There were fears the extraordinary rise, coming straight after Michael Howard's speech at the Conservative Party conference, indicates that judges and magistrates are already applying his 'get tough' policies.
The number of inmates is now 46,935 - just 59 short of the capacity of the 131 jails. But already overcrowding, which was the trigger of the Strangeways riots and identified by the senior judge Lord Woolf as one of the most corrosive prison influences, is rife among jails in the North. Hull for example is holding more than 100 prisoners over its certified capacity. Liverpool and Swansea have been forced to send prisoners miles away to jails with cells to spare, such as Dartmoor and Winchester in the South, making family contact almost impossible.
The prison population has been rising at a rate of around 500 a month from a low of just over 40,000 in January ,when both Labour and the Conservatives put law and order at the top of their political agendas as crime rates continued to rise. But the dramatic rise of nearly 400 in a week has set alarms bells ringing; it appeared that soon the prison service will be forced to use police cells and other emergency measures -army camps have not been ruled out - to cope. The six new jails planned by Mr Howard will not be taking inmates for several years.
The Home Secretary has declared he is more concerned about punishment than about prison conditions and despite the criticisms of Lord Woolf, other members of the judiciary, lawyers and penal reformers, that prison was a 'shocking waste of resources' he has not abandoned his theme that 'prison works'.
But yesterday some prison governors, concerned that some treatment programmes and education and training regimes were being disrupted by overcrowding, entered the debate. One governor of a large prison in the South who did not wish to be named said: 'I have to say I side with Lord Woolf.'
Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors Association, and governor of Risley in Cheshire, said: 'Prison certainly is not going to work if there is overcrowding. If you put a lot of prisoners together without anything to do, then the tendency is to swop experiences and to start rackets in prison.'
He said one of the worst consequences of overcrowding was that successful rehabilitation programmes were being disrupted, such as that at Risley for sex offenders, cited by Lord Woolf when he condemned Mr Howard.
Dr Andrew Coyle, governor of Brixton, said last week that one of the reasons Judge Stephen Tumim, the prison inspector, had found so much improvement at the jail was because its population had been reduced to 700 from 1,150.
Another London governor said: 'Most Home Secretaries seem to regard prisons as being made of rubber. You cannot expect the system to do much good and be effective if it is breaking down from sheer weight of numbers. There's been a lot of idle talk about creating holiday camps but not many people would like to book into my holiday camp. We need to be in the business of keeping prisoners busy - meaningful work, education, giving them new skills and getting them fit.'
One governor in the North-west was concerned about 'warehousing' prisoners - locking them in their cells with no recreation or rehabilitation. 'We have a moral obligation to do all we can to help them,' he said. 'Many do change.'
Another said it appeared that the Government had not learnt the lessons of Strangeways, and warned of the 'potentially explosive situation' in the North of England.
Young criminals, page 9
The cage mentality, page 19
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