Judge's anger at prison crisis

Norfolk's most senior judge has criticised successive governments for failing to support the nation's crippled jails and called for urgent investment to tackle the escalating prisons crisis.

Norfolk's most senior judge has criticised successive governments for failing to support the nation's crippled jails and called for urgent investment to tackle the escalating prisons crisis.

Judge Peter Jacobs said the current situation was the result of more than a decade of inaction and under-funding at ministerial level - adding that there were rising numbers of people who were being rightly jailed.

“Investment in the prison service simply hasn't been sufficient for well over a decade,” he told the EDP. “It seems the punishment and rehabilitation of offenders is not a great vote winner.”

His comments came as home secretary John Reid announced emergency measures including the use of police cells to house inmates. Mr Reid admitted the prison population had reached breaking point as it threatens to top the government's own safe limit of 80,000 within days.

East Anglia's main prisons - Norwich, Wayland and Blundeston - currently house almost their full quota of 2,000 inmates.

Wayland governor Michael Wood said: “We have been operating at this level for some time and have procedures in place to cope with it. We have more receptions than usual each day and this reflects the increased comings and goings within the prison service as a whole.”

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Contingency proposals, dubbed Operation Safeguard, will see 500 prisoners transferred to police cells as early as Thursday. Suffolk and Cambridgeshire police have set aside space to meet government requirements but it seems unlikely any capacity will be found in Norfolk's already stretched custody suites.

The cells will be staffed by off-duty police officers paid steep overtime rates. Other costs include additional security along with bills for services such as catering and cleaning - amounting to a massive £364 per prisoner per night.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Reid ruled out releasing prisoners early but foreign nationals will be given the option to return to their country voluntarily rather than await deportation. Two women's prisons will be used to house male convicts and an extra 900 prison places will be opened up by autumn with another 8,000 scheduled to become available by 2012.

These measures, along with negotiations to convert disused army barracks into makeshift prisons, have been dismissed as a short-term fix by leading campaign group the Prison Reform Trust.

Judge Jacobs, resident at Norwich Crown Court, added that the local judiciary had so far resisted political pressure to jail fewer criminals.

“There is pressure being put on judges not to send people to prison but our approach is to follow the strict guidelines that exist and imprison people as appropriate,” he said.

“A time may come when there is criticism of individual judges' sentencing habits. Here in Norwich we have a relatively low number of appeals brought against us and few of these are successful - this indicates that we are getting it right.

“The prisons are full because of the increasing number of people who come before the courts who are so dangerous that they must be imprisoned for public protection.

“Life sentences have gone up, the number of foreign nationals awaiting deportation has gone up, more people are breaching community orders and cannot be dealt with in any other way and more are being are being remanded for reasons of public safety.

“What are we supposed to do? People who commit nasty assaults must be dealt with using custodial remedies, people with strings of previous convictions must be sent to prison and people who continually ignore other forms of sentencing must also be imprisoned.”

Judge Jacobs added that the current situation is the result of political inertia and said priorities must be reassessed.

“There are some people who don't belong in prisons because they are mentally ill but there is nowhere else to put them,” he said. “More funding is also needed for rehabilitation, bail hostels and semi-secure institutions.”

Wayland prison, near Watton, has been operating at 99pc of its 709 capacity for several months. At Blundeston, near Lowestoft, only eight of its 464 capacity remained unoccupied. Norwich prison can house 824 and has been close to this threshold since last year.

Norfolk police declined to comment on the issue. However, the force's custodial capacity is limited. Earlier this year plans to extend the already overstretched custody suite at Norwich's Bethel Street were shelved and at busy times prisoners often have to be transported to King's Lynn or Great Yarmouth.

Chf Insp Michael Holdsworth, from Suffolk police, said cells which at present are unused are currently being prepared. The location of the particular station is not being revealed to prevent public alarm.

“We have contingency plans in place and have recently re-examined these plans in preparation for crisis point which, it is safe to say, has now arrived,” he said.

“Under our agreement the government must give us five days notice so we would expect the first prisoners to be transferred next week at the earliest.”

A Cambridgeshire police spokesman said the force had identified suitable cells for prisoners. He added: “There will be no impact on operational policing.”

Last month the EDP revealed that 67pc of prisoners re-offend within two years of release; a situation that the Prison Reform Trust attributes to rehabilitation attempts being undermined by overcrowding.

The Prisoners Officers Association backed Judge Jacobs' view saying planned prison building programmes had been halted over recent years.

Speaking in the Commons after Mr Reid's speech, shadow home secretary David Davis said: “This crisis has been looming for five years. I can't help but wonder why these measures weren't put in place years ago instead of waiting for breaking point to arrive.”