Police blame ministers as hunt for vacant cells is stepped up

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The Independent Online

Ministers were lambasted yesterday for failing to anticipate the jail overcrowding crisis as a desperate hunt for beds for newly convicted criminals was stepped up. With more than 80,000 people behind bars and offenders held in accommodation condemned as unfit for human habitation, prison governors warned that the only remaining beds were in low-security open jails. At current rates, even they could be filled within two days.

As disclosed by The Independent yesterday, the latest emergency to hit his troubled department has forced John Reid, the Home Secretary, to write to courts urging them to jail fewer non-dangerous offenders.

The Home Office is searching the country for disused buildings that can be rapidly converted into prison spaces. It plans to hold some offenders in temporary buildings and is considering leasing two prison ships. One hundred and fifty places have been made available for offenders at a dilapidated wing of Norwich Prison days after it was closed for refurbishment.

Nearly 500 prisoners are being held in police cells and a handful have even been housed in court cells in central London because no other space was available.

Ministers hope such moves will be sufficient to cope with the rising jail population until 2,000 extra prison places can be opened in the course of the year.

Mr Reid is anxious to avoid authorising the early release of prisoners, but could be forced into the politically embarrassing step as a last resort if other measures do not work.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, last night backed Mr Reid's appeal to courts to consider alternatives to prison for lesser offences. He said: "The ministerial statement gives a helpful summary of the present situation and is consistent with existing sentencing legislation and well-established sentencing principles."

But as Tony Blair and David Cameron clashed in the Commons over the situation, critics protested that the Home Office should have planned for the growing prison population.

Rick Naylor, president of the Police Superintendents' Association, said: "Ministers have been harping on about tougher sentences for violent crime for a long time. It has consequences if you ask the police to work harder and ask the judiciary to hand out stiffer sentences - but they have failed to build the places to put all these offenders.

"Prison officers, in particular, have been telling the Government for years that there is a growing crisis. Now that crisis is here, it seems to have come as a surprise to some people."

Mr Reid's aides insisted he had recognised the scale of the problem he faced, pointing to his plans to open 8,000 more prison places by the year 2012.

The Tory leader said: "We've got prisoners on the run, weak borders, prisons overcrowded and all the Government can do is float half-baked schemes for breaking-up the Home Office, that they can't even agree about.

"Hasn't this Government now become like the ship stranded off the Devon coast - it's washed up, it's broken up and they are just scrabbling over the wreckage."