LEADING ARTICLE: Shut up, and pay the price Consequently damned Inside, they are damned

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IT IS certain that serious offenders, petty criminals and suspects who are innocent until found guilty will be crammed into Britain's prisons in even greater numbers next year. It is probable that some of them will riot. It is possible that a few will die. If events unfold in this way, would it be crass demagoguery to accuse Michael Howard of having blood on his hands? Crude, perhaps, but not crass. The coming crisis in the jails is not, as the cliche has it, an accident waiting to happen, for there is nothing accidental about it. It is the result of conscious decisions deliberately taken.

Most people assume that "back to basics" died when all those Tory MPs were found in beds other than their own. But that campaign was about policies as well as morality and some of these survived, most notably crime policy. In 1993 Kenneth Clarke, the then Home Secretary, reversed previous attempts at penal reform and made it easier to impose tougher sentences on minor offenders. Mr Clarke's successor was no less harsh. Restrictions on bail and on early release for good behaviour followed. Mr Howard's 1994 Criminal Justice Act made criminals of classes of people who engaged in previously lawful activities such as obstructing hunting, holding noisy parties and travelling. More important than the legislative changes were Mr Howard's cries for austere prison regimes and an end to "trendy liberalism". Judges and magistrates responded to this political pressure, and to the tabloid excitement it whipped up, by cramming the jails.

In the 130 jails of England and Wales, this approach has created conditions which verge on barbarism. The figures tell part of the story. In December 1992, there were 40,666 in jail; the population now stands at 52,731. If the changes to parole and sentencing that Mr Howard announced in October are put into effect, serious penal reformers working from Home Office figures estimate that there could be 70,000 or 80,000 behind bars by the end of the century. Thirteen prisons are already chronically overcrowded, with at least 30 per cent more prisoners than the jails were built to accommodate. In men's prisons, overcrowding means putting two inmates who may, to put it mildly, have little in common into a cell built for one. Each has to use the lavatory in front of the other.

Even if there were never to be another prison riot, this would still be a disgrace we should not endure. Remember, these people are not in the main violent criminals. What has happened since 1993 is that more and more of the mentally disturbed, the poor and the trivial offenders who used to escape prison are now being put behind bars. Holloway prison - which the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, stormed out of after seeing rats, cockroaches and piles of rubbish - is filled with women who have committed crimes such as failing to pay their television licence fee, shop-lifting and drug abuse. Many are mentally ill but since the introduction of community care there are no beds in psychiatric hospitals for them. Many have been abused by men from childhood; their hands tremble when they meet members of the largely male staff.

Is the Government prepared to spend the money needed to house the new inmates its crime policies have created? Of course not. Spending on prisoners will fall by 15 per cent in the next three years. Rehabilitation programmes are all but dead. Education and training are being cut to the bone. About 80 per cent of those currently in prison will go out and offend again after picking up some handy hints from worse offenders. We may all be exasperated by the crime rate, but this is plainly no way to tackle it.

This newspaper has rehearsed these arguments before. You may be weary of them; so are we. But while the Government persists in its blind, wrong- headed approach to prisons and crime, the position grows steadily worse. Historically, the consequences of overcrowded prisons are recidivism, bullying, drug addiction, homosexual rape, suicide and riot. This is not crying wolf. The events of the past year, at Parkhurst, Whitemoor, Holloway and elsewhere, showed us a system already under severe strain. In all likelihood we will soon see television pictures of the Home Secretary standing outside a burning jail. But then, of course, he will be doing what he does best - blaming everyone but himself.