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"Prison Service warned to stop using court cells overnight", The Guardian

20th August 2007

Serious concerns about housing inmates in court cells during the height of the jail overcrowding crisis were raised by watchdogs today.

The chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, and the inspector of court administration, Eddie Bloomfield, criticised the Prison Service's decision to keep inmates in court buildings for a whole weekend.

Facilities were inadequate and some prisoners in the middle of a trial had to reappear in court wearing clothes they had slept in, the report found.

Inspectors visited a court custody suite at West London magistrates court earlier this year when hundreds of inmates were being housed in court cells because jails were full.

"In spite of the considerable efforts of staff, this inspection raised serious concerns for the safe and decent treatment of prisoners," Ms Owers and Mr Bloomfield said in a statement.

"Court cells will never be an appropriate place to hold prisoners for anything but a short period, and the underlying message of this report is that they should not be used for overnight, still less weekend, stays.

"However, if such an emergency recurs it is essential that all the agencies responsible ensure that systems and procedures are in place to provide the maximum support at this vulnerable time."

Offenders were kept in court cells this summer as the prison population in England and Wales hit record levels, but the situation was temporarily eased by the introduction of an early-release scheme.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "We used court cells as a measure of last resort when accommodation in prison and police cells [Operation Safeguard] was exhausted due to exceptional prison population pressures. We have not used them since June 20."

Last week the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) warned the early releases had only bought ministers a "brief respite" from overcrowding.

There were 81,040 inmates in England and Wales when the emergency measures were introduced on June 29, and the total has since crept back up to 80,708.