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Fears of trouble as prison overcrowding hits all-time record by Jason Beattie, Evening Standard

June 26, 2006

Nick Hurd asked why the Government had dropped the Management of Offenders.

OVERCROWDING in London’s prisons has hit a record, the Standard can reveal.

All but one has more than the recommended number of inmates, sparking fears they could become unmanageable.

They were designed to hold 4,808 inmates but have 5,991, nearly 25 per cent too many.

The crisis comes as the Home Office released figures showing the number of prisoners in England and Wales has also reached a record of 77,785. Of these, more than 10,000 are foreigners many of whom could be repatriated.

Belmarsh, Brixton, Wandsworth, Wormwood Scrubs and Pentonville all hold more inmates than their “operational capacity”, defined as the “total number of prisoners that an establishment can hold without serious risk to good order, security and the proper running of the planned regime”. Only Holloway has spare cells.

Wandsworth is certified to hold 965 prisoners but has 1,492 – 52 per cent overfull.

Pentonville normally accommodates 856 but has 1,130, which is 41 per cent too many. Prisons minister Gerry Sutcliffe told MPs last week that the Government was planning to increase capacity by 900 places to 80,400 by the end of the next year.

But according to Home Office predictions, the prison population could reach 84,200 next year and 87,000 the year after.

Opposition MPs have warned that without an urgent building programme or the reintroduction of prison ships it will be increasingly difficult to keep control.

Despite the problems, none of the 900 new places planned is in the London area.

The Standard has learned that police chiefs have said they are no longer willing to see police cells used. The pressure on rise in the number of convicted criminals released early under licence. Despite problems with offenders abusing their terms of parole, more are released under licence in London than any other region.

Last year, more than 22,000 prisoners were given a supervisory community sentence in the London region, compared with 7,000 in the North-East and 7,500 in Wales.

Even with such pressure on the system, the Government has only a limited ability to repatriate foreign prisoners.

Repatriation is voluntary and requires the agreement of the country concerned.

Conservative MP Nick Hurd said the problems were of the Government’s own making. He said 82 of the 139 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded in 1997 yet it failed to begin a proper building programme.

Mr Hurd asked why the Government had dropped the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill last year which required judges to take account of prison populations when sentencing.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “It is time for the Home Secretary to ask whether prisons can really be ‘fit for purpose’.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The National Offender Management Service continues to investigate options for increases in capacity. There are no plans at present to build new prisons. The Government will ensure places are available.”