Posted on May 28, 2008

Don’t Catch Any More Thieves—The Prisons Are FULL, Say Guards

James Slack, Daily Mail (London), May 28, 2008

Inmate numbers have reached an all-time high as it emerged wanted criminals are being left free because there is no room for them in jail (file photo)

Inmate numbers have reached an all-time high as it emerged wanted criminals are being left free because there is no room for them in jail.

Prison guards warned yesterday that wanted criminals are not being rounded up because there is no room in jail—on the day the number of prisoners topped 83,000 for the first time.

Guards said the situation is so bad that police are delaying the execution of warrants for the arrest and imprisonment of bail-jumping burglars, thieves and other criminals.

The latest crisis follows a surge in prisoner numbers of more than 250 over the bank holiday weekend, which was marred by violent attacks.

Colin Moses, national chairman of the Prison Officers Association, said: ‘We currently have serious staff shortfalls throughout the service and as new places become available they are immediately filled.

‘I often ask myself, how many custodial warrants are outstanding because, as a prison place is available, a prisoner appears. So are the public really safe or are the police only executing warrants dependant on prison and police cell spaces?’

The dramatic increase in inmate numbers over the weekend—taking the total to around 83,070—leaves the Government once again reliant on police cells.

Including police cells, the total maximum prison capacity is 83,423. Even with the 400 spaces available under Operation Safeguard—which costs the taxpayer around £400 per prisoner each night—there are still only a few hundred places left.

In a desperate bid to buy more time, Ministers have activated a plan to cut nine months from the sentence of foreign criminals, including burglars and muggers.

The foreign nationals will be sent home 270 days before their sentences reach the halfway point.

Once they arrive back in their homeland, they will be free. The only sacrifice the villains will be expected to make is to promise not to return to the UK until the 270 days are up.

Ministers hope it will reduce the number of foreign criminals clogging Britain’s jails, which currently stands at around 11,000.

But critics say it will deny justice to British victims of their crimes. In some cases, it could lead to inmates guilty of serious crimes serving only a few weeks behind bars.

Tory justice spokesman Nick Herbert said: ‘This incompetent Government has failed to provide enough jail places and now lurches from one prison crisis and panic measure to another. Without proper border controls there will be nothing to stop foreign criminals from immediately returning to this country.

‘It is bad enough that millions more of taxpayers’ money is being wasted on housing prisoners in expensive police cells, but the public will not forgive Ministers if they extend their disastrous early release scheme which has already seen thousands of violent offenders walk free before serving even half of their sentence.’

He also expressed alarm about the PSA’s warrant claims. Custodial warrants cover everything from bail jumpers and criminals found guilty or sentenced in their absence, to escaped prisoners.

Mr Herbert said: ‘It would be extremely worrying if the police were leaving offenders at large until there was sufficient prison space to accommodate them. We have already seen failures in executing warrants, but a deliberate policy not to do so because of prison overcrowding would take concern to a new level.

‘The Government should respond to this allegation and assure us that steps are taken to take offenders into custody as soon as warrants are issued.’

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: ‘We will always provide enough prison places for serious offenders, those who should be behind bars: the most dangerous, the seriously persistent offenders, the most violent. Prison is the right place for such people.

‘Since the beginning of March we have increased total capacity by over 1,000 places through the prison building programme and every effort is being made to make best use of the existing estate and bring new accommodation on-stream early.’

The MoJ added: ‘We have made it clear that foreign national prisoners should face deportation when they meet the relevant criteria, and that deportation should happen as early as possible in their sentence.

‘The early removal scheme in respect of foreign national prisoners has been successfully in operation since 2004 and over 3,000 prisoners have been removed to their country of origin under the scheme.’

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth added: ‘The POA’s concern that arrest warrants may not be being executed because of a lack of prison space shows just how chaotic the prison system has become.

‘The punishment should fit the crime and not be based on the ever-decreasing availability of prison cells.’

Ministers have been locked in a frantic battle against overcrowding for the past two years. As quickly as they can build extra places, they are filled by the courts. Officials are hopeful numbers will fall over the next few dates, as inmates who could not be freed over the bank holiday are released.