Britain has one of the highest rates of incarceration in western Europe, on average 109 people in every 100,000 are in prison. In England and Wales the rate is higher at 138 per 100,000 which is the highest in western Europe (exceeding the 131 per 100,000 of Portugal).

There are 139 prisons in England and Wales, with 19 built since 1995. Seven prisons are private, built under the Private Finance Initiative they are termed DCMF prisons (privately Designed, Constructed, Managed and Financed) and revert to the government after 25 years. A further two prisons are privately managed but were built with public money. The remaining prisons are operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service, an Executive Agency reporting to the Home Office.

In 2001 the average number of people in prisons in England and Wales was 66,300 an increase of 3% on the previous year, of these roughly 11,400 were on remand. In February 2003 the prison population stood at 72,144, of those 4,810 were serving life sentences (averaging 13 years) and there were 3,740 female prisoners. Of the prisoners 8,570 were termed young offenders. In 1991 it was 42,000 and in 1992 it was 45,800. The Home Office estimates that the prison population will rise to 84,000 by 2008. The cost per prisoner is 36,000 a year.

In crown courts in 2001 64% of those convicted were sent to prison, the average sentence was 26 months and 512 people were sentenced to life. In magistrates courts 14% are imprisoned. The main offence of those imprisoned were guilty of violence against the person crimes (22%) and the burglary (17%). 21% of prisoners were from ethnic minorities, compared to them comprising around 10% of the total population. Of prisoners released 59% are found guilty of another offence within two years.

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