Sir David Ramsbotham called into question sentencing practice - which has produced a huge hike in the number of female prisoners - as he reported on the turnaround in dreadful conditions at Holloway prison, north London, which had caused him to walk out in disgust last December.
The once rat-infested, squalid jail, where prisoners were locked up 23 hours a day, pregnant women were shackled while in labour and morale was at rock bottom, was now "decent" and working again, Sir David said. But he warned that there was still a long way to go and added "never again must Holloway or any other prison in the UK be allowed to sink into the situation that we then found".
According to Sir David, many of the jail's problems arose from its use as a remand centre for 240 courts around the country and half of its 500 inmates were unconvicted and often in on short-term stays. He is said to want magistrates to make greater use of bail hostels. "I wonder whether some of the people remanded by the courts should be here," he said.
The Chief Inspector was particularly concerned that the country's jails were ill-prepared to deal with the special needs of women - in particular their needs as mothers and the fact many of them have been abused.
Yesterday prison reform groups confirmed the progress made at Holloway, but they warned that budget cuts coupled with the spiralling prison population - now at 54,764 - meant many of the problems which the jail faced were in danger of being repeated across the country.
Paul Cavadino, chair of the Penal Affairs Consortium, said: "Prisons are having to cope with a rapidly rising population while making staff redundant. There is a real risk of other prisons being plunged into the same kind of mess that Holloway was."
There were also warnings that cuts and a burgeoning population were threatening drug-treatment programmes.Lady Runciman, chair of the criminal justice group on the Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs, said much progress had been made in developing anti-drug policies for prisons: "But overcrowding and staff cuts are jeopardising the whole prison strategy," she said.
Drug Misusers and the Prison System; HMSO; PO Box 276 London SW8 5DT; pounds 9.Reuse content