Home Affairs Correspondent
A state of emergency is about to be declared in about a third of the country's jails because of an overcrowding crisis - the first time such exceptional powers have been invoked nationally.
Documents obtained by the Independent show that the Prison Service has decided to take the extraordinary action after the prison population - already at record levels of 53,000 - is escalating out of control at a rate of about 150 a week.
A draft letter to be sent to staff in the next few days shows that the prison population is set to exceed 54,000 by Easter - 500 more than had been anticipated - prompting the crisis.
The Service is set to activate "emergency" plans in 46 jails, requiring them each to take anything up to 70 more inmates than they are built to hold.
Under the emergency provisions, which the documents show "override" industrial relations agreements, staff will lose any right to protest and will have to meet governors' demands to work any shifts required of them while the "emergency"continues.
Prisoners will have to double up in cells built for one and be housed in jail hospitals, health care centres, offices and, in extreme circumstances, in dormitory type accommodation. They are also liable to be shifted round the country's 136 jails at short notice.
News of the contingency plans could not come at a worse time for the Prison Service, where morale is already at an all-time low - with a workforce depressed by budget cuts, the sacking and non-replacement of the service's Director General and a series of highly critical inquiries into last year's escapes.
But the plans outlined in letter to staff from Ian Boon, the head of pay and industrial relations, further throw doubt on the ability of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, to implement his latest law and order package - proposals to jail burglars and drugs dealers for longer and to reduce remission for all prisoners. It has been estimated the package could further boost the prison population by 20,000.
In the past, when the population has reached unmanageable levels, Home Secretaries have taken the exceptional step of allowing prisoners nearing the end of their sentences out a little early. Although previous Conservative Home Secretaries, including Leon Brittan and Douglas Hurd, have taken this path, it would not appeal to Mr Howard, who is determined not to tarnish his credentials as a "tough" Home Secretary.
More recently, the service has made use of police cells, but following an embarrassing Audit Commission report which said the price of keeping prisoners in police stations was higher than the Ritz Hotel, ministers have been determined not to repeat the exercise.
Yesterday Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The current situation is a consequence of the Home Secretary's Prison Works policy. The prison population is increasing at unprecedented levels. Over the next few months the prison service will be on the verge of collapse."