Jails to run out of space in days without urgent action, prison governors warn

Jails could run out of space within “days”, putting the public in danger, prison governors warned.

The Prison Governors’ Association (PGA), which represents more than 95% of all prison governors and managers working in England and Wales, said the entire criminal justice system “stands on the precipice of failure” as it called on the next government to tackle problems “without delay”.

In an open letter to the leaders of political parties, the body said: “Our members are the experts in running prisons, their voice and our message, if ignored, will be at your peril.”

The association believes there is “no other option open” to government than to release more prisoners early to grip the “crisis”, adding: “An uncrowded prison system should have no more than about 78,000 people in custody.”

As of Friday, the prison population stood at 87,395 with a “usable operational capacity” of 88,778, indicating almost 1,500 spaces are available.

This does not include about 1,350 other cell spaces which are always kept free as a contingency measure, so prisons have the capacity to operate safely and respond to any urgent or unforeseen circumstances.

The Government has expanded a scheme so some inmates could be released from jail up to 70 days early, in a bid to free up prison cells, but concerns have been raised that dangerous criminals could end up being eligible.

Officials have said that offenders will continue to be supervised under strict conditions.

The letter follows a threat from the prison officers’ union last month that it could take the Government to court if overcrowding in jails gets worse.

The POA has repeatedly raised fears prisons could be full by the end of June, and said it may launch a legal challenge under health and safety laws if safe capacity levels are breached because guards have “no right to strike” in England and Wales.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk and prisons minister Edward Argar are understood to have reassured union bosses they do not intend to breach safe operational capacity.

But concerns remain about the ongoing problems, with growing calls for the next government to take urgent measures to ease the pressure.

The POA’s general secretary Steve Gillan welcomed the PGA’s letter as he said: “You cannot just keep locking people up and hoping for the best, we’re at crisis point.”

He told the PA news agency: “We know that they’re going to run out of space very, very shortly, and whoever’s elected as the new government, they’ll need to make really dramatic decisions in order to keep the prison service and the criminal justice system afloat.”

Mr Gillan suggested ministers may need to bring in emergency laws to ease pressure by freeing “non-violent prisoners”, adding: “The police are stretched, the courts are stretched. The prison service is virtually on its knees. I can foresee that happening over the next couple of weeks.

“We fully expect by the first week in July that we will be locking out.”

This means prisons will not be able to accept any more inmates, potentially having to turn away suspects arrested and to be held on remand while they are prosecuted, or criminals who have been sentenced.

“No-one wants it to get to that position,” he added.

Shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood said “staggering Tory chaos” was “failing victims and risking public safety” and that Labour would build prisons and “drive down reoffending” to keep people safe.

But she did not say what immediate measures the party would take if elected to ease overcrowding in the short term.

In a report published last month, Whitehall’s spending watchdog found overcrowding in prisons is now “one of the biggest obstacles” to cutting the courts backlog.

The Government’s target of cutting the crown court backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 is “no longer achievable”, the National Audit Office (NAO) said.

More than a quarter of cases are waiting for a year or more to be heard, “prolonging the distress to victims” waiting for justice, according to the findings, meanwhile there have been reports of some trials now being adjourned until 2026.

The Ministry of Justice is building six new prisons to create an extra 20,000 places as demand grows for cell spaces, partially because of the Government’s recruitment campaign to hire 20,000 more police officers.

About 6,000 spaces have been created already and about 10,000 will be built by the end of 2025.

A Government spokesman said: “Public safety will always be our priority.

“The police and prison service have long established processes to manage short-term capacity issues, and 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.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “We are delivering the largest expansion of the prison estate since the Victorian era with 6,000 places delivered since 2019 alone.

“We will always prioritise creating additional capacity through speeding our prison build programme, including through rapid deployment cells, and deporting more foreign national offenders – something Labour has opposed.”