More prisoners may be doing time on the ocean wave

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The Independent Online
Two more prison ships may be brought to Britain in contingency plans to help deal with the escalating overcrowding crisis in the country's jails. The Prison Service and the Home Office are considering, as an emergency move, buying one or possibly two more floating jails as part of a package of measures.

The move is being forced upon them by the continuing rise in the prison population, which is at a record 61,800.

The option of adding to the floating jail HMP Weare, which is moored in Portland harbour, Dorset, has been considered despite the earlier fiasco in which the ship's 45 inmates had to evacuated because of defective sprinklers. The ship, which was towed from New York, is still empty while further work is carried out.

The Prison Service yesterday denied that they were actively seeking prison ships to buy, but admitted that several firms had offered to sell them floating jails.

A spokesman also denied a report in today's Economist that the Home Office was looking for another five prison ships. The option of a second or third prison ship is believed to be a last resort. The Prison Service is expected to first increase doubling up in cells designed for one person. They are also expected to buy prefabricated- style buildings that can be erected in the existing prison grounds. Thirdly, makeshift prisons, such as the plan to convert a former Pontins holiday camp, are being examined.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is desperate to avoid using expensive police cells, which cost an average of pounds 2,000 a week, to house inmates. He is examining the expansion of the use of electronic tagging for less serious offences to help reduce the rising population, which is continuing to grow by between 200 and 300 a week. The Prison Service predicts the population will reach 74,500 by 2005.

Mr Straw has already been forced to carry out two policy U-turns because of the overcrowding - agreeing to keep the ship and giving the go-ahead to the building of more privately run jails. Earlier this week prison officers warned of the a crisis and warned that they may take some form of industrial action unless improvements are made.