Emergency Jail Measures Due Soon

{mosimage}Emergency measures to deal with severe overcrowding in English and Welsh prisons are expected to be unveiled in the next few days. John Reid will decide if police cells can be used to house inmates. The Home Secretary is also looking at transferring foreign prisoners facing deportation to immigration centres and moving some inmates to open prisons.

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith has promised the policy will not expose the public to more dangerous criminals. It is appearing increasingly likely that Operation Safeguard – the contingency plan for the co-ordinated use of police cells – will be activated in the near future.

A Home Office spokeswoman confirmed Mr Reid would make a statement “within the next few days”. The prison population reached a record 79,843 this weekend, and in theory there are just 125 more spaces available. Prisoner numbers have risen by more than 600 in the past six weeks, and are likely to continue going up until Christmas.

However, ministers will not sanction Operation Safeguard unless they absolutely have to – not least because of the cost.

It is almost four times as expensive as holding an inmate in prison.

But even if cell space is found for the next couple of months, questions remain about capacity.

The government is promising an extra 8,000 prison places – but that will be enough only if the prison population rises in line with the Home Office’s lowest forecasts.

BBC home affairs correspondent Margaret Gilmore said the Association of Chief Police Officers has a prepared plan and stations are ready to take the prisoners.

The Home Secretary is also trying to make it easier to allow foreign prisoners to serve their sentence abroad.

But our correspondent said Mr Reid will also increasingly come under pressure to focus more on rehabilitation schemes such as community service.

Labour MP John Denham, who chairs the government’s home affairs select committee, said: “It’s fairly obvious that we need to use more non-custodial sentences for the type of prisoners who need some punishment, but who don’t have to be locked up to protect the public.

“But it’s going to take some time to persuade the public that if somebody isn’t sent to prison they are still being punished and they still actually do a sentence that means something.”

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Maltravers, this weekend urged more use of community sentences, saying prison overcrowding made it difficult to rehabilitate inmates.

Some campaigners also contend prisoners who commit crimes to feed drug and alcohol addictions can often be better served outside jails.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, told the BBC treating petty offenders in the community was “one of the ways in which you can begin to try and change the pattern of crime and offending”.