A leaked Home Office document warned some jails were in such poor condition that environmental health officers might order partial closures.
It said even a small-scale shutdown of prison accommodation would produce a "significant risk" of the Government being forced to use police cells.
New pressure to confine prisoners in often squalid conditions at police stations would embarrass ministers, who have embarked on a major prison- building programme.
The briefing paper, prepared for the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, prior to a meeting with prison officers earlier this month, revealed sweeping cutbacks in prison modernisation programmes after planned spending was reduced on Treasury instructions from pounds 312m in 1996-97 to pounds 117m.
A background note, headed "Not for use in meeting", said one effect would be the shelving of "most major modernisation schemes". It warned the Prison Service would have to drop proposals to repair and improve a number of jails, including Bristol, Brixton, Dartmoor, Exeter, Leeds, Liverpool, North Sea Camp in Lincolnshire, Pentonville, Preston, Swansea, Wakefield, Wandsworth, Wetherby and Wormwood Scrubs.
The document added thatnew information technology projects would have to be postponed and maintenance spending cut to a "bare minimum".
It said: "The new reduced capital programme for 1996-97 amounts to about pounds 100m on land and buildings, pounds 11m on establishments' local facilities and equipment and pounds 4m on IT.
"Because margins on likely population and accommodation are so small, any loss of accommodation will mean a significant risk of using police cells."Reuse content