'Super-prisons' would make crisis worse, says watchdog

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Emergency plans to build three "super-prisons" to hold soaring numbers of inmates could backfire by deepening the crisisfacing jails, the prisons watchdog fears.

Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, says the penal system, which already holds more than 80,700 people, is struggling to cope with the pressures it faces and she even raises the prospect of financial cutbacks leading to riots.

In a report published today, Ms Owers paints a grim portrait of conditions behind bars, pointing to a 40 per cent increase in suicides last year, continuing overcrowding and the plight of mentally ill inmates.

She blames government policies for last year's record prison population, which forced ministers to order the use of police cells to hold detainees and to approve the early release of non-dangerous inmates.

Ms Owers says: "That crisis was predicted and predictable, fuelled by legislation and policies which ignored consequences, cost or effectiveness, together with an absence of coherent strategic direction."

She warns in her annual report that government proposals for a vast expansion in jail places, principally by building so-called "Titan jails", would be counterproductive. "On the horizon loom the Titans – 2,500-strong prison complexes, flying in the face of our, and others' evidence, that smaller prisons work better than larger ones," she says. "They may be more efficient, but at the cost of being less effective."

She also raises fears over suggestions by Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, that prison ships and "unsuitable" converted army barracks could be used to hold inmates.

And she protests over the 3 per cent efficiency savings which mean that from April many inmates will be locked in their cells, with no opportunity for exercise or meeting other prisoners, between Friday nights and Monday mornings. She says the strategy is "fraught with risk in relation to order and control". Further funding cuts are expected in each of the next two years.

Ms Owers says the penal system is now "at a crossroads", adding: "At a time of severely restricted public funding, there is now a real risk that we will get worse, as well as more, prisons."

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "This breathtaking report shows Britain's prisons are on the brink of disaster."