Britain's prison overcrowding crisis surges 'close to the brink'

Riots feared as 'irresponsible' Justice Secretary asks private sector to cram inmates into cells

The country is on the verge of its worst prison overcrowding crisis since 2008, leaving the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, fighting for his political future.

Mr Grayling has quietly sanctioned emergency measures, after it emerged that there were only 265 free spaces left out of an 85,800 capacity across the England and Wales prison estate. This is the most crowded that prisons have been since the coalition took power nearly four years ago.

To avert the crisis, privately run prisons will be paid to cram more inmates into their cells. The managers of these 14 private sector prisons include Serco and G4S, the companies at the centre of a scandal last summer, when the Ministry of Justice was billed for the monitoring of non-existent electronic tags.

Mr Grayling was accused by prison experts last night of being "irresponsible", amid warnings that crowded prison conditions could lead to riots and hinder rehabilitation. The Labour Party claimed that Mr Grayling's future could be "short-lived": in 14 of the past 22 weeks, including the past seven consecutive weeks, prisons have come within 1 per cent of capacity.

However, Mr Grayling is refusing to invoke Operation Safeguard, which involves booking spare police and court cells at expensive rates, even though it is the convention to do so when prisons are near breaking point at 99 per cent capacity.

The Conservatives made political capital out of the last Labour government's need to use police cells and the introduction of an early release scheme in 2007 which only ended just before the last general election. Between November 2007 and September 2008, cells were booked under Safeguard for the equivalent of nearly 23,000 nights at £385 a night.

Mr Grayling has been accused of trying to protect his own party by avoiding a repeat of the embarrassing use of police and court cells, despite positioning himself as tough on crime. He recently announced that he intended to put a stop to the automatic release of child rapists and those convicted of serious terrorism offences once they had reached the halfway point of their sentences.

The prison population is also expected to soar by an additional 1,050 inmates when the Ministry of Justice's Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, becomes law. At the end of 2012, there were more than 6,500 spare prison places, but Mr Grayling has overseen a prison closure programme that his critics warned would result in the current shortages – and his £250m Titan "super-prison" in North Wales will not be ready until 2017.

Paddy Scriven, general secretary at the Prison Governors Association, said that "there has to a very real question mark" over closing jails so quickly, and confirmed that Operation Safeguard was previously used when 99 per cent of inmate places were taken. She added that there was a suspicion that it was "politically unacceptable" to shut prisons closer to a general election, even though extra cells elsewhere were likely to have been built by then.

Andrew Neilson, campaigns director at The Howard League for Penal Reform, added that paying the private sector to "overcrowd" their cells was "not a measure that we have seen in recent years". He added: "The problem with Chris Grayling is that he is very irresponsible in the way he operates. He talks tough and does not countenance the idea that the prison population has to fall."

There was a marginal improvement in Friday's latest weekly figures, with 329 places available – but still 99.6 per cent full. By then, though, Mr Grayling is understood to have already agreed that more space should be found in privately run prisons, such as by accommodating two prisoners in cells designed for one, which is thought to be less costly than renting from the police.

Divisions of Serco and G4S run 11 of the 14 privately operated prisons in England and Wales. G4S only repaid the MoJ £108.9m last week for its part in the electronic tagging scandal, which emerged last summer, while it was recently forced to deny that a riot occurred at its Oakwood prison near Wolverhampton at the start of the year.

The Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadiq Khan, said: "Chris Grayling is clearly too embarrassed to admit prisons are in the danger zone. He is clearly clueless and working on the basis that he won't be around to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.

"Given all his reassurances that there's ample room to lock up criminals, if he runs out of space then it has to mean his future as Justice Secretary being short-lived. Grayling is presiding over a prison system as close to the brink as it has been in recent times."

The prisons minister Jeremy Wright said: "We have enough space within our prisons to accommodate all offenders without relying on police or court cells and will not be in a position where we can't imprison those sentenced by the courts. By 2015, the Government will have increased adult male prison accommodation so that we have more places than we inherited from the previous government."

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album