Foreign prison places are to be rented for offenders by the Government to help tackle the overcrowding crisis in British jails.
Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, announced on Tuesday that he will change the law to enable prisoners from UK jails to be transferred abroad to serve their time in rented cells overseas.
The move comes amid fears that Britain could run out of prison capacity in the face of an increase of up to 20,000 inmates by 2027, taking the total to 106,000.
Internal Ministry of Justice figures showed there were just 258 places left in the adult male prison estate as of Tuesday.
The Government plans to create 20,000 extra prison places by the mid 2020s but proposals for three new mega-prisons have been held up by local planning appeals.
Mr Chalk told the Conservative conference in Manchester that the Government would look at the “Norwegian example and explore renting overseas capacity”.
In the past 10 years, Norway and Belgium have rented prison space from the Netherlands, which spends double the UK’s £40,000 per prisoner and uses jails that are focused on rehabilitation. It is understood British officials have already had preliminary contacts with their counterparts in a number of European countries.
UK staff supervising
Under the scheme, it is anticipated the Government would pay for the prison space including the cost of staffing. Sources suggested it was likely to be done by local prison officers with senior UK staff playing a supervisory role.
It also thought likely to involve convicted offenders rather than prisoners on remand. Sources suggested no prisoner would be transferred if they were deemed unsuitable due to being a “safety risk,” or “threat to national security,” or through suffering health problems.
Any agreement would require a receiving country’s prisons to comply with international standards on the treatment of inmates and conditions. If British prisoners are transferred, it would require family visits by Zoom, suggesting that foreign offenders in UK jails would likely be prime candidates.
The Telegraph revealed two weeks ago that men’s prisons in England and Wales were at risk of overflowing for the first time in 15 years with police ordered to put 400 cells on permanent standby.
The last time prisons came so close to reaching full capacity was in June 2007 under Sir Tony Blair’s Government. To cope with the crisis, it began an emergency early release of more than 1,500 prisoners before they had completed their sentences. Around 25,000 “non-dangerous” prisoners serving under four years were eligible.
Rishi Sunak is understood to have discussed emergency measures with Mr Chalk and Damian Hinds, the prisons minister, at a crisis meeting in No 10 last month.
But Government sources said ministers were determined to avoid repeating Labour’s enforced early release of thousands of prisoners ahead of a general election.
Mr Chalk said: “This Government is doing more than any since the Victorian era to expand prison capacity.
“Alongside our extra 20,000 prison places programme, refurbishment of old prisons and rapid deployment cells, renting prison places in other countries will ensure we always have the space to keep the public safe from the most dangerous offenders.”
The surge in prison numbers has been blamed on longer jail sentences introduced by the Government in successive new laws, the 20,000 increase in the number of police officers catching more criminals and courts going at full speed to clear the 60,000-strong backlog of crown court cases that ballooned during the pandemic.
Shabana Mahmood, the shadow justice secretary, said: “There’s no greater symbol of the way in which the Tories have run our criminal justice system into the ground, than the fact they are ‘exploring’ putting prisoners in foreign jails because they are incapable of building the prisons places this country needs to keep our people safe.”