Analysis: Overcrowding made the worst jail riot for a decade inevitable

Lincoln is a typical jail and was praised for 'safe environment' but staff warned two weeks ago of under-staffing and high sickness levels
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The Independent Online

The lone prison officer patrolling the Victorian landings of Lincoln prison did not see it coming. Set upon by two, perhaps three inmates, he was overpowered and relieved of the keys hanging from his belt.

The lone prison officer patrolling the Victorian landings of Lincoln prison did not see it coming. Set upon by two, perhaps three inmates, he was overpowered and relieved of the keys hanging from his belt.

Within seconds, the rebel prisoners had made their way through A Wing, releasing fellow inmates from their cells as they went. For more than two hours, the prison was controlled by the inmates, who raided the prison pharmacy and took a cocktail of drugs.

Only by 4.15am yesterday did Lincoln's officers – with the help of 200 colleagues called in from 17 other jails – regain control of the prison.

The rioting was the worst in a British jail for a decade, possibly since the Strangeways disturbances of 1990.

For many observers, the violence was an inevitable result of overcrowding in the prison service. Britain locks up more people per head of population than any other country in Europe, though the United States imprisons even more.

Brian Caton, general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said that the authorities could expect similar disturbances to Lincoln in the future if jails were not resourced correctly.

"As long as the judiciary and politicians continue to expect more and more prisoners in less and less secure accommodation with less and less staff, we will get more of these incidents," he said.

"And they are very serious incidents where prisoners and staff lives are put at risk. We believe that there are many overcrowded prisons now that are reaching crisis point."

Outside Lincoln jail, the director general of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, said that "like most local prisons" Lincoln had been overcrowded, but he added: "I don't believe overcrowding is the cause and it is certainly not a justification for this."

Despite early reports that some rioters were remand inmates distressed by delays in hearing their cases, the involvement in the violence of so many prisoners suggested more widespread unrest.

The number of prisoners held in England and Wales has increased from 48,000 at the start of the Nineties to its current level of 72,517, a rise of more than 50 per cent.

Nacro, the crime reduction charity, pointed out that the number of remand prisoners – who it said were under "high levels of stress" – had increased by 18 per cent in a year, from 11,060 to 13,080.

Outbreaks of significant disorder have already occurred this year at Belmarsh prison in London, Rochester prison in Kent and at the privately-run Ashfield jail in Bristol.

Warnings of the growing threat of violence have been made by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, the Prison Governors' Association, the Prison Officers' Association (POA) and various penal reform groups.

When the disgraced Tory peer Lord Archer was sent to Lincoln last month as a punishment for breaking prison rules, the jail was described by gleeful tabloid newspapers as "a hell-hole".

In fact, the 130-year-old institution is a typical "local" prison, with the same problems as many other jails. In a report published this summer following a visit in December last year, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, praised the jail's regime.

She said: "Lincoln provided a safe and respectful environment with good staff-prisoner relationships, and where more than 80 per cent of the inmates felt safe."

But that "respectful environment" has been under growing pressure. The maximum capacity of the prison may be 590, but the 571 prisoners held at Lincoln is way above the "certified normal accommodation" level of 377 laid down by prison managers.

When Mr Narey visited the prison a fortnight ago to commend two officers for bravery, the local branch of the POA issued a warning about under-staffing. A statement read: "With the uniformed staffing levels so low in this establishment and sick absence so high, we feel it would be a breach of our duty if we didn't raise awareness of our concerns outside of HMP Lincoln."

People are already dying because of the over-crowded jail system. Since the start of the year, 77 inmates have taken their lives, raising the possibility that more than 100 people will die in prison in a year for the first time in Britain. In a report this summer called "Prison Overcrowding: The Inside Story", the Prison Reform Trust found that nine jails were 60 per cent or more overcrowded. The worst, Leicester, was holding 374 prisoners in cells designed for 199.

Joe Levenson, the trust's policy officer, pointed out that England and Wales jailed a higher proportion of its population than any other country in the European Union. He said: "England and Wales is now the prison capital of Western Europe and the state of many prisons is an absolute disgrace. Unless the Government acts urgently and calls upon judges and magistrates to divert the less serious offenders away from prison, chronic overcrowding will continue and prisons will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis."

Mr Levenson said there were signs that even the measures that were introduced by ministers to provide courts with alternatives to custody were sometimes back-firing and resulting in even more people being sent to jail.

He said: "People who in the past may have received a probation order are now being given quite rigorous community penalties. Those that have chaotic lives, with mental health or substance abuse problems, end up breaching the conditions and being given an automatic prison sentence."

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said sentencers had been confused by the rhetoric of David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, who had "played the role of the populist leader of the lynch mob even more than his predecessors Jack Straw and Michael Howard".

Magistrates and judges were reluctant to use the Government's plethora of non-custodial penalties because of the direction of the political and media debate on crime.

The Howard League has produced a table that purports to show the impact on the jail population of "tough-on-crime" headlines in the media.

It found that during the week to 12 April this year, there were 31 extra prisoners admitted to the system. The same week, the Home Secretary announced new court powers over "child bail bandits". In the next seven days, the jail population rose by 302.

The following month, comments reiterating support for tough jail sentences for mobile phone robbers by Lord Woolf – usually a liberal on prison matters – may have influenced a rise in jail numbers of 479 the next week.

And at the end of May, the population increased again by 329, a week after headlines like: "A generation out of control as youth crime figures soar."