Prison governors have delivered an urgent warning to ministers that building new jails will not solve the criminal justice crisis and that too many minor offenders with mental health and alcohol problems are being locked up.
The Prison Governors' Association - whose members face the daily challenge of managing the record 80,000 jail population in England and Wales - has warned that a substantial overuse of new "indeterminate" sentences is creating chaos, and that inflexible "breach" procedures that see released offenders "whisked back into custody" for being late for appointments is driving prison numbers up.
The home secretary, John Reid, has responded to the crisis by ruling out any extension of early release programmes and highlighting the government's plans to provide 10,000 more prison places, including 700 by the end of this year.
A three-month scheme gets under way this weekend to move low-risk offenders into open prisons for the final 28 days of their sentences, to use the last 500 spaces in the prison system. Prison numbers reached 80,309 at the start of the weekend, including 388 people locked up in emergency police cells and six held overnight in court cells.
A parallel crisis in immigration detention centres means some foreign national prisoners facing deportation are also to be moved back to open prisons. The Home Office is hoping the open prison move, described by some as the last throw of the dice, will contain the situation until the new Justice Ministry takes charge of prisons on May 9.
But in evidence to the influential Commons home affairs committee, Paul Tidball, the PGA president, says: "The prison population need be nowhere near as high as it is now ... many thousands of offenders are in prison inappropriately now ... imprisonment is an expensive option and the American experience has shown that as prison costs spiral the budgets of other public services will suffer."
Mr Tidball said a substantial majority of people in prison had significant mental health, drug and alcohol abuse problems and many had committed only minor offences. More treatment and support services in the community were needed to convince the courts that non-custodial sentences for them were viable, he said.
The prison governors complain that breach procedures for released prisoners are part of the problem: "This means that people are being automatically whisked into custody because of a non-show or a couple of late appearances for appointments. It is not realistic or constructive and is making its own contribution to the steep increase in the prison population. The decision to breach should be a judicial one, and certainly not one in the hands of risk-averse offender managers ruled by reoffending targets."
The prison governors are also alarmed that the new "indeterminate sentence" - under which no release date is set by the court - is being "substantially overused". Latest figures show there are 8,759 prisoners serving such sentences - an increase of 31% in the last year alone. Mr Tidball said too often the courts were choosing to leave fixing a release date to the parole board later because it was the "lowest-risk option".
The sentence was supposed to be reserved for those posing a high risk to the public but 20% were only medium-risk offenders, and in many cases were being sentenced without proper risk assessment, such as a psychiatric report.
Mr Tidball said the overall result was the buck being passed to prisons whose offender behaviour programmes were so overwhelmed that nothing was being done until well after the recommended "tariff", when a release date had been passed. The governors' concerns are reinforced by the fact that the parole board has asked the Home Office for more resources to cope with the sharp increase in indeterminately sentenced prisoners.
(c) The Guardian