The cost of housing a convicted criminal in prison in England and Wales is now more than £50,000 a year, overtaking the annual fees for a pupil at Eton College for the first time.

The sharp rise in the number of offenders being jailed means the annual bill for running prisons in England and Wales has increased to top £4 billion a year in another first.

It comes as the Ministry of Justice is set to run out of space, with internal projections suggesting prisons will be full within weeks. As of last week, there were just 2,000 spaces free, out of an operational capacity of 88,890.

The demand for prison places is predicted to rise by up to 25,000 in the next four years to 114,800 because of longer prison sentences and more criminals being caught as a result of the 20,000 uplift in police officers, according to internal MoJ forecasts.

MoJ data, obtained by The Telegraph, shows the average cost of accommodating a prisoner in England and Wales was £51,724 per prisoner a year in 2022/23. This was an 11.4 per cent rise on the previous year, nearly four percentage points more than consumer prices inflation of 7.8 per cent for the same period.

By comparison, fees for Eton College – alma mater to politicians Boris Johnson and Lord Cameron and actor Eddie Redmayne – were £16,666 a term, giving an annual total of £49,998.

While prisoners get baked fish, chips and jelly at an average cost of £2.08 a day, Etonians can sample vegan bao buns with pulled jackfruit and sweet celeriac slaw, Dominican chimichurri burgers with smoked mayonnaise in a brioche bun and Vietnamese pork banh mi with sriracha tahini sauce.

Two teachers scene in the quad at Eton College, Windsor
Old Etonians include Boris Johnson and Eddie Redmayne Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Etonians also have access to 29 laboratories for biology, chemistry and physics in one building, a natural history museum with 16,000 different objects and a national-standard athletics stadium.

Meanwhile, inmates are expected to attend workshops, education classes and play pool or table tennis.

The data show wide variations even between prisons of similar status. HMP Wakefield, a category A high-security jail, costs £40,465 per prisoner a year, while HMP Whitemoor, also category A, was £92,866 per prisoner per year.

Young offender institutions (YOIs) are traditionally the highest-costing per head, with YOI Wetherby spending £159,152 per person each year and YOI Werrington costing £222,911 per inmate.

By contrast, four of the Victorian prisons in London offered some of the lowest costs, with Brixton, Pentonville, Wandsworth, and Wormwood Scrubs ranging from £26,000 to £31,000 per prisoner.

The figures come after Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, introduced a series of measures to reduce the prison population, including the release of prisoners up to 60 days before they are due to be freed.

He has also pledged to double the number of foreign prisoners cleared out of jails in England and Wales from 1,800 to 3,600 in the next year, describing the cost of housing them as “intensely frustrating”.

Labour has pledged to use emergency powers to fast-track planning permission in order to build the 20,000 extra jail places needed.

Shabana Mahmood, the shadow justice secretary,  said a Labour government would use emergency powers to categorise prisons as “nationally significant”, giving ministers the right to approve planning applications at the outset.

The Tories are eyeing similar proposals after being forced to delay the construction of mega-prisons because of what Mr Chalk has described as the “sclerotic” planning system.

“It’s the planning system, which is sniping us and that means that we are a year behind where we would otherwise expect to be. It is a matter of intense frustration to me that we’ve not been able to progress that,” said Mr Chalk.

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