Riots: Now governors warn of prison time bomb

Tough sentences could spark overcrowding crisis

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of rioters are being “warehoused” in jails across the country, pushing the prison population to record levels and increasing the risk of internal disturbances, violence and mass re-offending, the Government was warned yesterday by its own prison governors and officers.

Insiders spoke frankly of the huge strain placed on the system by the riots, painting a portrait of a service buckling under the weight of the increase in inmates – in contrast to public reassurances from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

Prison officers warned that the crowding has already led to heightened tensions beyond prison gates, and that re-offending will rise because rehabilitation services have been compromised.

A leaked memo to prison governors from the MoJ shows that there are concerns in Whitehall about the safety of rioters being held on remand.

The total number of prisoners yesterday hit a new record of 86,654 – up 723 on the previous high set last Friday, and leaving less than 1,500 spaces left in the system. The four major remand prisons in London – Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Pentonville and Brixton – are under particular pressure. Private contractors are having to transfer some long-term inmates to less pressured jails in other cities.

The tough line taken by the courts, insiders said, would see some of those now behind bars being given crash courses in criminality.

Paul McDowell, the governor of Brixton Prison until 2009, and now chief exec of the crime reduction charity Nacro, told The Independent that the current difficulty in finding prison places will be nothing compared to the future repercussions of having so many people – many of whom have never seen the inside of a prison before – serving short sentences without adequate support.

“What we’ve seen over the past week is huge numbers of people being sent to our inner-city prisons which are already struggling to deliver rehabilitation services to its inmates,” he said.

“Many of those being put behind bars will spend three to four months in the cells with no constructive activity whatsoever. I wouldn’t be surprised if the re-offending rate increases.”

Geoff Dobson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, added: “The rapid increase in prison numbers means that sections of our prison estate are becoming human warehouses, doing little more than banging people up in overcrowded conditions, with regimes that are hard pressed to offer any employment or education. The likelihood is that for some first time offenders this will provide a fast track to a criminal career.”

A report released by the trust last year found that 60 percent of those serving sentences under a year go on to re-offend.

Britain currently has the largest number of people behind bars per capita in Europe followed by Spain and Germany. Yet under the Government’s austerity measures, the Prison Service has been told to cut its budget by 23 percent over the next three years.

An employee of a private security company involved in the transportation of prisoners told The Independent that his workload had increased by about 30 to 40 percent, as vans shuttled those charged in the riot around the country to find cell beds. He said colleagues had been working through nights and on weekends to cope with the extra influx of cases.

The Prison Service said it was facing an "unprecedented situation" but insisted that it was "developing contingencies to increase usable capacity” and could cope with the recent influx.

The leaked MoJ memo, sent out to prison governors this week, warned of the dangers facing new prisoners locked up since the riots, after three new arrivals were attacked at Cookham Wood young offenders institute in Kent.

“Over the past few days there has been emerging intelligence regarding the consequences of receiving public disorder remands/offenders,” the MoJ memo read.

“This morning there has been a nasty three person alleged assault. All three victims were public disorder remands, two currently in hospital.

“It is important that where remands/offenders are received thought is put into their background in terms of their experience of a custodial setting.”

Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said: “We are dealing with the most over-crowded prison network that we can ever remember.

“The police have said they could possibly arrest another 2,000 people. Not all of these will go to prison but there is barely enough space to house even a third of those at the moment.

“It is simply unsustainable if we continue at the rate we are going.”

He added: “Morale among prison officers is at its lowest ebb since I joined the prison service 21 years ago.”

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."

In the past two weeks, 138 under-18s have been remanded into custody for rioting alone – a six per cent rise on the number of children in Young Offender Institutions in June.

Lucy Dawes, director of performance at the Youth Justice Board, said it has had to move some long-term detainees to other parts of the country to deal with the influx of riot-related cases in London.

She said: “We have clear strategies in place to assess the needs of young people coming into the estate and ensuring that the time they are with is us is constructive.”

A Prison Service spokeswoman said: “Governors were reminded to ensure that, despite increased arrivals to prison, all reception procedures were thoroughly followed.

“It is entirely appropriate to remind governors of the need to make proper assessments of the risks that apply to certain prisoners and the steps they should take to manage such risks.”

This could include Operation Safeguard which involves using police cells to house prisoners in the short term as well as re-opening facilities which have been closed down in recent months.

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.