The former US Air Force base at Woodbridge, Suffolk, would be run by prison governors but guarded by Ministry of Defence police.
The idea is the most extreme so far in a series of proposals by the Government to cope with the spiralling prison population, which stands at a record 57,354. Jails are at bursting point and The Independent revealed yesterday that the Home Office had drawn up plans to put prisoners into magistrates courts' cells under the control of private security guards.
The proposal to put inmates in a former US nuclear base enraged jail staff. John Boddington, chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, said: "This is the most ill-conceived idea I have ever heard. Prisoners belong in jail, not in old American air force camps."
Harry Fletcher, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "This is preposterous and should be avoided at all costs."
David Roddan, general secretary of the Prison Governors' Association, said12 per cent of governors' posts had been axed at the end of September. "It is difficult to see how it's going to be possible for governors to be sent on duty away from their establishments," he said.
"This is a most unwelcome burden at a time when existing prisons are at breaking-point."
In 1980, when prison officers went on strike, and in1986 during a staff overtime ban, two former British Army camps, at Rollestone, Wiltshire and Alma Dettingen, Surrey, were converted for prisoners. Soldiers were used to patrol the perimeter fences.
Other attempts to use military bases for prisoners have run into legal problems. The plan to put young offenders into the Colchester Military Corrective Training Centre in Essex is now subject to an "indefinite delay" because of restrictions on soldiers overseeing civilian inmates.
Last night a Prison Service spokesman said the proposal was "speculative".
Woodbridge became an American airbase in 1952. In the 1960s it became a tactical nuclear base and home to the USAF's 78 Tactical Fighter Squadron. It was later home to Phantom nuclear-capable fighter bomb-ers and 100 A10 ground-attack "tankbuster" aircraft, which were armed with depleted uranium shells.
In 1993, the Americans evacuated the base as part of cutbacks ordered by President George Bush at the end of the Cold War. The base was at the centre of one of Britain's biggest UFO incidents in 1980 when a metallic, triangular craft was seen over the nearby Rendlesham Forest.
There was uproar in the village when the Maharishi Foundation attempted to buy Wood- bridge's sister USAF base at Bentwaters, also in Woodbridge, last year, to set up a University of Natural Law. The project fell through because of the foundation's concerns about possible pollution on the site.
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