Male prisons have just 238 spaces left as early releases begin

Inside a prison cell
Inside a prison cell

Fewer than 250 spaces are left in men’s jails in England and Wales, The Telegraph can reveal, as the Justice Secretary sanctioned the biggest early release scheme from prisons in nearly 20 years.

Alex Chalk announced emergency measures to release hundreds of burglars, shoplifters and violent criminals up to 60 days early to tackle the crisis.

He also unveiled plans to slash the number of foreign prisoners – now standing at over 10,000 – by refusing tourist visa applications from countries that fail to take back their criminals earmarked for deportation.

He also confirmed plans to allow foreign shoplifters, thieves and drug dealers to be deported rather than prosecuted.

The moves came as internal figures obtained by The Telegraph showed male prisons were 99.7 per cent full, with just 238 spaces left out of an operational capacity of 85,000. Women’s jails are 96.9 per cent full with just 118 spaces left.

‘It is dire’

A prison service source said: “It is dire. It means the prison system could not handle an incident that put a lot of people in custody or if there was a riot in a jail. Who knows whether it can sustain the normal operation of the courts sending offenders to jail?”

As revealed by The Telegraph last week, Mr Chalk has approved the release of prisoners up to 35 days before they were scheduled to be freed, doubling the current time of 18 days.

However, ministers have accepted the overcrowding crisis is so serious and the prospect of prisons overflowing so great that prisons will have an option to increase it to 60 days, and potentially more.

The last big early release scheme, introduced in 2007 by the then Labour government, was limited to 18 days but lasted three years during which time some 80,000 prisoners were freed.

It is estimated that some 40,000 prisoners are eligible under the current early release scheme, which covers offenders on fixed sentences who would normally be released automatically halfway through their jail terms.

However, it is restricted to “full” prisons at the discretion of governors, meaning it is likely to be hundreds, rather than thousands, who are released early.

Sex offenders, convicted terrorists, category A prisoners and all violent offenders serving four or more years are excluded.

However, violent offenders serving under four years are eligible, as are burglars, thieves, shoplifters and fraudsters serving any length of fixed-term sentence.

It follows internal warnings that prison places could run out within weeks as courts ramp up cases and prosecutions are set to increase following the uplift of 20,000 police officers.

Prisoner deportations

To help speed up deportations of foreign prisoners, the Home Office will allocate an extra 400 caseworkers to process removals.

Legislation will also be amended to enable foreign criminals handed suspended sentences of six months or more to be deported. At present, it is limited to those given 12-month suspended sentences.

It follows the controversy over Abdul Ezedi, the Clapham chemical attacker, who remained in the UK despite being handed a two-year suspended sentence for sexual assault and exposure.

As revealed by The Telegraph last month, lower level foreign offenders will be spared jail and instead given “conditional cautions” under which they will be expelled and banned from returning to Britain. The scheme aims to reduce the 3,300 foreign prisoners on remand who have been charged but not yet convicted.

Shabana Mahmood MP, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said the public would be “rightly alarmed” by the early release scheme.

“The Government has been releasing prisoners in secret, including domestic abusers – and has activated a supposedly temporary scheme indefinitely. This is completely unacceptable and the Justice Secretary has a duty to be candid with the public,” she said.

“After 14 years of the Tories, prison violence is still rocketing, staff are leaving in droves, and high reoffending rates mean prison leavers often end up back in custody. With population projections showing even more pressure in years to come, it paints a stark picture of how the Tories have lost control of jails.

“A Labour government would get these new prisons built to ease the capacity crisis. And we’ll make prisons work as part of our mission to make Britain’s streets safe.”

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