Essential facts and stats on British prisons: Part One – People in prison

Hundreds of different facts and stats are quoted in the debate on UK prisons – many are of a rather dubious nature

Homer Simpson in prison


As Homer Simpson once observed: “People can come up with statistics to prove anything…14 per cent of people know that.” But what are the real facts about British prisons?



We have decided to set the record straight with some cold hard facts and stats from reputable sources. This is the first of a series of articles looking at re-offending, budgets & costs, staffing, violence, mental health, drugs & alcohol and education.

We start the series by looking at the prison population in Britain, so let’s see who is behind bars.

There were a total of 95,432 people imprisoned in the UK as of 28 November 2014 according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

The breakdown is as follows:



  • England accounts for 90 per cent of prisoners in the UK with 85,902 in custody.
  • Scotland has 8 per cent at 7,724.
  • Northern Ireland has just under 2 per cent at 1,806.



The UK prison system is nearly full, but most forecasts predict growing numbers of prisoners in coming years.

  • Capacity: as of 2 January 2015, the prison system in England & Wales was at 96 per cent of “usable operational capacity” with 86,566 places available according to the Ministry of Justice. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the figure is almost the same.
  • Over-crowding: At the end of March 2014, 77 of the 119 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded according to the Prison Reform Trust.
  • Growth: between 1993 and 2012, the prison population increased by 41,800 to over 86,000 according to the Ministry of Justice.
  • Forecast population: the number of people behind bars will rise to 90,200 in June 2020, but could be up to 98,900 if judges continue to increase sentences according to the Ministry of Justice.



The UK's prison population has risen dramatically in the past 20 years.

The UK’s prison population has risen dramatically in the past 20 years. Source: Story of the Prison Population: 1993 – 2012, England and Wales, Jan 2013, Ministry of Justice



Men make up the vast majority of prisoners in Britain at over 95 per cent of the total population. But of course there are many others. Here are a few facts and stats on women, children, minorities, elderly and foreign prisoners.

Women accounted for  4.6 per cent of prisoners in England & Wales on 28 November 2014. There were slightly fewer in Northern Ireland (3.8 per cent) and more in Scotland (5.4 per cent).

Between 1995 and 2010 there was an over 80 per cent increase in the number of female prisoners. But 9,083 women were received into custody in 2013, a fall of 8 per cent from the previous year.

Most women entering prison serve very short sentences. In 2013, 60 per cent of women entering prison were serving six months or less. In 1993 only a third of women entering custody were sentenced to six months or less.

Juveniles account for 0.9 per cent in England & Wales and 0.7 per cent in Scotland on 28 November 2014. Happily, there were none in Northern Ireland.

And more good news: the number of children in custody has fallen by 55 per cent in the last five years.

But 25 per cent of children in the youth justice system have identified special educational needs, 46 per cent are rated as underachieving at school and 29 per cent have difficulties with literacy and numeracy.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic people  accounted for 26 per cent of the prison population on 31 March 2014. They only account for 10 per cent of the general population, so a disproportionate number are locked up.

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

Older people accounted for 12 per cent of the total prison population on 31 March 2014. People aged 60 and over are the fastest growing age group in the prison estate. The number of sentenced prisoners aged 60 and over rose by 130 per cent between 2002 and 2013.

Over two-fifths of men in prison aged over 50 have been convicted of sex offences. The next highest offence category is violence against the person (25 per cent) followed by drug offences (11 per cent).



Last but not least, a contentious group in the age of UKIP and a heated immigration debate: foreign prisoners.

They accounted for 13 per cent of prisoners in England & Wales, 7.7 per cent in Northern Ireland and 3.6 per cent in Scotland on 28 November 2014.

They come from 159 countries, but over half are from 10 countries (Poland, Ireland, Jamaica, Romania, Pakistan, Lithuania, Nigeria, Somalia, India and Albania).

Hope this has helped you get some of the facts and stats on Britain’s prison population straight. More facts and stats on re-offending, budgets & costs, staffing, violence, mental health, drugs & alcohol and education to follow soon.



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