Prison maintenance crisis

Work with Offenders digs into the detail of the new National Audit Office report

The government is failing to provide and maintain safe, secure and decent prisons and its flagship initiatives to address this have not delivered, according to a National Audit Office report published last Friday.

More than 40 per cent of inspected prisons were rated as ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ for safety in the last five years. Poor safety in prisons has reached all-time highs. Over the last decade, HMPPS (Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service) has taken 1,730 cells permanently out of use and it expects to lose 500 places a year because of the poor conditions of the remaining estate. Over 40% of prisons need major repair or replacement in the next three years. There is currently a backlog of major repairs that will cost £916 million to fix. The number of outstanding maintenance jobs in prisons in April 2019 was an astonishing 63,200.

There is a surplus of 18,700 places in local prisons for people serving short sentences or on remand awaiting sentencing. However, there is a shortfall of 15,000 training and resettlement places. Local prisons are intended to hold prisoners for a short time. However, they are increasingly holding longer-sentenced prisoners because of the lack of places to support prisoners’ transition into the community.

The government has tried to improve conditions by contracting out prison maintenance and creating new prison places through its flagship Prison Estate Transformation Programme. In 2014-15, HMPPS decided to outsource facilities management and expected to save around £80 million by contracting out to the firms Amey and Carillion, but it has failed to achieve this. Most readers will remember that Carillion went bust. Amey was performing poorly but has been improving its performance over recent months. The Government established a new entity Gov Facility Services Limited (GFSL) to take over from Carillion. The NAO found that by mid-2019-20, GFSL had sustained improvements in its achievement of targets for planned maintenance (from 82% in early 2018-19 to 89% in mid-2019-20) but its performance in meeting targets for reactive maintenance has declined since it assumed responsibility for services in 2018-19 (from 85% in early 2018-19 to 74% in mid-2019-20). It attributes this decline to higher demand for reactive maintenance.

HMPPS has had to spend £143 million more than expected over the last four years. It had an inaccurate and incomplete understanding of prison conditions and the services needed. It also severely underestimated the need for reactive maintenance work due to vandalism and breakdown. As the state of our prisons has deteriorated, it is unsurprising to find that levels of vandalism have increased; it is a human trait that we tend to look after our environment when it is of good quality and to be disrespectful of it when it is poor.

New prisons not being built

HMPPS has struggled to create new prison places. In 2016, it committed to create 10,000 new for old prison places. So far, only 206 have been built with 3,360 under construction.

The main reason behind these failures was the delays in agreeing and receiving funding to build new prisons. This meant construction work began later than planned. In addition, HMPPS was not able to close old prisons and replace them with new ones due to high demand, which meant it received less money from sales income.

HMPPS has been focussed on sorting out the immediate needs of the prison estate, investing its resources to address prison population pressures and deteriorating prison conditions. Today’s report recommends that HMPPS develop a long-term strategy which sets out exactly what conditions prisoners should be held in and minimum levels of investment needed to ensure a safe, decent environment.


The National Audit Office estimates that it will cost £450 million (at 2018/19 prices) every year over the next 25 years to get the prison estate up-to-standard and maintain at that level. Of course the calculations in this report were done some months ago before the new government announced a number of changes in sentencing which will increase the prison population by several thousand making even these enormous figures likely to be an under-estimate.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, summarised the report: “HMPPS has not been able to create enough prison places, in the right type of prisons and at the right time to meet demand. It has failed to deliver the savings it hoped for by contracting out prison maintenance services. Prisons remain in a poor condition, poor safety has reached record levels, and there are huge maintenance backlogs.

"The Government has recently committed to creating 10,000 new prison places and needs to learn lessons from its recent experiences. Crucially, HMPPS must work with the Ministry of Justice and Treasury to develop a long-term, deliverable strategy that will provide prisons that are fit for purpose.”