Leading article: Overcrowded prisons are a national disgrace

Too often prisoners idle away their time without access to education or training

Britain's prison system is unsustainably overcrowded, its inmates all too often left languishing in squalid living conditions with little, if any, real effort made towards their rehabilitation. That such a state of affairs still exists when such criticisms have been valid for decades is a matter of national shame.

Disturbingly, the problem is getting worse. Thanks in part to the influx of people jailed for their involvement in August's riots, the prison population is at an all-time high of nearly 89,000, taking the system to the very brink of its capacity. And the latest figures, to be published tomorrow, are expected to record further increases.

It is too easy to blame public-sector belt-tightening for poor jail conditions; the trouble runs far deeper. There are institutions maintaining reasonable standards even with pressing budgetary constraints. But, as Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, makes clear in this newspaper today, many are still failing at the most basic level, with appalling consequences for both individual prisoners and society as a whole.

Part of the problem is infrastructural. The reality of living in an overcrowded cell with no private lavatory, for example, is plainly inconsistent with a rehabilitative agenda that would see offenders leave prison with a sense of their having a constructive place in a society in which they would want to participate. Worse still, there are some 2,000 cells where prisoners must "slop out" each morning, despite the use of buckets being formally abolished 15 years ago. Such practices can only be a stain on the reputation of a wealthy democracy.

But Victorian facilities are not the only issue. Too often, offenders are left to idle away their time in jail without any access to the kind of training and educational services that might equip them for a crime-free life on the outside. Again, the central issue is overcrowding. That Britain has both the largest prison population in Europe and also one of the highest re-offending rates are two sides of the same coin. With institutions packed to bursting, it is simply not possible to provide rehabilitation programmes for everyone. As Mr Hardwick points out, it is those with short sentences who often fall through the gaps, finishing one short spell in jail only to bounce depressingly quickly back inside again.

While an array of factors may be blamed for overcrowding – inadequate building and maintenance programmes, for example, and the inefficient use of existing facilities – there is also the simple question of the number of people in the system. The point is not lost on the Justice Secretary. Despite his deep roots in a Conservative Party that has "prison works" as a central mantra, Ken Clarke has described last summer's riots as the "legacy of a broken penal system" and acknowledged that Britain's high re-offending rates are scandalous. He has also worked tirelessly to promote a "rehabilitation revolution" and reduce the prison population.

Mr Clarke is right; and he should be applauded for a string of constructive policies including prisoner work programmes and payment-by-results for private facilities focusing on rehabilitation rates. On the thorny issue of sentencing, however, he has fallen foul of Tory traditionalism. Some elements of his reform programme will go ahead. But the more radical proposal to offer major sentencing discounts in return for guilty pleas was neutered by a Prime Minister concerned not to appear soft on crime.

Although Mr Clarke's bargaining plan was far from flawless, the principle remains. Until the issue of sentencing is tackled – particularly addressing those short sentences that so often lead to re-offending – Britain's prisons will remain overcrowded, a discreditable merry-go-round of recidivism, wasted money and blighted lives.