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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Not fit for purpose: crisis in Britain's prisons worsens

Not fit for purpose: crisis in Britain's prisons worsens

Overcrowding in prison "warehouses" is causing violence behind bars as tensions soar among inmates, prison officers warned last night. New figures show that the population of Britain's jails has jumped by 1,000 in the past three weeks.

The surprise surge has caused dismay at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and raised fears that coping with the growing prison population could force budget cuts elsewhere in an already embattled department.

The Independent disclosed last month that officers had warned the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke that the combined pressure of prison closures, budget cuts and a shortage of officers risked riots in jails.

As the rise in numbers of prisoners continues, offenders may have to be housed further away from their homes or mothballed prison wings may have to be brought back into service.

The prison population in England and Wales stood at 87,668 yesterday – a rise of 407 since the previous Friday and more than 1,000 above the total just three weeks ago.

Jails are 1,730 below capacity and, at the current rate, the country's prisons could be full by early March. Two new jails, in south-east London and in the West Midlands, are due to open that month in an attempt to relieve the pressure. The sharp increase over the last five months has been mainly fuelled by convictions after the August riots, with 2,200 fewer people behind bars before the disturbances.

Prison governors also suggested the proportion of offenders being jailed was rising because of the hard-line language used by politicians.

The figures came at the end of a grim week for the prison system, with the escape of a violent inmate and the deaths of two teenagers in young offender institutions.

MoJ officials hope the new year spike in the prison population will work its way through the system as rioters serving relatively short sentences leave jail. The department said it would "explore contingency arrangements" – likely to include holding prisoners in police or court cells – if the numbers in jail continued to rise sharply.

One source said: "We're watching the situation very closely, but we're not near to panic."

However, the problems facing the MoJ were underlined this week when Sir Suma Chakrabarti, its Permanent Secretary, said the cost of the rising prison population was "one of the biggest risks we face". He told the Commons Justice Select Committee that the MoJ currently had the funds to cope with growing numbers, but warned that "if that rate of rise continues we will have to revisit all the figures" in the department's budget.

Four months ago Mr Clarke protested that the prison population had "soared pointlessly" and said: "I would like to stabilise the situation."

But his hopes of a more liberal approach to sentencing have been thwarted by the reaction to the riots. Eoin McLennan-Murray, president of the Prison Governors Association, said the increase had been caused by a "rush to custody" after the summer's violence. He added: "Historically, when the use of prison is talked up by politicians you see the population rise even if there has been no change in sentencing policy."

Steve Gillan, the general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said his officers, who were attacked 2,800 times last year by inmates, were feeling the effects of overcrowding and budget cuts. He said: "The assaults are getting more serious. Prisoners are being warehoused and they take their frustration out on officers."

A Prison Service spokeswoman said: "We currently have enough places for those remanded and sentenced to custody. Capacity will continue to increase throughout 2012. We will continue to explore contingencies arrangements."

Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, attacked the Government for vetoing Labour's prison-building programme and for closing prisons.

He said: "If the prison population rises much further there is a possibility the Government will need to fork out £385 a night to place prisoners in court and police cells."

Timeline: A bad week for the prison service


John Anslow escapes when a van carrying inmates from Hewell prison in Worcestershire is ambushed.


Jake Hardy, 17, dies after being found hanging in his cell at Hindley Young Offender Institution.


Andrew Farndon, 26 escapes when a gunman threatens his two guards as he arrives for treatment at West Suffolk Hospital, Bury St Edmunds.


Alex Kelly, 15, dies after being found unconscious in his cell at Cookham Wood Young Offender Institution.


Figures reveal the prison population has soared to 87,668 inmates.

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