Jails to run out of space in days, governors warn

Prison officer inside jail

Jails will run out of space within days, putting the public at risk, the body representing 95% of prison governors in England and Wales is warning political leaders.

The Prison Governors’ Association (PGA) says police officers will be unable to detain people because there will be nowhere to put them.

“The entire criminal justice system stands on the precipice of failure,” it says in a letter.

A government spokesperson said public safety would always be the priority.

'Deeply troubling'

The latest Ministry of Justice figures, published on Friday, show jails currently hold 87,395 inmates, with the total number of spaces standing at 88,778.

“Procrastination is not an option - this is happening now,” says the letter, seen exclusively by BBC News.

With nowhere for detained prisoners to go, cell spaces in courts and police custody suites will soon fill up – and as that space runs out, hopes of reducing the court backlog will also dwindle, leaving the criminal justice system unable to operate.

Sources in the Ministry of Justice have told BBC News officials and ministers have discussed invoking the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which gives ministers additional powers, such as releasing inmates earlier, in the event of a large-scale emergency.

But sources suggest this will not happen until after the election, if at all.

One senior official called the situation in prisons “dire” and “deeply troubling”.

'Immediate change'

Last month, the government announced an emergency measure called Operation Early Dawn, to relieve some of the pressure of overcrowding.

It involved some defendants being kept in police custody for longer or bailed.

The PGA letter urges an immediate change in legislation, so all prisoners are routinely released from custody after serving 40% of their sentence.

This must be applied retrospectively to all those currently in custody, it says.

Planning decisions

Both Labour and the Conservatives have promised to build more prisons.

The Conservatives say, if re-elected, they will complete their programme of 20,000 new spaces by 2030 by scrapping what they call EU legacy rules.

If Labour gains power, it plans to create 20,000 prison places by enabling ministers to override local authorities on planning decisions.

In a statement, the government said the police and prison service had "long-established processes to manage short-term capacity issues".

"The Civil Service is working closely with partners across the justice system to make sure we have the prison places needed to keep people safe," the spokesperson added.