Britain's overfilled jails are at 'panic stations' as they lurch from crisis to crisis, the chief inspector of prisons warns in an Observer interview today that will make uncomfortable reading for the government.
At the end of a week in which the prison population rose above the critical 82,000 mark for the first time, Anne Owers said she was not sure how long the system 'can contain this kind of huge pressure'.
'It's very bad,' Owers said. 'As you hit each new peak, the prison system is bumping against a new crisis. For the last six months we've been looking at a system that moves from panic stations to just about containing crisis.'
She warned that disturbances within the prison system were rising as a result of overcrowding. 'My impression is the level of incidents in prisons is increasing - an indication of a system operating too near to the knuckle,' she said.
Owers normally confines her comments to her annual reports, but her decision to speak out reflects the level of concern about overcrowding. 'Prisoners are getting very frustrated; staff are struggling to survive the day. That's not a good recipe for running prisons. It's a very risky situation.'
She was scathing about the current situation, signalling that it was the fault of successive ministers. 'You wouldn't start from here if you wanted to create a decent prison system,' she said. 'This is a result of decisions taken - or not taken - a long time ago.'
The frank comments by the government-appointed Owers reflect growing concerns that the situation in Britain's jails is out of control. The Conservatives' prisons spokesman, Nick Herbert, said her comments should be a wake-up call for the government. 'Jack Straw [the Justice Secretary] must come to parliament tomorrow to explain how he is going to deal with this crisis of the government's own making and what provision he has made for emergency capacity,' Herbert said.
The prison population normally falls over the half-term period, when fewer judges are sitting. But it has risen for two successive weeks, leaving Straw forced to make a coded appeal to magistrates to consider alternatives to jail sentences.
Straw's dramatic intervention suggests the government has at least in the short term ruled out expanding the use of early-release schemes for prisoners, something it introduced last year in a bid to alleviate overcrowding. He suggested instead that magistrates hand down more non-custodial sentences.
But that call has prompted anger in certain quarters. 'We see big problems with provisions for both the prison and probation services,' said Cindy Barnett, chairman of the Magistrates Association. 'We already use community penalties far more than custody.'
The Probation Service warned that it did not have the resources to handle a sudden influx of offenders if they are diverted from prison to community sentences. 'Both probation and prison are full,' said Harry Fletcher of the probation officers' union, Napo. 'Unless the government finds funds to support probation and prisons, sentencing will be completely undermined.'
Experts suggest it is only a matter of time before the government is forced to release more prisoners early.
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