Jails 'set to explode' with 50,000 prisoners

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THE PRISON population passed 50,000 yesterday as reformers described the penal system as 'bursting at the seams' and governors predicted serious disturbances.

The Government's new law-and-order measures, with their emphasis on custodial sentences, are expected to push the total over 55,000 by the turn of the century.

Yesterday, the number of people held in jails in England and Wales was 50,108, including 144 in police cells; this has risen from 40,000 in 1992.

Britain already has the highest prison population in western Europe. The all-time record of 51,239, in July 1987, is expected to be passed early next year as tougher sentencing takes effect. After 1987, the total declined when Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, introduced alternatives to custody and other measures enshrined in the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, but it has risen again after a package of measures introduced by Michael Howard.

The Home Secretary, who on Thursday repeated his assertion that 'prison works', has said: 'We shall no longer judge the success of our system of justice by a fall in the prison population.'

Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, said that projections put the total at 56,600 by 2001. 'We must now question publicly the wisdom of some of the central tenets of current penal policy,' he said.

'We cannot continue to cope with this ever-expanding number of prisoners and simultaneously cut back on expenditure. Something has to give.'

He added that the association was particularly concerned about the increasing number of people being kept in prison on remand.

Stephen Shaw, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 'The crisis of prison overcrowding has now returned with a vengeance. A prison system bursting at the seams is less stable, less secure, and less able to offer constructive regimes.'

The prison population has risen steadily since the end of the Second World War when the total was about 15,000. By 1950, it was 20,000; in 1965 it had reached 30,000, and topped 40,000 by 1975.

After the Strangeways prison riots in Manchester, Lord Woolf, who carried out an inquiry, said that it was important 'to reduce the prison population to an unavoidable minimum'.

The Prison Service said yesterday that the population was 1 per cent above its projections and that since 1985 it had spent pounds 1.2bn on 21 new jails to house 11,285 inmates. It added that six private prisons were now being built.