Prisons are ‘bust’ and may run out of places within days, union leader to warn

Jails in England and Wales are “bust” of space and may run out of places to house offenders this week, the leader of Britain’s prison governors has warned.

Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors’ Association (PGA), said there were only around 300 spaces left in men’s prisons as the number of inmates passed 88,000 on Friday, the highest figure since records began in 1900 and a rise of 10,000 in two years.

It means male jails are running at more than 99.6 per cent of capacity and women’s prisons are at 96 per cent. As a result, governors fear the number of convicted criminals and suspects held on remand in the male prison estate will hit its maximum capacity this week as the courts ramp up their sittings following the summer break.

“We are now bust on prison places,” said Ms Albutt on the eve of her speech to the PGA’s annual conference on Monday in Nottingham. “We will be lucky if we get through this week.”

She will tell governors: “We sit with our fingers crossed, hoping we will have seasonal dips in population to survive another spike. We have a buffer zone of approximately 1,400 spaces to allow for unexpected accommodation issues which is now used as business as usual.

“We have but a few hundred male adult spaces left and this figure includes Cat D [open prison] places, not easily accessed. Prisons are under the cosh, where once we would have reduced the population to help stabilise them, we are now being asked to reopen that accommodation to meet the demand.”

Previous crisis

The last time prisons came so close to reaching full capacity was in June 2007 under Tony Blair’s government. To cope with the crisis, it began an emergency early release of more than 1,500 prisoners before they had completed their sentences. Around 25,000 “non-dangerous” prisoners serving under four years were eligible.

Rishi Sunak is understood to have discussed emergency measures with Justice Secretary Alex Chalk and prisons minister Damian Hinds at a crisis meeting in No 10 last month.

But Government sources said ministers were determined to avoid repeating Labour’s enforced early release of thousands of prisoners ahead of a general election. Instead, the sources said they were considering all options to expand prison places.

The MoJ has already ordered fast-track refurbishment of empty cells in prisons including HMP Liverpool and HMP Birmingham and is putting 1,000 rapid deployment cells in 18 jails across the country. These are pre-constructed blocks that can be dropped into spare land inside jails.

The MoJ has also changed the release rules for offenders serving under four years in jail so that they can be freed from jail earlier on electronic tags and subject to home curfews. Hundreds have so far become eligible for the scheme.

Using police cells

The Government has 400 police cells on permanent standby to take the overflow, some of which are already being used and could quickly fill up to capacity. Last week, Alex Chalk announced plans to rent cells in foreign prisons, but this will require a change in the law that is unlikely to be introduced before next year.

Ms Albutt blamed longer prison sentences for contributing to the crisis and said the plan to rent cells abroad demonstrated the system was “completely broken. To publicly state we’re unable to look after our convicted citizens in their own country is an admission of abject failure,” she said.

She warned that a survey into RAAC concrete in jails could worsen the crisis. “If found and we need to decant, we have literally nowhere to put prisoners because all our prisons are full to bursting every day. Although this may be a blessing in disguise by bringing the population crisis to a head,” she said.

The prison population is projected to increase to as many as 106,000 people by 2027. Ministers have committed to a £3.8 billion building programme to create 20,000 extra places by the mid 2020s, but three proposed mega-jails have been delayed by local council planning refusals.

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