we are providing intensive support for those jails to drive long-term improvements, recruit extra staff, bolster security and boost training and work opportunities for prisoners so we can better protect the public.
“We are also pressing ahead with the biggest expansion of prison places by any government in over a century – delivering 20,000 additional spaces including six new, modern prisons. Around 5,500 new places have already been delivered including HMP Fosse Way [in Leicester], which opened in May.”