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Government to consider using prison ships

Reuters | October 21, 2006

LONDON - The government is to consider using prison ships as a way of tackling the growing crisis of overcrowding in jails, according to media reports on Saturday.

Home Secretary John Reid has advertised for contractors to provide ships that could house up to 800 prisoners in England and Wales as the prison population neared its capacity of around 80,000 inmates.

"What he's (Reid) determined to do is to ensure we've got sufficient prison places, and obviously, he's looking at a number of ways of doing that and a prison ship is one possibility," Home Office minister Vernon Coaker told the BBC.

Britain's only prison ship HMP Weare, which could house 400 low-risk prisoners in Portland Harbour in Dorset, closed in 2005.

The ship, which had opened in 1997 as a three-year temporary measure, was condemned by the Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers who called it an unsatisfactory, expensive "container" located in the wrong place.

The announcement comes as media reports said 47 prisoners were now being held in police cells to deal with the shortage after police forces made 240 places available.

The crisis comes because longer sentences and high reconviction levels have pushed prison numbers to a record high. There are now less than 100 places left in the system.

Other plans being considered by the Home Office include moving some prisoners to open jails and deporting some foreign inmates more quickly.

The Howard League for Penal Reform criticised the emergency steps and called for Reid to support community sentences which it said helped to reduce re-offending.

"Police cells cannot provide services to people who have mental health or drug addiction problems and will not be able to provide safe resettlement," said director Frances Crook.

"The system diverts police away from their community safety duties. No one benefits from this sort of panic measure and it is only necessary because the home secretary has not been paying attention to the deterioration of penal policy."

Earlier this month, the most senior judge in England and Wales said prisons were too crowded to give proper rehabilitation, adding they were often used as "social dustbins" for drug addicts and the mentally ill.

Lord Phillips said more offenders should be given community-based punishments rather than jail terms.


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