Jails crisis as Britain's prison population reaches all-time high

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The Independent Online

The prison system was in crisis last night after the number of people locked up in England and Wales hit a record high of nearly 75,000.

The unprecedented pressure on the country's jails raises the prospect of convicts being held in police cells within weeks and could jeopardise security in already overcrowded prisons. The surging number of custodial sentences, which leaves the Prison Service with just 600 spare places, has startled ministers, who had hoped that the remorseless rise in prison numbers was beginning to level out.

But the population now stands at 74,543 - a rise of 2,167 so far this year and 2,674 higher than a year ago. The rise continues the steady upwards trend over a generation, with almost twice as many people in jail today as 25 years ago.

Another substantial increase over the next month would make the use of police cells inevitable in areas such as the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and London. More inmates could find themselves transported hundreds of miles from home and more may be placed in open prisons when more secure accommodation might be appropriate. It is also bound to lead to more convicts being forced to "double up" in cramped and insanitary conditions.

The increase in England and Wales mirrors the experience in Scotland, where the jail population also stands at an all-time high of 6,700. It reinforces the country's position as the jail capital of western Europe, with 141 per 100,000 of its citizens incar-cerated.

A Prison Service source placed the blame for the increase in the prison population on magistrates and judges, rejecting accusations that it had been driven by hardline government rhetoric.

One contributory problem is the rate of take-up of Home Detention Curfew, which uses electronic tags. About 3,500 are on the scheme; ministers had hoped for more than 4,000.

More than 80 of the 138 jails are officially overcrowded and 11 are judged by penal campaigners to have exceeded the maximum safe capacity. They are Ashwell in Rutland, Birmingham, Cardiff, Doncaster, Hull, Lancaster, Leicester, Lincoln, Stafford, Wandsworth in south London and Wormwood Scrubs in west London.

The number behind bars in England and Wales is 500 above projections and ministers are scrambling to keep pace. On some projections the population could reach 87,200 in 2006, 9,500 more than the beds expected to be available by that time.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, last month called for a fresh direction in penal policy, with increased use of community sentences and tagging. The Government has already attempted to extend its electronic tagging scheme and is championing "weekend jails", allowing people to maintain jobs and family links while serving part of their week inside jail.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Prisons on the brink of safe overcrowded capacity should set alarm bells ringing for a government preoccupied with tough talk. To avoid a crisis, it must act now to divert petty offenders into effective community penalties, addicts into rehabilitation and the mentally ill into the health system as well as curbing excessive sentence lengths and any needless use of custodial remand."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "This is a national disgrace. Overcrowding means too often prison has no rehabilitative effect." But David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Government has failed to ensure the capacity of the Prison Service properly reflects the level of prison population. The sentence now fits how many rooms they have free rather than the crime committed."

* Since Labour came to power, prison population has risen 24% to 74,543

* Incarceration rate is 141 per 100,000, compared with 93 in France

* A first-time domestic burglar is twice as likely to go to jail as eight years ago

* The female prison population has risen 146% in 10 years to 4,463 today

* 7,700 inmates tried to injure themselves in the first half of 2003, a 30% rise

* The number of adults serving sentences under 12 months is up 160% since 1999

Source of statistics: Prison Reform Trust and official figures