Public at risk from prison overcrowding

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The Independent Online

Record levels of overcrowding in English and Welsh jails are putting public safety at risk, says the prisons watchdog.

Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that overcrowding is having a "significant impact" on inmate rehabilitation programmes.

And Ms Owers warned that resources are being spread too thinly. "What the public want is that someone going into a prison comes out less likely to commit a crime. The danger of overcrowding is that it will make prisons less able to do positive rehabilitation work."

She said overcrowding is having a massive impact on vulnerable women prisoners, the mentally ill and drug addicts because staff are too overstretched to cope with them.

An overuse of custody by the courts and a delay in the building of new prison accommodation has been blamed for the huge rise in the prison population, which currently stands at just under 80,000.

Ministers have been forced to come up with short-term solutions to deal with the crisis. These include putting prisoners on a number of ships that would be moored offshore. The Home Office has also leased a disused wing of Ashworth psychiatric hospital near Liverpool to provide an extra 328 prison places and this week ministers activated Operation Safeguard, under which convicted criminals are held in police cells at a cost of £365 per day.

But Ms Owers, who will publish her annual report on the state of jails in England and Wales in the next few weeks, criticised the use of police cells as emergency accommodation and said they are not properly equipped to deal with drug-addicted prisoners or those at risk of self-harm.

There are 3,000 more people in prison than a year ago, including a significant numberwith chronic mental health problems.

Ms Owers said that the overcrowding crisis was being made worse by the mentally ill, who end up in jail because there is not enough support for them outside. "We should be asking to what extent should we be putting mental health resources into prisons. Prison should not be the default setting for the mentally ill."

There have been significant improvements in how jails deal with disturbed inmates and there has also been a drop in the number of prisoners committing suicide. But Ms Owers said the prison service is just "scratching the surface" in helping those suffering chronic mental illnesses.