MoJ requests urgent use of 400 police cells for male prisoners

Prisons minister writes to police chiefs to establish Operation Safeguard due to lack of space in men’s prisons

Dominic Raab has been accused of presiding over a “foolish and unrealistic” prisons policy after his department was forced to request the emergency use of 400 police cells for inmates for the first time in 14 years.

Ministers blamed the recent barristers’ strike for an “acute and sudden increase in the prison population” of 800 in the last two months – a claim that was challenged by charities, MPs and unions.

The Ministry of Justice has written to the National Police Chiefs’ Council to establish the protocol known as Operation Safeguard.

Damian Hinds, the prisons minister, blamed the Criminal Bar Association strike action over the summer for the “acute and sudden increase in the prison population”.

“In recent months we have experienced an acute and sudden increase in the prison population, in part due to the aftermath of the Criminal Bar Association strike action over the summer, which led to a significantly higher number of offenders on remand.

“With court hearings resuming, we are seeing a surge in offenders coming through the criminal justice system, placing capacity pressure on adult male prisons in particular.”

Hinds claimed the government had made progress in increasing prison capacity.

“We have long anticipated the prison population rising as a result of those measures, and that’s why we are delivering the largest prison-build programme since the Victorian era, with 20,000 additional places. We’ve already created over 3,100 of these,” he said.

Reacting to the announcement, Andrea Coomber, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the need for emergency places in inappropriate prisons cells undermined Raab’s plan to grow the prison population by 25% over the next three years to almost 100,000 in early 2026.

“The inappropriate use of police cells shows how foolish and unrealistic that policy is. We know from the long line of inspection reports coming from the prisons watchdog that jails up and down the country are overcrowded, understaffed and failing to help people turn their lives around,” she said.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the government could not pin the blame on the barristers’ strike while also calling for harsher sentences.

“At the current rate of growth in the number of prisoners, this announcement could buy as little as a fortnight’s relief, and there is nothing to suggest that the new year brings any relief. It’s a short-term fix to a completely avoidable long-term problem.”

Mark Fairhurst, the national chair of the Prison Officers’ Association, said that the lack of prison places was a result of cuts of 6,000 cells and the closure of 18 prisons.

“I blame the government, not barristers, for a lack of investment, a lack of foresight and austerity measures going back to 2010,” he said.

There were 82,839 inmates in prisons across England and Wales on 25 November, compared with 79,685 at the same point in 2021.

During the same period, prison officers have been leaving their jobs at an increasing rate, amid concerns about the experience levels of those left in post.

The government has passed legislation increasing the length of prison sentences for different types of crime in recent years, and changing release provisions so that a greater proportion of sentences must be served inside jail.

Operation Safeguard was previously triggered between January 2007 and October 2008.

The plan was created by the Home Office under the government of Labour prime minister Tony Blair as a result of pressure caused by a large volume of people being jailed.

Labour said overcrowding in the prison system was “more evidence that we can no longer afford the cost of the Conservatives”.

The shadow justice minister, Ellie Reeves, told the Commons: “This is yet another crisis created by this shambolic Tory government. It is hard to think of a more damning indictment of this government’s failure on law and order than the fact they have now run out of cells to lock up criminals.”

Hinds stressed that the overcrowding was “specific to the adult male estate”, saying there is “ample capacity in the women’s and the youth estates”. Hitting back at Reeves’s comments, the justice minister said: “At no point in the last five years have we had fewer than 1,000 cells available across the entire prison estate.

“We have not run out of prison places and this does not reflect a failure to plan ahead. We have absolutely been planning ahead, we have stuck to our expansion programme and indeed brought forward capital works.

“But there has also been this highly unusual acute short-term surge, increases of over 700 and then over 800 in the last two months. It is the first time ever we have seen that sort of increase for two consecutive months.”

Kirsty Brimelow KC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said the number of prisoners on remand was already at a 14-year high before barristers started industrial action over government rates for defending people who cannot afford representation.

“Barristers’ action was taken as a last resort to prevent the complete collapse of the criminal justice system and force urgent increased pay into legal aid,” she added.

Contributors

Aletha Adu and Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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