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Prisons can take more inmates, says ministry

The number of criminals held in prison in England and Wales has reached a record level of 84,897 – but there is still room for more, the Government has insisted.

Another 1,740 inmates can yet be accommodated, according to the Ministry of Justice, but with the total rising by 400 last week alone, serious questions remain about how long it will be before prisons are full.

Fears that capacity will be reached in a matter of weeks were increased by the decision last month by the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, to end the controversial End of Custody Licence, an early release scheme that has seen more than 80,000 offenders freed.

Mr Straw has promised to increase the prison capacity to 96,000 by 2014, but there are already worries about overcrowding. A report last year by the Prison Reform Trust revealed that Wandsworth prison in south London was at 150 per cent capacity, with 1,650 inmates using space intended for just 1,107. Geoff Dobson, deputy director of the trust, said: "It is a form of economic madness to allow the prison population to spiral out of control. Each new prison place costs £170,000 excluding running costs."