The country's jails could be full within months, forcing courts to send offenders to police cells, the chief inspector of prisons has warned.
Anne Owers said overcrowding in prisons in England and Wales was having a "debilitating" impact on the system. The jail population now stands at 73,075, about 2,000 short of capacity.
The pressure had contributed towards "shocking" suicide rates and a 30 per cent rise last year in the number of incidents of "self-harming" among inmates, she said in her annual report.
Ms Owers said the rising number of inmates was threatening the ability of prisons to provide decent conditions, and she made clear her scepticism that the upwards trend could be reversed. She said: "We're seeing the possibility of prisons being absolutely full, not being able to take anyone else, by the beginning of summer.
Under one projection, the jail population could pass 90,000 by 2006. The Prison Service has only been given money to increase capacity to 77,500 by that date and has firm plans for just two new jails, at Peterborough, and Ashford in west London. Ms Owers said that good work in prisons was being "overshadowed" by the increasing number of inmates. She commented: "All prisons are feeling the strain of the continued pressure on population, with an increasing risk, not only of acute problems, such as deaths and disturbances, but of an insidious and chronic decline in expectations and achievements."
She said 7,700 inmates - including a quarter of women in local prisons - tried to injure themselves in the first half of 2003, an increase of 30 per cent on the previous year. Ms Owers also suggested that new mental institutions should be built as an alternative to jailing disturbed offenders, with the costs falling on the Department of Health. She said some could have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, while others may be facing a sentence imposed by the courts.
"Care in the community for many of the people we see in the prison system simply doesn't exist at all. They end up in prison as the only safe and secure place," Ms Owers said. Open prisons were being expected to deal with higher-risk inmates than they were designed for, the report said, leading to a rise in the number of inmates absconding.
"We don't think that those running open prisons have been alerted and supported to the fact that they will need to operate differently, or been given the resources to do so," said Ms Owers.Reuse content