The moves announced by Derek Lewis, the director general of prisons, are the strongest indication yet that the service is in crisis as the Government's U-turn on criminal justice policy begins to bite, with magistrates and judges sending people to prison in droves.
Mr Lewis said activating emergency accommodation - the possibility of renting ships and mooring them in Barrow-in-Furness has been investigated - would be a 'regrettable step' because of all their deficiencies. But as an indication that they may become permanent fixtures, at least until six planned new prisons are completed in the next few years, he said extra staff would have to be recruited.
The prison population has been rising by about 250 a week and stands at 47,258 - nearly 1,000 more than the official capacity. The 6,500 increase since January which has affected men, women and young offenders, compares with an average increase of 1,640 over the same period in each of the past five years.
It has led to inner-city local prisons being overcrowded by about a fifth, while jails such as Preston and Leicester in the North and Midlands, where the problem is more acute, are holding about 75 per cent more than they should.
Mr Lewis has warned of the increased risk of rioting and said two weeks ago that the situation 'is finely balanced and more volatile than it has been for some time'.
While Mr Lewis has been at pains to say he is not seeking to influence policy, his message will be seized upon by judges, prison governors, lawyers and penal reformers who have questioned the Home Secretary's 'prison works' philosophy. Last week, Judge Stephen Tumim, Chief Inspector of Prisons, warned of further riots and said that the elements of incarceration which did work, such as treatment and education programmes that tackled offending behaviour, were being disrupted by overcrowding.
Yesterday, speaking at the service's annual conference in Blackpool, Mr Lewis echoed Judge Tumim. While the main duty was to accommodate those jailed by the courts, he added: 'That does not mean we should be silent.
''We have an equal duty to state clearly if the population, or the resources available, or any other factor make it impossible to achieve our purpose and goals.' The spurt in population put at risk the ability to fulfil the service's purpose of looking after prisoners with humanity and helping them to lead law-abiding lives.
Some modernisation programmes aimed at ending slopping out - another reform regarded by Judge Tumim as vital - will have to be postponed, because no extra funds are forthcoming.
Mr Lewis's comments will force Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to defend his tough new policy on offenders when he addresses the conference tomorrow. But there has been no indication of any weakening of resolve, as demonstrated by his announcement last Friday curtailing the use of cautions.
Yesterday Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said all the emergency provisions had drawbacks - particularly the ships which were reminiscent of the 19th century prison hulks. A ship was used in the 1980s to detain immigrants and asylum seekers.
The Police Federation said using police cells would be a 'retrograde step which will again take up more police time when officers should be out on the streets fighting crime'.
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