Prison population at all-time high

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The Independent Online

The prison population in England and Wales reached an all-time high for the third week running today, figures showed.

The total number of prisoners hit 87,214, 94 higher than last week's record high of 87,120 and about 1,600 short of the usable operational capacity of 88,818, Ministry of Justice figures showed.

The rising prison population has been fuelled by tough sentences for those involved in last month's riots, along with two thirds of defendants being held on remand, compared with just one in 10 for serious offences last year.

As well as the increase in the proportion of defendants being held on remand over the riots, sentences for those involved in the violence and looting were tougher too, Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures show.

Those involved in the riots have been jailed for an average of 10.4 months for violent disorder, compared with an average of 5.3 months last year.

For burglary, the average for those involved in the riots was 14.1 months, compared with 8.8 months last year.

But no prison places are currently activated under Operation Safeguard, which would involve using cells at police stations as accommodation for prisoners, the MoJ said.

Other contingency plans could involve bringing on new accommodation early, using extra places in the public and private estate, or reopening mothballed accommodation.

The usable operational capacity is the total number of prisoners that the jails in England and Wales can hold, taking into account control, security and the proper operation of the planned regime, less 2,000 places.

This reflects the constraints imposed by the need to provide separate accommodation for different prisoners, perhaps because of their sex, age, security category, conviction status, or because of a single cell risk assessment.

It also reflects the geographical distribution of the places, the MoJ said.

Geoff Dobson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "With the economy in crisis, yet another record high prison population should trigger some searching questions about our approach to criminal justice.

"The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill gives Government the opportunity to put in place, for less serious offences, effective community measures that would improve victim satisfaction and command public confidence."

Vicki Helyar-Cardwell, director of the Criminal Justice Alliance which represents more than 60 organisations, added: "The Prime Minister should take the opportunity at Conservative Party Conference to publicly back the rehabilitation revolution and reiterate the coalition's promise to get a grip on prisons policy."

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the number of people in prison was "out of control".

"The Government is peddling the line that there are spare places but this is predicated on systemic overcrowding," she said.

"There are already almost 10,000 too many people in prisons than there are safe places and double that number are forced to share cells designed for one person.

"This is a return to the fetid inactivity of John Howard's day, and as in his day, the sickness generated in prisons spills out into the community through increased reoffending and more victims."