Crisis point for our overcrowded prisons

A review of jail terms for petty offences is being urged to ease pressure on congested prisons and cut soaring rates of re-offending.

A review of jail terms for petty offences is being urged to ease pressure on congested prisons and cut soaring rates of re-offending.

The call comes from the Prison Reform Trust as Home Office officials consider proposals to extend the country's prison capacity and even use police cells to cope with the overspill as the incarcerated population is set to top 80,000 - the recognised safe level - in coming weeks.

Nearly 2,000 prisoners are currently held in Norwich, Wayland and Blundeston, all of which are at or near capacity.

William Higham, head of policy at the trust, said the short-term fixes being mooted by the government were not the answer. Ministers should instead limit custodial sentences for minor offences to free-up space and allow prison and probation staff to focus on the most demanding cases.

Mr Higham said: "Since the early 1990s our prisons have been overcrowded every year and re-offending rates have risen steadily.

"Overcrowding disrupts the efforts of staff to train men and women in prison, educate them and help them find employment and accommodation.

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"In overcrowded prisons, many people are doubled up in cramped cells, barely getting out for an hour a day - in effect little more than warehoused with no work done to prepare for release. The government's policy of needlessly overcrowding prisons feeds re-offending and so harms public safety."

Napo, the probation officers' union, claims the "crisis" is so serious that home secretary John Reid has ordered a review of the new National Offender Management Service which runs prisons and probation services. It is thought this will consider whether the service should continue in its current form.

Last month sex offender and domestic violence treatment courses nationwide were cut back in a financial squeeze in the probation service, lending further weight to the trust's claims that rehabilitation is being neglected.

Meanwhile re-offending levels have risen sharply. Currently 67pc of prisoners go on to re-offend within two years of release compared with 51pc in 1992 when the prison population was about half its current level.

The EDP was granted unrestricted access to Norwich Prison to talk to governor James Shanley as well as prisoners and staff about the challenges of rehabilitation.

Mr Shanley admitted: "Of course if more money were made available we would be able to do more - such as extending our work placement programme and offering increased education opportunities. It is also true that the more prisoners we have to handle, the less we are able to offer.

"But the prison service has been operating at full capacity for as long as I have been working within it.

"Often rehabilitation is only successful when a prisoner recognises the need to change."

One inmate with a long history of drug taking, violence and theft, who is due for release in 2008 and gave his name only as Peter, said: "In the past I have been in prison but not taken advantage of the opportunities for reform. This time I have successfully completed a drug rehabilitation programme and am hopeful about my opportunities for the future."