With each puff the inevitable crisis draws nearer. The extra 700 prisoners each month cost another pounds 1m - and this is before Howard's new sentencing policy takes effect, adding another 30,000. At the same time 2,800 jobs in the prison service are being cut. Three hundred prison teachers have been sacked and education has been cut by 80 per cent in some jails. Tough new security measures, rigorous searches, restrictions on visitors, a 40 per cent cut in home leave - puff, puff, puff. Everything that keeps prisons calm along with everything that might prevent reoffending is being blown away.
Here is the latest puff on the Howard balloon: the Home Office has withdrawn the last grants from a host of prisoners' families organisations - local self-help groups that struggle to keep inmates in touch with their families. They are not run by professionals or by the usual volunteers but by tough and resolute prisoners' wives who might have walked straight out of a Linda La Plante script.
One of the oldest, the Prisoners' Wives and Families Society, is about to collapse after 20 years. Most of the others doubt they will still exist this time next year. The few charitable trusts that give to criminal justice causes have been exhausted. Charities, rightly, are unwilling to pick up a bill the Home Office has thrown down.
In a recent Home Office report, research showed that prisoners were six times more likely to offend again on release if they had no family to return to. Fathers' determination to stay with their children is often their most solid reason for not risking going back inside. Boys cast out by parents have little hope of salvation.
This sounds like boring common sense. It sounds like an observation you would expect from a government committed to family values - the healing power of family proven beyond doubt. The repentant father returning to the bosom of his forgiving wife and children - a classic Victorian moral tableau. Plainly, though, the Home Secretary does not see it this way.
Pauline Hoare, who started the Prisoners' Wives and Families Society, talks of her own experience: "I lost my job as soon as they found out my husband was inside. Friends stop talking to you and even your family can turn against you. The children can turn disturbed, especially if their mother is getting no help and takes to tranquillisers. You don't know where to turn and no one tells you anything. With no money, you don't know how to visit a prison far away. Everything pushes you to abandon him." Groups like hers run hostels for families visiting from far away, they give welfare advice, run visitors centres at prisons and offer cheap minibuses to distant jails.
It is surprising that so many women do manage to stand by their man in jail, against all the odds. These mutual self-help groups have kept many marriages going, but now most groups are on the verge of collapse. The Home Office funding was anyway pathetically small, usually around pounds 10,000.
"Now we get sod-all from the Government," says one wife who works at Help and Advice Line for Offenders' Wives (Halow) in London. She adds wryly: "We are not exactly people's favourite charity." They run minibuses for families who would never otherwise get from London to Long Lartin or Dartmoor, and they escort children to see mothers in jail. Eight full- time volunteers - no one is paid - do all the work but now they can't pay their phone bill and may soon have to close. The sums of money are tiny - a Birmingham group of Halow helped 14,000 families last year on a budget of pounds 35,000. They will shut down in December, now their Home Office funding has been withdrawn.
The Prisons Minister, Ann Widdecombe, writing to a Labour MP, admits familial contact is often crucial to prisoners' rehabilitation, "reducing the risk of reoffending". All the same, she writes that there will be no "further assistance to family ties support groups known to be in crisis funding ... Constraints on the Prison Service budget rule out the possibility of providing at present further assistance from central funds."
This is not a bleeding heart story about the rights of prisoners and their families. This is not about being soft on criminals. It is about the crime rate and how to reduce it. Most crime is committed by a small number of men who do it over and over again. So the best hope of cutting crime is by making it as unlikely as possible that the same criminal will offend again. How? There is no great mystery about it. There is a fashion for assuming that nothing works: crime either burns itself out as people get older or else criminals are beyond redemption. This is expensive and unnecessary defeatism for there is plenty of research to tell us what works best - but all of it is being ignored by the Home Secretary.
Keeping criminals bonded to their families is one proven way of increasing the chances of success. The lowest reoffending rates are among those who have been sentenced to the best run and most intensively educational community programmes. Keeping people at home with families in the real world and, if possible, in their jobs is the best indicator that they will go straight. (It also costs one-twentieth the price of prison.) Once in prison, effective education and training makes a crucial difference. So does the kind of tough psychology called "challenging offending behaviour" - teaching anger control and changing criminal attitudes.
Michael Howard ignores all the available facts. Instead he keeps on blowing into his balloon. Instead he locks more men into cells together, hardened old lags cheek by jowl with first timers, with no treatment, no education, nothing to do all day except take drugs, fight and bully each other. Every opportunity to seize hold of them and change their lives is discarded in a wanton destruction of the hope of rehabilitation.
One of the prisoners' wives says: "No one wants to know. Out of sight, out of mind. Try raising money from the public for a cause like ours. It's hard. The Home Office seems to think we should abandon our husbands and if we don't, then we must be guilty as well."
No one in a responsible position is in the business of predicting riots - publicly. Howard's new security regime has been good at preventing trouble in prisons in the past 18 months. But whispering it quietly, insiders say it takes only the slightest and most unpredictable spark. Problems over prison visits, for instance. Who knows? Michael Howard is blowing hard and those watching fear a big bang before long.Reuse content