Jail population at record level

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Last night there were more people locked up in prison than at any time in Britain's history.

News that the prison population had reached 51,243, with jail overcrowding forcing 324 people to be held in unsuitable police cells, prompted calls for a change in the Government's "prison works" approach.

The number of inmates has risen by more than 25 per cent from 40,606 since the end of 1992. There are fears that the tensions and frustrations caused by cramped, overcrowded conditions, particularly in the large Victorian city-centre jails, could lead to disturbances.

Overcrowding was identified as a factor in the Strangeways riots and, more recently, at disturbances at Wymott and Everthorpe as a result of those jails having to take "unsuitable" prisoners because there was no room for them elsewhere. Problems are being exacerbated by a work-to-rule by prison officers over security in the jails.

Of particular concern is the unprecedented rise in the number of women being sent to prison - also now at a record high of 2,012, many of them fine defaulters. Yesterday Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association and governor of an overcrowded women's jail, questioned the use of prison for such debtors.

But Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is determined that the threat of imprisonment remains a weapon in the fight against crime. The Government expects to provide an extra 2,000 places by next year.

The prison population was last at record levels in 1987, reaching 51,293. But Douglas Hurd, when he was Home Secretary, pursued a policy which imposed longer prison sentences for serious and violent offenders, but sought to divert less serious criminals to be sentenced in the community, which led to a lowering of the population in the late 1980s.

As rising crime put law and order back at the top of the political agenda, the Government has progressively adopted a tougher stance.

But yesterday Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, the penal reform group, said: "The country can no longer afford a Home Secretary obsessed with retribution and incarceration at the expense of preventing crime and the fair treatment of those who have transgressed."

tA Home Office study has found that nine out of ten magistrates are satisfied with the probation service and eight of ten are happy with the range of community sentences.

The results of the study were revealed the day after Mr Howard stripped probation officers of their power to decide non-custodial sentences.