Richard Tilt, director general of the Prison Service, said in an interview with The Independent that the next four months were a crunch time for the jail system.
As part of a series of contingency measures to deal with the rising jail population four former army and RAF bases have been identified as possible sites for emergency spill-over prisons. Inmates could be housed at one or two of the sites by the new year, he said.
The use of former military camps in England and Wales is the Prison Service's first option. As The Independent revealed last week it has also examined using former US bases. However it is understood that that option would be used only as a last resort.
Mr Tilt said that the number of inmates was rising by about 200 to 300 each week and expected the current population of 57,354 to top 60,000 by Spring or early Summer.
"We have experienced and are experiencing a very fast rise," he said. "We have a very tight margin over the next four months - very tight indeed."
As part of the contingency plans, the Prison Service had been examining empty Ministry of Defence camps as possible over-flow jails and that one or two might be needed. Mr Tilt added that no specific sites had been decided upon.
He also confirmed that the Prison Service had bought several portable huts to house extra inmates in lower-security jails, which are being delivered in November. Mr Tilt said they were to "get us through the next few months".
The Home Office has also carried out a feasibility study of putting prisoners into magistrates courts' cells, under the control of private security guards, but has decided that doing so would be too expensive.
The growing difficulties posed by the rising prison population - which should be eased as new prisons and extra cells come on line from next Spring - reflect the Government's increasingly tough line on crime and repeated insistence that "prison works" as a deterrent.
Mr Tilt said that despite the over-crowding problems the Prison Service staff were coping "magnificently".
He also expressed grave concern that the Prison Service's budget would be cut next year, something which he said would jeopardise facilities and could lead to disorder in jails across England and Wales.
He said: "I'm concerned about the general efficiency saving that we are likely to be asked to make over the next few years."
Mr Tilt argued that there were very few saving left to be made and that staff might have to be cut or some behavioural programmes for inmates axed. On the question of the Government's proposals for tougher sentences for repeat violent and sexual offenders, persistent burglars and dealers in hard drugs, which are contained in the Crime (Sentences) Bill, he said they would lead to a "sizeable increase" in the prison population.
However, Mr Tilt stressed that the estimated 11,000 extra inmates would be introduced gradually over the next 12 years with little effect being apparent in the first few years. "It's less than 100 in 1997 but it becomes 11,000 by about 2010," he said.
He added that legal problems which had delayed the opening of the second "boot camp" for young offenders at the Colchester Military Corrective Training Centre in Essex, had almost been ironed out and the base should be opened towards the end of next month or early in December.
t Sir David Ramsbotham, Chief Inspector of Prisons, yesterday called for an overhaul of health-care in prisons after concluding that the existing service failed to match the standards of the NHS.
His report said that there was an urgent need for better care for prisoners with mental health or drug problems and highlighted the care of pregnant women, accusing the Prison Service of not catering adequately for them.Reuse content