Jail Crisis Looming As Prisons Run Out Of Cells

Desperate attempts were under way last night to avert a prison population crisis as the country’s jails began to run out of places.

Justice Ministry officials are in discussion with police chiefs to release more temporary cells that can be used to deal with the record numbers.

Governors have also been ordered to let inmates transfer to open prisons, which still have some spare capacity, at an earlier stage before completing their sentences.

A new prison service instruction (PSI) requires that inmates serving between 12 months and four years should spend the last 56 days in open conditions – compared to 28 days now.

Last Friday, there were nearly 81,000 inmates – close to the operational capacity, and almost twice the number 15 years ago. The crisis is so acute that prison vans have taken to driving around for hours searching for spare places.

The Government has activated Operation Safeguard, which allows the emergency use of police and court cells.

Last week, there were a record 480 prisoners in police cells and 100 court cells are also available.

Officials are hoping the pressures will ease in the next few weeks especially when a new 300-cell jail opens in Liverpool next month as part of a promise to supply another 8,000 places by 2012.

The crisis has caused tensions within the prison service, with governors criticising the use of court cells on health and safety grounds. They have no proper facilities, and have been branded “squalid and potentially dangerous” by prison chiefs.

Guards are provided by private security firms but the court cells have to be supervised by an officer of governor rank.

The Prison Governors’ Association (PGA) has urged its members not to co-operate and is now in official dispute with the Prison Service for the first time

The PGA is urging ministers to order the early release of thousands of minor offenders to resolve the immediate crisis. This so-called executive release was last agreed by the Douglas Hurd.

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: “This scandalous situation is yet another direct outcome of the Government’s total incompetence in managing the prisons system.

“This crisis has already led to high-risk prisoners being placed in open prisons, and people who should be in prison allowed to go free.

“It now appears that it will lead to prisoners serving less than their full-term, which is both a failure to deliver justice, and a failure to protect the public.”