The Archbishop of Canterbury has condemned the prison system as "worse than useless" for failing both offenders and victims and called for a commission of inquiry to examine the alternatives to jail.
Rowan Williams warned: "We cannot for much longer manage with an expanding prison population whose levels of reoffending are so high."
His strongly worded intervention will increase the discomfort of John Reid, the Home Secretary, as he struggles to find ways of coping with the rising numers in custody. Dr Williams protested that society did not show enough responsibility towards those it locked up, including its duty to try to rehabilitate them.
"If we seriously want to address the problem of reoffending, it is clear that a penal culture in which there is no real attention to how offenders change is worse than useless. It reinforces alienation, low self-worth and the lack of any sense of having a stake in the life of a community."
Delivering the annual Prison Reform Trust lecture, he called for a fundamental new direction on the punishments handed to offenders.