Hundreds of police cells will be used to house prisoners in England and Wales as prisons are overcrowded, the government has announced.
Justice Minister Damian Hinds said a contingency plan called Operation Safeguard had been activated on Wednesday due to an “acute and sudden increase in the prison population”.
He told the House of Commons: “I announce today that we have written to the National Council of Police Chiefs to request the temporary use of up to 400 police cells through an established protocol known as Operation Safeguard.
“This will provide the immediate additional capacity we need in the coming weeks to keep the prison facility running smoothly and to continue getting dangerous criminals off the streets.”
Hinds said the increase was partly caused by an increase in the number of inmates held before trial or sentencing, which he attributed to a lawyers’ strike that halted cases over the summer.
“As court hearings resume, we are seeing a surge in offenders moving through the criminal justice system, putting pressure on the capacity of adult men’s prisons in particular,” he added.
Kirsty Brimelow KC, president of the Criminal Bar Association, said the number of remand prisoners was already at a 14-year high before lawyers began an action on government rates for the defense of people who cannot afford representation .
“The lawyers’ action was taken as a last resort to prevent the complete collapse of the criminal justice system and force the urgently needed increase in legal aid pay,” he added.
A CBA spokesperson said the increased prison population backlogs were caused by cuts in government funding to the criminal justice system.
As of 25 November, there were 82,839 prisoners in prisons across England and Wales, up from â€˜79,685 at the same time in 2021.
Over the same period, prison officers have been leaving their jobs at an increasing rate amid concerns about the experience levels of those who remain in office.
In recent years, the government has passed a series of laws that increase the length of prison sentences for different types of crime and change the provisions on release so that a higher percentage of sentences have to be served in prison.
Labour’s shadow justice secretary Steve Reed MP said: ‘Despite reports of rape and sexual offenses reaching record levels, the Conservatives have cut more than 10,000 prison posts since 2010, while the justice secretary is more concerned to fighting to save his job versus fighting crime.”
The Prison Officers’ Association called the announcement a “fiasco,” with Secretary General Steve Gillan adding: “Cutbacks have consequences. The government reaps what it sows.”
The Prison Reform Trust warned that the rate of growth in the number of inmates suggested the extraordinary measures would only provide temporary relief in the system.
Director Peter Dawson said: “It’s a short-term solution to a completely avoidable long-term problem.
“Despite all the evidence to the contrary, politicians continue to argue that harsher sentences and more prisons make us safer. But all they get is overcrowded and poorly maintained prisons where people are locked behind a cell door for hours on end. Even if more prison cells are available, there are no personnel to use them.”
Dawson said the UK had one of the highest prison rates in Europe and accused the government of “an obsession with punishment rather than prevention”.
Operation Safeguard was previously launched between January 2007 and October 2008, and before that between October and December 2006.
The scheme was created by the Home Office under the government of Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair following pressure caused by large numbers of people being jailed.
It operates under the Imprisonment (Temporary Provisions) Act 1980, which allows prisoners on remand or sentenced to prison by the courts to be detained in police cells.
National Police Chief for Custody, Deputy Police Chief Nev Kemp, said: ‘The police will continue to carry out their operational activities, apprehending criminals and placing them in custody, with well established plans for prisoners to be placed in nearby forced custody suite in case of need.
“We are working closely with the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS to ensure the arrangements are as secure and efficient as possible for the duration of Operation Safeguard.”
The Justice Ministry said the police cells would be used for the shortest possible time and in a “planned and safe manner”.
The government has pledged to create another 20,000 places and the new Serco-managed HMP Fosse Way prison is expected to open next spring.
A spokesman added: “Keeping the public safe and reducing crime by getting dangerous criminals off the streets remains our number one priority.
“We are seeing an unprecedented increase in the number of prisoners entering prisons in the north of England, partly due to the impact of the pandemic and the lawyers’ strike during the summer months.
“The public rightly expects us to take the necessary actions to create the extra spaces we need, so we are working with the police to use a limited number of cells in the short term so we can continue to put criminals behind bars.” .