Prisons packed as overcrowding forces Govt to ask police to borrow their cells

30 November 2022, 13:57 | Updated: 30 November 2022, 16:10

Prisons have filled up and police cells are now needed, a Government minister said
Prisons have filled up and police cells are now needed, a Government minister said. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Prisons are packed and "sudden" overcrowding has forced the Government to ask police to use their cells to hold inmates, it has emerged.

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Officers are being asked to let the prison service use their roughly 400 cells across the country after more than 1,000 new prisoners entered the system in the last two months.

Justice minister Damian Hinds said the uptick in inmates was "acute and sudden" while the Ministry of Justice insisted it still had headroom for more than 1,000 prisoners.

He said in a statement to MPs on Wednesday: "In recent months we have experienced an acute and sudden increase in the prison population, in part due to the aftermath of the Criminal Bar Association strike action over the summer which led to a significantly higher number of offenders on remand.

"With court hearings resuming, we are seeing a surge in offenders coming through the criminal justice system, placing capacity pressure on adult male prisons in particular."

He added: "I'm announcing today that we've written to the National Police Chiefs Council to request the temporary use of up to 400 police cells through an established protocol known as Operation Safeguard."

But Mr Hinds said this was "not an unprecedented move", citing similar moves in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

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He said the Government was being tough on crime and has put in place the "largest prison-build programme since the Victorian era, with 20,000 additional places", with just over 3,000 already available.

But Labour's shadow justice minister Ellie Reeves hit back: "This is yet another crisis created by this shambolic Tory Government.

"It is hard to think of a more damning indictment of this Government's failure on law and order than the fact they have now run out of cells to lock up criminals. But it is hardly surprising when under the Tories 10,000 prison places have been lost.

"Not only this, 663 police stations have closed, so who knows how long it will be until this contingency plan will need a contingency plan all of its own?

"While we find ourselves in a satiation with not enough cells, in response to a recent parliamentary question we discovered that over the last five years the Tories have spent over £1 million on maintaining closed prisons.

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"Just more evidence that we can no longer afford the cost of the Conservatives."

Mr Hinds insisted the problem was a "highly unusual acute short-term surge" and refused to brand the problem as having run out of prison places, insisting "this does not reflect a failure to plan ahead".

But he said there had been rises of 700 and then more than 800 inmates in the last two months, focused and this was the "first time ever we have seen that sort of increase for two consecutive months".

"It is the first time ever we have seen that sort of increase for two consecutive months," he said, and there was no way to increase capacity in a short timeframe.

Women's prisons and youth institutions are not affected, he added.