Emergency plans to deport foreign prisoners and accommodate hundreds of offenders in police cells could be announced within days as jails become full.
John Reid, the Home Secretary, met senior prison and immigration service officials yesterday to discuss ways of handling the crisis. They are understood to have dropped earlier proposals to release inmates a few days before the end of their sentences. Instead, their discussions focused on use of police cells and the imminent deportation of several hundred foreign prisoners.
The prison population now stands at 79,806 in England and Wales, just 162 short of official capacity. It has jumped by 164 since last Friday and by 740 over the past month. Officials believe jails will be officially full by the middle of next week, forcing the Home Office to resort to "Operation Safeguard", under which newly sentenced offenders are held in police cells. About 500 could be made available initially.
The option is very expensive, costing more than £300 per prisoner per night, and the Home Office is reluctant to resort to it. But it is considered preferable to early release of prisoners. A Whitehall source said: "It would send out the wrong message."
The Home Office is also looking at removing some of the 11,000 foreigners in jail. It hopes to deport several hundred, although that is surrounded by legal and practical problems, or to move them to immigration detention centres. Another alternative is to "double up" more inmates in single cells, but that could increase tensions in jails that are already overcrowded.
A Home Office spokes-man said it was "investigat-ing options for providing further increases in capacity", adding that a further 430 prison places would be opened over the next year. Jail capacity would reach 88,000 by 2012.
Charles Bushell, leader of the Prison Governors Association, said the situation was "desperately bad" and warned that using police cells would only be a "quick fix". He said: "We have reached bursting point. Anybody who says we should build more prisons needs to say how many and where the money is going to come from."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "This crisis is the result of inexcusable incompetence right at the top of the Government. It is a huge embarrassment for John Reid, who despite all his tough talk, has sat on his hands for nearly six months while a serious problem became an emergency."
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "We are running into the buffers. The way you get prison numbers down is by cutting the offending. Half of all our crime today is caused by convicts who reoffend."
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "John Reid must now act decisively to divert petty offenders into enforced community work, addicts into treatment and the mentally ill into health care. Everyone knows an overcrowded jail can do little or nothing to prevent the next victim."Reuse content