Rioters push inmate total to record high

The prison population reached a record high today as officials said they were developing contingency plans to manage the unprecedented situation caused by hundreds of people being jailed over the riots.

Tough sentencing of those involved in the violence and looting by the courts saw the number of people behind bars in England and Wales rise by more than 100 a day over the past week.

But as some of the first appeals were heard, one woman who was jailed for five months after admitting that she accepted a pair of looted shorts from her housemate walked free from prison.

Mother-of-two Ursula Nevin, 24, who was sent down by a district judge at Manchester Magistrates' Court last week after she pleaded guilty to handling stolen goods, had her sentence reduced on appeal.

The Recorder of Manchester, Judge Andrew Gilbart QC, said the original decision was "wrong in principle" as he ordered that she should instead perform 75 hours of unpaid work for the community.

Nevin was in bed at the time of the widespread disorder in Manchester city centre where her lodger, Gemma Corbett, helped herself to clothing and footwear from the Vans store and then took them back to the house they shared in Stretford, Greater Manchester.

The Prison Service insisted it had enough space to cope with anyone jailed over the disorder, adding that it was developing its contingency plans to manage the "unprecedented situation".

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

But there are currently no plans to halt the closure of Latchmere House prison in Richmond, Surrey, or Brockhill prison in Redditch, Worcestershire, which are set to shut next month.

And plans which would trigger police cells being used to accommodate prisoners have not yet been activated.

Immigration Minister Damian Green also said the Government wanted to deport any foreigners convicted over the riots, adding that it also had the power to cancel their visas.

The total number of prisoners in England and Wales hit 86,654 today, 723 more than last week's record high of 85,931 and less than 1,500 short of the usable operational capacity of 88,093, the Ministry of Justice figures showed.

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

Eoin McLennan-Murray, president of the Prison Governors' Association, said: "What is worrying is if the landscape of sentencing has changed.

"If the courts continue to be heavy-handed with other offences and use custody more readily than they have done previously then that would be problematic longer term."

Campaigners and lawyers have criticised the tougher sentences handed to those involved in rioting and looting last week as disproportionate and have urged the courts not to be swayed by "angry Britain".

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith also warned that Britain cannot simply arrest its way out of the problems which caused the riots that rocked the country.

The country must instead "address why young people join gangs, try to prevent them getting involved in the first place and help those who want to exit gang life", he said.

His comments, in an article in The Guardian newspaper, came as the Government appeared split over its response to the riots, with some Liberal Democrats criticising Tory support for lengthy sentences and suggestions that rioters should be deprived of benefits and evicted from their homes.

Geoff Dobson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the rapid increase in prison numbers meant parts of some jails were becoming "human warehouses" which will provide "a fast track to a criminal career" for first-time offenders.

Shadow prisons minister Helen Goodman said the Government has a "responsibility to ensure that the sentences handed down are being served safely".

The record came as an analysis showed that convicted rioters were being handed prison sentences which are on average 25% longer than normal.

Some 70% of defendants in 1,000 riot-related cases have been remanded in custody to await Crown Court trial, and 56 of 80 defendants already sentenced by magistrates have been handed immediate prison sentences.

Half of those jailed were charged with handling stolen goods or theft, receiving an average of 5.1 months, the study by The Guardian found. This is 25% longer than an average custodial sentence of 4.1 months for such crimes during 2010.

The outcry over sentencing began after Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, were jailed for each setting up Facebook pages which encouraged people to riot. Even though no disorder occurred they were given four years each. Blackshaw plans to appeal against his punishment handed out by a judge at Chester Crown Court.

The Court of Appeal has not received any appeals so far about sentences handed out by the Crown Courts, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Office said.

"Anyone who wishes to appeal has 28 days from the passing of the sentence within which to do it. As and when appeals are received, the court is in a position to hear them promptly," she said.

Yesterday, Lord Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions in England and Wales, warned that judges must remain dispassionate and called on the Sentencing Council to issue new guidelines for the courts as soon as possible.