Prison population at new record high

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The Independent Online

The prison population in England and Wales reached a record high for the third week running today as the courts continued to jail hundreds of people involved in the riots.

But the speed with which the prison population is rising following the riots appears to have slowed, with an increase of 167 this week compared with 723 last week, Ministry of Justice figures showed.

The total number of prisoners hit 86,821, compared with last week's record of 86,654, taking the population to about 1,500 short of the usable operational capacity of 88,338.

The Government has said there will be enough jail places for anyone sentenced to custody as a result of the violence and looting which swept across England's cities earlier this month, and contingency measures are also in place.

The rise - about 20 per day over the last week, compared with about 100 a day the previous week - comes as almost 1,500 people have appeared in court charged with offences linked to the riots.

A tough approach by the courts has seen seven in 10 of those charged remanded in custody, compared with just one in 10 of those charged with serious offences last year.

Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt has said there will be a "one-off increase in prison numbers as people serve their sentences" but that the new wave of inmates will not necessarily change long-term estimates of prison numbers.

Speaking on Tuesday, he said jails can cope with the spike in numbers and has defended the tough sentences in the wake of rioting.

"We are completely confident that the prison system and justice system are going to be able to cope with what the police are producing for us," he said.

"This is an exceptional event. What we have to do is make sure there are prison places for those sent to prison by the courts and we will continue to do that regardless of how many people are sent to prison."

Contingency plans to manage the "unprecedented situation" could involve bringing on new accommodation early, using extra places in the public and private estate, or reopening mothballed accommodation.

And it could also trigger plans to accommodate prisoners in police cells.

The usable operational capacity, some 88,338 places, 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 Prison Service said.

The governors of all prisons in England and Wales were also urged last week to take steps to ensure the safety of inmates jailed over the riots after a "nasty" assault between rival gangs left two prisoners in hospital.

The Prison Service sent an email to governors reminding them of the need to warn new inmates of the risks of stating where they live, what gang they may be in or what team they may support.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "The Prison Service is disciplined and used to coping with crises but the sudden influx of people has made a number of pre-existing problems worse.

"More than half of our prisons were grossly overcrowded before the riots with many prisoners, including children and young people, held long distances from their homes.

"Too many people were already in limbo, awaiting trial or a parole hearing.

"A surge in first-timers and remand prisoners increases levels of risk and uncertainty.

"The sooner the service can get on with its work with the most serious and violent offenders, and those who have committed lesser public order offences are required to payback to victims and repair damage in their communities, the better."