Ministers 'ignored warnings about jails'

John Reid's emergency jail expansion programme has been likened by the prison watchdog to Noah building his ark after the flood began.

Anne Owers increased the pressure on the Home Secretary, by accusing ministers of ignoring repeated warnings that a "serious crisis" in the prison system was imminent.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons warned that jails were becoming dangerous, rehabilitation work with offenders was suffering and many inmates were housed in appalling conditions. Unveiling her fifth annual report, Ms Owers used her strongest language since becoming chief inspector to query the Government's entire approach to penal policy. Her criticism is likely to be echoed in a keynote speech tomorrow on criminal justice by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. With the jail population in England and Wales at a record 80,000, Mr Reid is looking for extra spaces to hold the increasing numbers of offenders in custody. He wants to house hundreds in temporary accommodation, but Ms Owers said she was worried they would be filled as soon as they were opened. She said: "It is normally considered good practice to build an ark before the flood rather than during it or after it."

She added that she was not just referring to prison-building, but the work rehabilitating offenders and minimising the risk in prisons. "This means long-term planning. Planning which in my view should have happened a long time ago."

Ms Owers admitted she could not see an easy way out of the situation, adding: "We're driving towards a position where we simply can't accommodate everybody. We certainly won't be able to throw up buildings in time to do so." She suggested that finding alternative punishments for women and more appropriate treatment for mentally-ill offenders could ease the pressure on jails.

And she protested over the number of foreign prisoners held in custody awaiting deportation and the lack of planning for inmates serving the new "indeterminate" sentences. Although she praised work in prisons on education, training and resettlement, her overall picture was of a system at breaking-point.

She warned that the unparalleled increases in the prison population and the squeeze on public spending was "an alarming and potentially extremely damaging combination". She said: "We have seen too many local prisons recently whose cultures and practices are sliding back, or failing to improve. These are only straws in the wind - but the wind does not appear to be blowing in the right direction."

Following a meeting between Ms Owers and Mr Reid yesterday, a Home Office spokeswoman said: "He shares her views and concerns across a number of issues and is actively engaged in addressing the problems she raises."

David Cameron, the Tory leader, said his party had been warning the Government for years. "It needed to make available more spaces in prisons so that we can make sure prisons rehabilitate, turn around and educate and train people."

The Tories also seized on a minister's refusal yesterday to deny that Gordon Brown tried to persuade the Home Office to control costs by keeping offenders out of jail. Stephen Timms, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was asked by MPs whether the Chancellor was responsible for the prisons crisis. He replied: "It's perfectly clear to the Home Secretary, as it is to everyone else in the Cabinet, that they need to manage their department within the settlement as agreed."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence