Crisis looms as jails run out of space

Leaked memo calls for action
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The Independent Online

Crime Correspondent

Emergency measures are being drawn up to house new criminals because the nation's jails are at bursting point, the Prison Service has admitted in a confidential letter.

Jails in England and Wales are expected to be full by the end of the month, after reaching a record 52,444 population last Friday.

The Prison Service has called an urgent meeting in the next fortnight with the Prison Officers' Association to discuss the crisis. The problem has been exacerbated by the refusal of some police forces to use their cells for the overspill. The Prison Service also says in its correspondence that it cannot afford the pounds 300-a-night cost to house a criminal with the police. Instead, the service proposes to move inmates into local prisons, which usually are used for people on remand.

It has already been disclosed that some prisoners near to the end of their sentences are being moved to open prisons, where security is far more lax, to alleviate the overcrowding.

David Evans, the POA general secretary, said last night that riots could break out soon, as the overcrowding is bound to get worse. Any prison disturbances in the run up to the general election could be extremely harmful to the Conservative Party, whose law-and-order policy could be damaged.

In a letter to Mr Evans at the POA, Alan Walker, the Prison Service's Director of Operations South, who is one of a board of 10 responsible for the day-to-day running of jails, says new analysis "indicates that there may be insufficient usable accommodation available during late November and early December, and between February and June 1996".

He said this was due to the unexpected surge in the prison population, now predicted to reach 52,700 by the end of the month and 53,700 by March.

Mr Walker adds that in the past, police cells have been used to take an overspill of inmates, "but the service can no longer afford to pay the pounds 300-per-prisoner night average cost of using police cells as these costs fall directly to the Service.

"Additionally, the police in certain parts of the country have indicated that cells will be unavailable due to their own operational difficulties." In fact, police charge up to pounds 1,746 a night to house a prisoner, the costliest cells being in Sheffield.

Mr Walker says training prisons and new local prisons will have to take the brunt of the increase. He adds that as new cells are built the problem will be solved "by the middle of the year unless we suffer unplanned major accommodation losses".

David Evans said yesterday: "This is a high risk strategy that could lead to violent disturbances, including riots. It's quite possible that Mr Howard [the Home Secretary] may not be able to reach the next general election without a major disturbance breaking out." He said the rise in the population comes at a time when prisons face an 8 per cent cut in their next year's budget.

The number of inmates is expected to increase greatly following Michael Howard's latest law-and-order package, announced last month. Up to 20,000 more people could end up in prison under proposals to give life sentences for second-time violent and sexual offenders and minimum sentences for third-time burglars and drug dealers. A Bill would also bring drastic cuts in sentence remission.

His announcement at the Conservative Party conference was attacked by prison and probation workers who said it will make a tough situation unworkable. Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, criticised the move as interfering with the power of the judiciary.

Mr Howard is visiting "supermax" prisons which house the most serious offenders in the United States. He intends to copy the scheme and set up an "Alcatraz"-style jail in Britain. Mr Howard believes locking up more people for longer will act as a deterrent and ultimately reduce the level of crime.