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Prison is just a holiday camp

A former Pontin's holiday camp is to be converted into a make-shift jail to help cope with the overcrowding crisis, under proposals announced yesterday.

It also looks likely that a floating prison will be brought from New York and moored in Portland Harbour, Dorset, within the next two months.

The proposals have been forced on officials because, as disclosed yesterday, the planned conversion of a former RAF base near Doncaster into an emergency overspill jail is being postponed or scrapped because of local opposition.

The Prison Service announced yesterday that it has lodged a planning application to use a former holiday camp at Heysham in Lancashire to house up to 700 low-risk inmates. Until two years ago, the 62-acre site resounded to the cries of campers.

The camp consists of a large number of two-person chalets and would need a security fence before it could open as a jail. The Prison Service hopes to have part of the camp operational by May but this will depend on obtaining support from the local council.

And Richard Tilt, the Director General of the Prison Service, told The Independent yesterday that there had been a "positive" reaction from the local authority in Dorset about the plan to bring a former floating jail from the United States.

Mr Tilt said he was hopeful that the Resolution, currently on the Hudson River near New York, could be in use to hold up to 400 low-risk prisoners in Britain by mid-February. The vessel, which Mr Tilt described as a "block of flats on a pontoon", is a purpose-built jail and includes workshops and exercise facilities.

The emergency jails are needed, he said, to cope with the rising prison population which is expected to reach 58,000 by the end of January, as the emphasis on tougher sentencing by Michael Howard, Home Secretary, bites. Unless extra space is found by February, inmates will have to be housed in police cells, which is expensive. The Prison Service's over- crowding problems were compounded yesterday by the news that Doncaster council was objecting to the proposals to convert a former RAF base at Finningley into a jail. Prison officials will now appeal to the Department of the Environment and a lengthy public inquiry seems likely.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), said: "The idea of buying a holiday camp is an act of utter desperation. As with everywhere else there's bound to be strong local objections.

"Ministers will have to face the possibility of reducing the prison population or deal with the daunting consequences."

Napo also disclosed yesterday that the Home Secretary's plans for five child jails - announced in 1993 - for up to 200 persistent offenders aged between 12 and 15 were in disarray. No work has yet begun on the secure training centres and plans for all five have run into planning difficulties.