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Le Monde
Le Monde
21 Oct 2023


LETTER FROM LONDON

Prison service vans are seen parked outside the walls of HM Prison Wandsworth in south London on September 7, 2023, a day after prisoner Daniel Abed Khalife escaped while awaiting trial.

British prisons are full. So full that Rishi Sunak's government has had to resort to extreme measures. On Monday, October 16, Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk announced that thousands of prisoners in England and Wales sentenced to less than four years' imprisonment would be released 18 days before the end of their sentence. The government will also introduce legislation to allow thousands of Britons to serve their sentences in overseas prisons and has promised to speed up the deportation of convicted dual nationals. Finally, Chalk pledged that the government would give priority to community service over short sentences (less than a year). This proposal was already made by Conservative politicians serving in this position – Ken Clarke, in 2010, and David Gauke, in 2019, – but was abandoned each time.

The early release measure "will not be used for prisoners convicted of an offense of serious violence, a terrorism offense or a sexual offense." "We must do whatever it takes to always ensure there are always enough prison places to lock up the most dangerous offenders to keep the British public safe," insisted Chalk, who promised that, in parallel, those convicted of the most serious crimes would no longer benefit from sentence reductions. "The most serious and dangerous offenders are being locked away for longer," said the minister. "No longer will the perpetrators of this heinous crime [rape] walk out of prison after even two-thirds of their sentence."

In England and Wales, which share the same justice system (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own), the prison population has reached 88,225, the highest since 2011 according to a count published in mid-October by the Ministry of Justice. This population increased by 13.4% between April 2021 and April 2023, forcing the government to take urgent action. As of mid-October, even with several prisoners placed in individual cells, there were only 557 free places left in the 120 Welsh and English prisons.

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This is due to an upsurge in sentencing following the shutdown of the justice system for many months during the Covid-19 pandemic and to courts being short of judges after years of austerity. (Some 15,500 people are incarcerated and awaiting trial.) And sentences have continued to lengthen, while successive Conservative governments have failed to invest proportionately in enlarging prisons or creating new ones: Many facilities date back to the Victorian era.

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