Foreign prisoners offered cash to return home

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Foreign criminals are to be offered financial incentives worth up to £2,500 to return home as part of a package of emergency measures to tackle the prison overcrowding crisis.

Police cells will also be used for newly-sentenced offenders from Thursday, a disused army barracks will be rapidly converted into prison accommodation and hundreds of inmates will be transferred to immigration detention centres.

John Reid, the Home Secretary, announced the drastic plans as the prison population in England and Wales reached 79,819, just 234 below capacity. On current trends, the country's jails could officially be full by the end of the week.

The Government believes that slashing the numbers of foreigners in jail is the key to easing the pressure on the prison system.

Mr Reid announced that overseas nationals could be given incentives worth between £500 and £2,500 to encourage them to return to their home country.

They would not receive cash-in-hand, but help with the cost of education, training, housing or starting a business. The scheme could apply to foreigners who volunteer to serve the rest of their sentences at home or who are eligible for release from jail in this country.

A Home Office spokesman said: "It will cost a lot less than paying for them to be in prison here."

But David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "By definition these are not people who you can trust to be honest. How will we stop these people ripping off the taxpayer and coming back?" The Home Secretary confirmed that Operation Safeguard, under which police cells are used for new prisoners, would be activated on Thursday.

Up to 500 cells in 19 police force areas, including the Metropolitan Police, will be made available in an effort to cope with the expected upsurge in the prison population over the autumn.

Mr Reid announced plans to convert former army barracks in Dover into new accommodation for about 220 prisoners by December. The Home Office is also negotiating to use a former secure hospital in Ashworth East, near Liverpool, to offer a further 350 places.

Three hundred more prisoners will be switched to immigration facilities by next March and another 400 by 2008.

In a controversial move, Mr Reid announced the Government would no longer automatically fight appeals against deportation by criminals from most of Europe. They will instead be released at the end of the sentences rather than being held for removal.

Prison managers are also being asked to move non-dangerous offenders to open prisons, where there is slightly more space, and magistrates encouraged to use tougher community penalties.

The Home Secretary also refused to rule out the possibility of introducing some kind of early release scheme for prisoners at a later date but said he regarded it as "a last resort".

Three months ago Mr Reid announced that 8,000 extra prison places would be created over the next six years. He told MPs that he hoped yesterday's measures, taken together, would ease the crisis in the "short to medium term".

But Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, condemned the plans as "a ragbag of desperate measures that at best will buy a few weeks' respite".

She said: "Our overcrowded jails are operating as social dustbins for addicts, the homeless, the mentally ill and vulnerable women and children."

* The Government faced embarrassment last night when it was forced to admit that just 86 of the 1,013 offenders who sparked the foreign prisoners scandal, which cost Charles Clarke his job as Home Secretary, have been deported so far. Three of the most serious offenders are still at large.