UK prisons have reached 99 percent capacity, sparking fears that offenders may have to be kept in police stations or be released into the community ahead of time.
The latest statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that
there are currently 84,987 inmates, while the total “usable
operational capacity” of the system is 85,828 - meaning that only
841 places remain in the whole of England. Usable operational
capacity is measured as the total number of spaces minus 2,000,
as not all places can be filled at all times because some inmates
need to be kept in the prison category that matches their
sentence and gender.
"Making sure there are enough spaces in our prisons for all those that need locking up is one of the basics of the job for any Justice Secretary,” said MP Sadiq Khan, Labour's shadow justice secretary.
"The public need confidence that when a judge sends someone down for a serious or violent crime, they can be locked away securely.”
The actual number of prisoners is lower than it was 12 months ago, but 13 prisons have shut down in the past three years, with four more scheduled to close by next spring. In total, 5,000 places have been lost in the past year alone.
The British government says that this is a planned streamlining of the penitentiary system, and that there is no immediate threat of criminals being let loose ahead of schedule.
"We have more than enough space within our prisons to accommodate all offenders without relying on police or court cells,” Conservative Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright said.
"I have been clear that we will never be in a position where we can't take those sent to prison by the courts. What we won't do is spend hard-earned taxpayers' money on keeping open expensive capacity we do not need."
The government says it is opening 400 more places starting on Monday. It also plans to build a super-prison near Wrexham, which will accommodate up to 2,000 people when it opens in 2017.
But Prison Reform Trust, a leading non-profit, says the issue is distracting from the real problem surrounding prison conditions and rehabilitation.
“Questions need to be raised about the pace and scale of change in the justice system,” said its director Juliete Lyon.
“Solutions lie not in closing small local prisons and building supersized jails but in effective community sentences, treatment for addicts and mental health care. Cramming ever greater numbers of people into overcrowded prisons with fewer staff and less time out of cell is no way to transform rehabilitation,” she said.