Too many prisoners, not enough prisons

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The Independent Online
Having filled up its hastily purchased Portakabins with prisoners, the Home Office is to commandeer a former American missile base in Suffolk and turn it into a makeshift jail. Some peace dividend: the fruit of the ending of the Cold War is space for the nation's burgeoning population of convicts.

But surely the Prison Service is being somewhat unimaginative. The Ministry of Defence is awash with surplus land and gear. The Navy is in decline. We know that because admirals were only this week passed over for the job of Chief of Defence Staff. That must mean that there are destroyers, maybe even a carrier, spare. So why not do what the government did when it had all those French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars and re-commission the hulks - floating prisons? It would add verisimilitude to the British Tourist Board's promotion of Olde London.

Alternatively, there are all those empty dungeons in the royal palaces and English Heritage's estate. Putting real, live prisoners in them would make the Bloody Tower and Dover Castle even more attractive to tourists - and give those overweight yeomen warders a real job of work at last. Failing that, we could turn one of the innumerable Scottish islands into an offshore prison - Alcatraz would have nothing on St Kilda as the ultimate escape-proof jail. Come on, Mr Howard, show some imagination! Why stop at missile bases?

What isn't a joke is that the Home Office has woefully miscalculated its numbers. For months, if not years, all sorts of makeshift arrangements are going to have to be made to accommodate the fast-expanding prison population. As we reported yesterday, magistrates' courts cells may be brought into use over Christmas. All such expedients are deplorable. Convicts or those on remand held in temporary cells are unlikely to have access to even a basic prison regime. This flouts the principle that all prisoners should be subject to uniform conditions and that to their loss of liberty should not be added unpredictable variations in the conditions under which they are held. It is also likely to be expensive, requiring supernumerary private-sector staff to be brought in. As for the American air base scheme, it seems that the Ministry of Defence may even be asked to "donate" its police for patrols. They will not have been trained in guarding prisoners and may well end up reducing rather than improving security.

Let's not argue, at this point, with the Home Secretary's basic policy, which is to make a prison sentence a more likely outcome of criminal proceedings. Michael Howard's reliance on statutory jail terms for a wider class of offences will have a direct and measurable effect on prison numbers. (Legislation to be announced in the Queen's Speech next week will push up the prison population even further.) We disagree that these measures are going to be effective in terms of reducing the total volume of crime; they do purchase "time out" for criminals, off the streets, as the Home Secretary has said, but the cost is huge.

But it is entirely legitimate for Michael Howard to pursue such a policy - provided he and his government colleagues are prepared to will the means. The prison population is, of course, not "controllable" by the Home Office in daily detail; it is determined by the decisions of the courts. But the Home Secretary sets the tone for sentencing decisions as well as the tariffs. He is certainly responsible for the projected growth. But has he secured the wherewithal? Richard Tilt, the director-general of the Prison Service, says no. Even if we discount Mr Tilt's complaints for the time of year they are issued - it is the season for annual bargaining between spenders and the Treasury - he bears witness to fiscal backsliding. High rhetoric from the Home Secretary, and big promises at the Tory Party conference, are being followed by a refusal to honour the commitment.

All this is rapidly shaping up as a shambles. It looks as if these temporary arrangements involving camps and court cells will persist. If so, it will amount to a de facto alteration in the penal regime for large numbers - unlegislated and unwilled. There will be less security. The Home Office deserves a legal challenge - though it could be Home Secretary Jack Straw who has to field it.

So the delivery of a policy which the Government has been trumpeting is failing. Almost as important as that fact is the symbolism of this cock-up. It damages the very authority of the state. Confidence that government has the power and competence to deliver as promised is a precious thing. It deserves the care and concern not just of those who believe government should do more but also of liberals, temperamentally allergic to undue state interference, and those who would like the state to be smaller. Ineffective government is no substitute for limited government - it is no more than a recipe for resentment and irritation which can sometimes spill over into a contempt for authority of all kinds.

Thatcherism's "big idea" was rolling back the state, freeing (as she saw it) enterprise; it remains the guiding principle of the Major government. But diminution of the effectiveness of government was no part of the lady's project, or her successor's. Lack of accommodation for an expanded population of prisoners bids fair to become a classic example of government failure.

It's an own goal for the Tories, but one that has consequences for many more of us than prisoners.