The scale of the challenge facing Prime Minister Keir Starmer's new government is writ large in Britain's prisons, which are within weeks of being too full to accept new inmates, leaving the government with unpalatable and costly choices.

Britain has western Europe's highest rate of incarceration, according to the World Prison Brief database and faces a crisis after a new building program failed to keep track with tougher sentencing laws that have fuelled a growing prison population.

Already many prisons are housing two inmates in cells built for one, and emergency measures triggered by the previous Conservative government mean some offenders have been released early and court cases delayed to avoid new arrivals.