'A plaster on a gaping wound’: Prison union boss slams ministers as court dates delayed with 'jails to be full by June'

16 May 2024, 07:53

Steve Gillan hit out at the government for prison overcrowding
Steve Gillan hit out at the government for prison overcrowding. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Government plans to delay court dates because of pressure on prison places are like a "sticking plaster over a gaping wound", the head of a prison officer union has said.

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Steve Gillan hit out at ministers' plans to keep some suspects in police custody and release lower-risk defendants on bail, while delaying magistrates' hearings, because of overcrowding.

The head of the prison officers' association told LBC's Nick Ferrari that his members were "on their knees" from the strain of working in an overstretched system.

"Something's got to be done," he said. "This is like a sticking plaster over a gaping wound."

Mr Gillan added: "I've been around for 34 years in one capacity as another as a serving prison officer, working on the landings, and also as general secretary of this union, and I have never known it as bad."

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He said that by June "there won't be any more [prison] spaces left."

Operation Early Dawn, which was announced on Wednesday, will see defendants in police custody remain there rather than being transferred to magistrates’ court for bail hearings, while those not prioritised will be released on bail.

Many magistrates' court cases will be delayed as a result, with the most serious cases given priority, according to the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales.

It's not specified how many suspects will be bailed under the operation but officials suggest the plan will remain in place for a week.

The measure is just being used in London and the north-east currently.

Mr Gillan said his union had been highlighting the overcrowding problem for years. "This hasn't just crept up on us. This has been because of drastic policies," he said.

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He said the serious problems had begun when the Conservatives first took power in the coalition government in 2010, beginning a programme of cutting facilities in the criminal justice system.

Prison overcrowding has also increased, as capacity has not risen to meet demand. The government is now building 20,000 new prison places, but it was reported last year that these won't be available until 2030.

Meanwhile over half of magistrates' courts - 164 out of 320 - were closed between 2010 and 2020, according to the House of Commons library.

Mr Gillan added: "And now we're going to have police officers taken off the streets in order to look after people in police cells that can't get before the magistrates' court.

"I don't think chief constables will be very pleased with it diverting their resources away from policing our streets and keeping us safe."

The government said no one who poses a serious risk to the public would be released early.

But Mr Gillan said this was "absolute nonsense."

He added: "It's not worked so far - it's not going to work now."

Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the Prison Officers Association
Steve Gillan, General Secretary of the Prison Officers Association. Picture: Alamy

The emergency measure comes after the government separately agreed to cut short some prison sentences by up to 70 days, also to ease overcrowding.

This scheme was introduced in October 2023 and at the time allowed for release up to 18 days early, with this increasing to 60 days in March.The plan to delay sending some cases to court emerged on Tuesday evening but the Ministry of Justice only confirmed the scheme publicly on Wednesday morning.

The prison population has rapidly increased in recent decades due to harsher sentences and court backlogs, which government officials say the pandemic is partly to blame for as more people were being held in prisons for longer, awaiting jury trial.

On Tuesday, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said there were nearly 16,000 people in custody awaiting trial at the moment and "plainly that has an impact".