£35m jail planned as crisis grows

Governors urge policy change to end overcrowding `scandal'
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Home Affairs Correspondent

The crisis caused by severe overcrowding has forced the Prison Service to announce plans for a new private jail costing more than £35m. Six are already in the pipeline.

The surprise announcement, coupled with news that 1,000 extra places in existing jails will be available next month, came as prison governors described the situation in many local and remand jails as "scandalous".

With the prison population now standing at a record 51,500 and rising at a rate of about 250 a week, they say the new places are already over- subscribed and that radical action is needed immediately to ease the strain. More than 400 prisoners are being held in costly and unsuitable police cells.

Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, yesterday attacked penal policy which was making debtors and the mentally ill swell prison numbers, and repeated calls for a ceiling on the number of prisoners. Speaking at the association's annual conference in Malvern, Hereford and Worcester, he said: "To see middle-aged women being brought into prison for not paying TV licences, poll tax or other debts seems an incredibly stupid way of using expensive secure prison places. But most worrying of all is to see mentally disordered offenders, properly the responsibility of the National Health Service, locked up in prisons.

"There may be as many as 2,000 taking up prison places. We know how difficult many of them are to deal with in prison."

Harry Fletcher, representing probation officers, said yesterday: "Yet another new jail only offers temporary respite."

News of the new jail, to be built on the site of a derelict young-offender institution at Lowdham Grange, near Nottingham, comes the day before publication of the latest Prison Service trends, which are expected to show a huge increase in the projected prison population . Earlier estimates had put it at 55,000 by 2000.

But Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, defended the Government's record and underlined his determination to continue his "prison works" policy. He also said more court escort work in South-west England, South Wales, South-east England, the West Midlands and central Wales is to be given to private security firms.

"It is my job to provide the means for the courts to pass sentences they think appropriate on criminals who have been caught and convicted, and we are creating extra places," he said.

Prison conditions had improved considerably in recent years. "In 1988, there were 5,000 prisoners, three to a cell built for one, in our prisons. Today there are none," he said.

He said the service was making every effort to enable mentally disordered offenders to get hospital treatment and said prison was an "important last resort" for wilful fine defaulters.

However, the Independent reported yesterday on three mothers, all living on benefit, who had been jailed by magistrates for poll tax default - two for owing less than £22. They were all freed on the orders of the High Court because they were people who could not pay - not those who would not.