The unexpected rise - the Home Office had predicted an increase of around an extra 150 a month - could cause the total population to leap to 57,000 by the end of the year, way ahead of the original projection of 53,200.
Richard Tilt, the new director-general of the Prison Service, disclosed the new figures yesterday and warned that the rise this year had taken place even before the effects of the plans by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to introduce tough new sentences.
Mr Tilt also revealed that the service was involved in talks with the Home Office in an attempt to get additional funding for the extra inmates.
"We shall need additional funding - we can't provide additional accommodation out of our existing budget," he warned. If the prison population continued to increase unchecked, the Prison Service could be facing a funding shortfall of tens of millions of pounds, he said.
The news followed warnings from probation workers and prison officers that the system could not cope with a rising number of inmates at a time when the budget was being cut by 13 per cent. Furthermore, 3,500 prison officers have applied for voluntary redundancy offered as a result of cutbacks in the service. It costs the service more than pounds 24,000 per year to keep each prisoner.
Mr Tilt said: "By Easter, when we would normally have expected to see a drop in the prison population, we had 53,500 prisoners. This has now risen to 54,500." This figure surpassed the Prison Service's projections for the jail population at the turn of the century.
Mr Tilt added: "We are experiencing much more immediate population problems than those which may come as a result of the White Paper [on sentencing]."
Mr Howard proposes introducing minimum sentences for repeat burglars and drug dealers. He also plans that automatic life sentences should be given to second-time offenders convicted of serious violent crimes and the abolition of automatic early release.
Mr Tilt said that contingency plans were being introduced, included bringing disused Victorian prison wings back into use and erecting prefabricated housing blocks on prison sites. This would take about 12 months, however, whereas the problem was immediate.
"We are experiencing the highest ever British prison population," Mr Tilt said.
He said that he believed the trend was due to Crown Courts around the country passing more custodial sentences than in the past and giving slightly longer sentences.
Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The trade unions having being saying for months the figures do not add up. The Prison Service clearly is in a crisis and unless massive amounts of money are found quickly the prisons will become ungovernable."
David Roddan, general secretary of the Prison Governors' Association, agreed with Mr Tilt's assessment that the political climate was affecting the prison population.
He said: "The Home Secretary's previous protestations that he doesn't influence the rise in the prison population, that it is simply a matter for the courts, is disproved. There has not been a rise in indictable offences that can explain a huge rise in the prison population."Reuse content