The move was attacked by penal reformers and immigration groups who are opposed to the use of prisons for locking up people who have committed no crime.
The five prisons - at Birmingham, Rochester in Kent, Holloway in London, Doncaster, and Haslar Holding Centre in Gosport, Hampshire - will replace the 41 jails currently used. The Prison Service said the plan would enable them to concentrate resources.
The move follows criticism by Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, who earlier this year attacked the use of Victorian prisons to hold asylum seekers. He found desperation and self-mutilation to be common.
Record numbers of asylum seekers are being kept in prisons and detention centres for more than a year while their cases are processed. More than 700 are currently being held, which has led to widespread protests.
Rochester prison, built in 1874, will become the largest holding centre with 200 places in two refurbished wings. Haslar will increase its capacity by 20 to 165 beds, Birmingham will hold 65, Holloway will continue to offer places for 30 women. The new prison at Doncaster will offer 30 places. The reorganisation will be completed by September.
This is the second phase in the expansion of places to hold detainees, the first saw the opening last year of Campsfield House, near Oxford, which holds about 200 people. It was the scene of a riot last week in which eight people escaped and four were injured. Five are still on the run.
Derek Lewis, the director general of the Prison Service, said: 'By focusing resources on five prisons the Prison Service and the Immigration and Nationality Department will be able to provide more language, translation and support services.'
Claude Moraes, of the Joint Council of for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: 'The Government should be looking at ways to reduce the number of people being locked up and any that need to be held should be kept at centres where there are proper facilities.'
Immigration officials admitted last night they would be unable to find out whether more than 250 Jamaicans, who arrived in Britain at Christmas for extended holidays, had returned home.
An outcry was caused when officals refused entry to 106 passengers who arrived at Gatwick. Immigration support groups accused the Home Office investigators of being racist. Six month permits for 165 of the tourists expired today but there is no central information bureau to record how many are still in the country.Reuse content