Prisons In ‘Desperate’ Options Crisis

A former Cardiff prison governor has accused the government of breaking a promise that only carefully-vetted prisoners, who were unlikely to be violent, would be placed in court cells. Courtroom cells currently hold 24 prisoners, but the Prison Service has put courts on stand-by to accommodate up to 100 inmates a night.

Last week, the prison population reached an all-time high of 80,977, only 481 places away from capacity. The Prison Governors’ Association (PGA) described the use of court cells as a “desperate, bottom-of-the-barrel option” because of overcrowding in prisons.

Yesterday it was revealed that it had entered an official dispute with the Prison Service for the first time in its history, urging its members not to volunteer to supervise the temporary jails.

Paul Tidball, the president of the PGA and a former governor of Cardiff Prison, accused the Government of sending “all sorts” into the makeshift court cells. He said he had heard reports of prisoners being held in court cells including those under the influence of drugs and a man on the first night of a life sentence. Mr Tidball said staff were at risk of assault.

Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, is expected to add to the criticism when she publishes the first report on facilities at one of the courts involved in a few weeks.

Mr Tidball said, “Prison governors will remember the Prime Minister for requiring them to compromise their professionalism by presiding over the squalor of prisoners in Crown court cells during a period of chaos. “Millions of pounds a month are being wasted on locking up prisoners in potentially dangerous conditions.”

The PGA says prisoners in court cells often sleep on mattresses on the floor. There are insufficient facilities including no showers and few phones. Court cells in use as temporary prisons are staffed by private security firms rather than regular warders, but prison governors are being told to oversee the sites.

John Reid, the Home Secretary, promised 8,000 extra prison places before he relinquished control of the system last month, but they will not be ready until 2012.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said, “Forget rehabilitation – imprisonment is now reduced to a dangerous game of musical cells. Prison after prison is reaching its safe operating limit so people are being decanted into unsuitable court cells. In some cases, they are stacked up in escort vans reeking of urine. This is no way to run a criminal justice system.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said, “Court cells are used only as a measure of last resort if accommodation in prison and police cells is exhausted. In order to ensure correct supervision, a compulsory rota of on-call Prison Service governor grade staff has been put in place.”

The PGA urged ministers to order the early release of thousands of minor offenders simply to resolve the immediate crisis. But Tony Blair is said to have blocked the idea when it was put forward by Lord Falconer, the minister in charge of prisons.