Crisis prompts mixed jails plan

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

A new breed of "mix and match" super-jails holding women and young offenders as well as hardened criminals is being proposed to deal with the burgeoning prison population.

A sudden increase in the number of long-term violent criminals, and of women and young people, has placed unprecedented strains on all sections of the prison estate.

Internal Prison Service documents, seen by the Independent, acknowledge it would be too costly to adapt single-sex or single-purpose jails but recommends that new prisons, including three planned private institutions, be built on the "multi-function" lines. Although the report accepts there may be difficulties in holding different security categories on the same site, it says the flexibility of such a jail would mean it could be adapted at short notice to deal with any crisis in demand.

A tougher penal policy has seen record numbers jailed. The past 10 years have seen the long-term prison population more than double to over 12,000 - nearly a quarter of the total of 51,714. Over half of the 49,700 male prisoners are serving sentences for robbery or violence, compared to less than one-third a decade ago.

The female prison population has topped 2,000 for the first time and the number of young offenders under 21, mostly young men, has risen to about 9,000. Projections put the total prison population at about 56,000 by 2000 and the documents acknowledge that may be an under-estimate.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The sharp rise in the number of prisoners and in those jailed for violence has led to a crisis for the prison estate."

As the service mounts a "coping strategy" to handle the problem, a working party is con- sidering whether the 16 open prisons should become closed institutions, because of the rising numbers of violent criminals.

The report, The Strategic Estate Plan, under consideration by Derek Lewis, service director, also says physical security at three of the six "dispersal" jails, designed to hold the country's most dangerous prisoners, urgently needs tightening. It confirmed reports that the Government may replace the six with two super-maximum security jails, to take the 500- plus high-risk inmates - one in the North and one in the South.