Court Cells Used To Bail Out Our Packed Prisons

Court cells will be used to house significant numbers of convicts for the first time in a desperate bid to save John Reid from overseeing the early release of prisoners.

In yet another escalation of the overcrowding crisis in our jails, officials were preparing to use court cells across central and west London.

In yet another escalation of the overcrowding crisis in our jails, officials are preparing to use court cells across central and west London

Convicts are expected to be moved in within hours. It follows a bad Easter for the Home Secretary, who had been hoping for a big reduction in inmate numbers while the courts were not sitting.

But this failed to materialise and the population remains close to an all-time high at 80,220 – with 270 convicts housed in police cells.

Numbers were expected to rise sharply overnight as the courts returned to work.

But, instead of considering the politically embarrassing early release of criminals already in prison to make room, Mr Reid’s officials were willing to use court cells instead.

Small numbers of convicts have already been housed beneath courts, which lack even basic facilities such as toilets.

But this week they are expected to be used on a much larger scale, providing room for up to 45 inmates each night.

Prison sources said it showed the desperation within the National Offender Management Service to protect Mr Reid from facing the blunt reality of the crisis.

Insiders view early release of some serving prisoners as almost inevitable, but Mr Reid – desperate to preserve his “tough” reputation – has ruled this out.

Instead, he is hoping to cling on to May 9 – when the job of sorting out the shambles will pass to the new Ministry of Justice.

At this point, responsibility for the hugely damaging act of letting hundreds of prisoners go early will belong to Lord Falconer, who will head the new department.

Lord Falconer has already said he would be willing to consider such a move.

A prison source said: “NOMS will do anything to avoid putting the Home Secretary in a position where he has to make a decision on early release before May 9.”

Officials hope the use of court cells will contain the crisis at least until the end of this week, when another frantic measure ordered by Mr Reid will begin to have an effect.

As revealed by the Daily Mail last week, around 500 criminals – including burglars – are being moved to open jails for the last 28 days of their sentence.

Normally, they would have spend their term locked behind bars, but Ministers are desperate to create space in the secure prison estate.

Meanwhile, the Prison Governors Association is calling for fewer minor offenders with mental health and alcohol problems to be locked up.

Governors also say too many released convicts are being “whisked back into custody” for breaches of their release licence.

In written evidence to House of Commons home affairs committee, Paul Tidball, the PGA president, said: “The prison population need be nowhere near as high as it is now. Many thousands of offenders are in prison inappropriately now.

“Imprisonment is an expensive option and the American experience has shown that as prison costs spiral the budgets of other public services will suffer.”