Alan Travis

Jail population spike threatens whole system, governors warn. Chiefs remind justice secretary Chris Grayling that rise in inmates follows decision to close four prisons
The Guardian, Wednesday 16 October 2013


A sudden rise in the jail population in England and Wales is threatening the stability of the system, prison governors have warned.

They say the spike in the number of inmates, to 84,832, has led to some jails reaching their capacity just as the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has ordered prison closures.

Eoin Mclennan-Murray, the president of the Prison Governors Association (PGA), said he was concerned that an increase of 635 extra prisoners had come over the past four weeks, as four prisons had were earmarked for closure.

He said the usable capacity of the prison system in England and Wales was 86,058 places, but many spare cells were in young offenders' institutions and women's prisons, and were unsuitable for adult male prisoners.

The most acute pressures were being felt in south-west England and the West Midlands.

"This may well lead to prisons locking out [holding inmates elsewhere] and the requirement to use police cells," said a PGA statement. "In some cases, this has already happened."

The prison governors, who are holding their annual conference, issued a statement saying they had "serious concerns" over the situation: "This spike in prison numbers present[s] a significant threat to the stability of the prison estate at a time of prison closures and reduced staffing numbers brought about by benchmarking and restructure. This is accompanied by a number of prisons reaching capacity."

The PGA president said the political decision to accelerate the closure of four prisons had made the situation particularly acute as their inmates had to be accommodated within the spare capacity elsewhere.

"We were taken by surprise by the closure of the four prisons because earlier this year we were told there would be no closures until 2014. It was political decision," Mclennan-Murray said.

He said the expensive Operation Safeguard, an emergency measure under which prison inmates were held in police cells, had not yet been put into action.

But police cells had been used overnight in cases where prisoners had been delivered late to a jail and the alternative was a 125-mile journey to another prison.

The sudden rise in prisoner numbers also marks the end of the period during which Ken Clarke, as justice secretary, delivered a fall of nearly 3,000 in the prison population by January this year, when it stood at 83,909. It had remained stable until last month, since when it has started to climb rapidly, at a rate of about 160 a week.

Grayling announced in September that Reading, Dorchester, Blundeston and Northallerton would shut by March next year, leading to the loss of 1,400 prison places. A new 2,000-place "super-prison" is due to open in Wrexham, north Wales but not until 2017.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: "We have sufficient accommodation for the current and expected population. Prison numbers fluctuate throughout the year. We have recently seen a short term increase in the population but it is anticipated to stabilise in the next few weeks.

"We are confident that we will continue to operate an effective regime with safe population levels, and space for those sent by the courts."

They confirmed that no prisoners were currently being held in police cells under Operation Safeguard but confirmed that occasionally prisoners were being held in police cells overnight if it was too late to take them to their intended prison.