The Government's prisons chief warned David Blunkett against the "overuse" of jail yesterday when he blamed record suicide levels on Britain's soaring numbers of inmates.
In another challenge to the Home Secretary, Phil Wheatley, the director general of the Prison Service, also said that he personally knew of people who had been incarcerated for too long. Mr Wheatley, who took up his position in March, said prison was "not the answer to crime". He insisted it was expensive and disrupted the lives of inmates' entirely innocent wives and children.
The prison population in England and Wales topped 74,000 last month for the first time in history, and estimates suggest it could reach 80,000 within three years. The number of prisoners sharing a cell reached 20 per cent.
Figures released last week showed that 105 suicides were recorded in 2002-03, the highest total yet. The prison with the worst record for suicides was Durham, where there were six. Fifty-two of the 136 prisons in England and Wales had prisoners taking their lives.
Interviewed on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost programme, Mr Wheatley was asked to explain the reasons for the record suicide rate.
"It is not so much the overcrowding; it is just the sheer pressure of numbers, which means that we are moving people into a local prison from the courts, then moving them out very quickly, with staff not having sufficient time to try to understand the individual needs of individual prisoners. So that is part of the problem.
"But it is a very, very needy population, coming in with mental health problems, severe drug problems, facing long sentences, often with, from their point of view, their life having fallen apart. And most of the suicide problems do relate to that period immediately after coming into prison."
At the end of June, 85 prisons were officially overcrowded, including nine of the 13 jails built in the past decade. The most overcrowded was Shrewsbury, where 91 per cent of prisoners shared cells.
Mr Wheatley said that he had personally identified cases were prisoners were serving out jail terms that were inappropriate. " I sometimes look at people and think they've got very long sentences which are probably longer than I would have given them if I were sentencing them," he said.
Asked whether more prison spaces would be a solution to reducing the number of offences, Mr Wheatley said that the Prison Service was "probably playing our part" in the underlying downward trend in the crime rate.
"But we are not the answer to crime. It is important we don't over-use it. It is expensive. It is disruptive to the loved ones of those who come inside, often entirely innocent families and children who find that their whole life has to change as a result. It is a difficult experience to get through. It shouldn't be lightly used," he said.
Mr Wheatley set out the scale of the drug problem the service faced, revealing that independent research commissioned recently by the Prison Service showed that 75 per cent of prisoners were on drugs immediately before incarceration. Just under half of those were using opiates, and a quarter of those were using them almost every day.
"We are dealing with a population who have been well into serious drug dealing, often multidrug dealing ... and we have managed to reduce that, so that our level of opiate use is now at the lowest level since we began testing," he said.
"We don't turn a blind eye, because it is corrosive to running prisons that are decent. It prevents people any chance of going straight."