Prisoners are to be held in police cells for the first time in 14 years after ministers announced jails have run out of places following the barristers’ strike.
Convicted offenders and remand prisoners will be held in up to 400 police cells under emergency measures that were last used under the Labour Government in 2008.
The prison population has risen to 82,700 because of record numbers of suspects held on remand in jails after the barristers’ strike halted hundreds of trials.
Ministry of Justice (MoJ) officials said more criminals being arrested by the increased number of police officers had also contributed to the crisis.
The measures, known as Operation Safeguard, were announced to MPs by prisons minister Damian Hinds who blamed an “acute and sudden” increase in the prison population in part due to the aftermath of the barristers’ strike.
The number of remand prisoners jumped from 10,000 at the beginning of the pandemic to 15,000 at the peak of the barristers’ action. Mr Hinds said that with court hearings resuming, there had also been a surge in offenders coming through the criminal justice system.
Prison crisis could last until spring
Only male prisons have run out of room, with most of the jails in the north of England. The prison system has a capacity of 84,000, but has to leave headroom of about 1,000 for emergencies such as fires, floods or riots.
It is thought the crisis could last until spring even though the MoJ has brought an extra 3,100 places on stream in the past year as it aims to expand capacity by 20,000 with new prisons being constructed. The 1,700-place HMP Fosse Way in Leicestershire is not expected to open until the spring.
Most offenders are only expected to be held in prison cells overnight before being moved into jails through the natural churn of inmates being freed.
Mr Hinds said: “This plan - alongside our existing plan to provide 20,000 modern places - will ensure we have enough places to cut crime and keep the public safe.”
Police sources said some forces would be stretched to take prisoners and could have to rely on custody suites in neighbouring constabularies.
Government criticised for law and order 'failure'
A spokesman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council said: “Policing will continue to conduct its operational business, arrest criminals, and secure them in custody, with well-established plans in place for prisoners to be placed in neighbouring force custody suites should the need arise.”
Police cells were last used for prisoners between October and December 2006, and again from January 2007 until October 2008.
Shadow justice minister Ellie Reeves said: “It’s 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.”