Summarising the effects of post-pandemic backlogs and staff shortages on prisons.

Impact of Covid

Prisons have been placed in lockdown regimes throughout the pandemic, with many restrictions still in place. This successfully limited the spread of Covid and the number of deaths but has left prisoners locked in their cells for most of the day with long delays for routine health appointments and severely reduced access to education, training and work.

Spending on prisons has been increasing since 2015/16 and this trend continued in the first year of the pandemic with a 5.6% rise. This was expected to fall by around 8% in real terms in 2021/22 as a result of the Covid support measures coming to an end. Investments were made in the prison estate during the pandemic, including 1,150 temporary accommodation units to spread out and isolate prisoners. Video calling between prisoners and their friends and family was first introduced in March 2020 and all prisons had this capability by the end of the year.

The prison population fell substantially at the start of the pandemic and by 6% between March 2020 and July 2021. The Ministry of Justice projects that the prison population will grow dramatically from under 80,000 up to 97,500 in 2025, primarily as a consequence of the government’s policy to increase the number of police officers by 20,000.

Staff retention

Staff retention worsened substantially with 3,387 officers leaving in 2021/22, compared to 2,116 in 2020/21. But this was offset by the recruitment of 3,845 staff, an increase of 1,435 compared to the year before. As a result of high levels of staff turnover, the prison workforce is relatively inexperienced, with more than a fifth of prison officers in post for less than two years.


Since 9 May 2022, prison governors have been able to reopen, leading to an increase in time out of cells, work and education. However, prison regimes vary substantially across the country, and some prisons still do not have enough staff to safely reopen prisons to pre-pandemic levels. This situation has been exacerbated by high levels of staff sickness. In 2021/22, over 350,000 days were lost to sickness, 21% higher than in 2020/21 and 43% more than 2019/20.

As a result of backlogs and staff shortages, prisoners are waiting for a long time to access a wide range of routine services. Recent inspection reports found prisoners waiting several days before they could call their family after arrival, four weeks for GP appointments and over 26 weeks to see an optician.

In female prisons, self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners grew by 12% in 2020/21 and a further 7% in 2021/22. The average of almost 11 incidents of self-harm per individual in 2021/22 is the highest on record and 17% higher than the pre-pandemic rate.

Number of prisoners in England and Wales