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No ‘quick fix’ to tackling prisons overcrowding crisis – Home Secretary

Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has said there is no ‘quick fix’ to tackling overcrowding in jails as the new Labour Government considers releasing more prisoners early (Jeff Moore/PA)
Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has said there is no ‘quick fix’ to tackling overcrowding in jails as the new Labour Government considers releasing more prisoners early (Jeff Moore/PA)

The Home Secretary has said there is no “quick fix” to tackling overcrowding in jails, as the new Labour Government considers releasing more prisoners early.

Yvette Cooper accused the Conservatives of leaving behind a “legacy” of “chaos” and crisis in prisons as ministers are reportedly deciding whether to free inmates after less than half of their sentence to ease pressure on cell space.

Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer is said to be expected to authorise emergency measures this week which could see criminals automatically freed after serving 40% of their sentence.

Newly appointed Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood has been told the move could stop prisons running out of space within weeks, according to reports.

Ms Cooper sidestepped questions on whether Labour would be bringing in the plan as she met police officers in Lewisham, south-east London, on Monday, but told reporters: “I’m extremely concerned with the legacy that the Conservatives have left us with on prisons.

“They have allowed the number of remand prisoners, of people waiting for trial, to increase because of the chaos and the backlog in the criminal justice system.

Yvette Cooper stroking a horse
Home Secretary Yvette Cooper visited Lewisham Police Station in south London on Monday to speak about neighbourhood policing and meet with policing teams (Jeff Moore/PA)

“All of those things are going to need to be addressed and to be fixed, and the Prime Minister has said there isn’t going to be a quick fix, but we’re going to have to deal with the legacy that we inherit.

“But I think it’s been totally irresponsible, the way the Conservatives have handled this for not just recent months, but in fact for years. It’s deeply, deeply damaging what they have done, and we are going to have to look at what it is we now inherit.”

Prison governors and union leaders have been warning for months that jails could reach capacity if no further action is taken.

As of Friday, the prison population stood at 87,453 with a “usable operational capacity” of 88,864, indicating 1,411 spaces are available, according to the latest available government figures.

This does not include about 1,350 other cell spaces which are always kept free as a contingency measure, so prisons have the capacity to operate safely and respond to any urgent or unforeseen circumstances.

The previous government expanded measures by which some inmates could be released from jail up to 70 days early, in a bid to free up prison cells, but concerns were raised that dangerous criminals could end up being eligible despite officials insisting offenders would continue to be supervised under strict conditions.

The Ministry of Justice was already building six new prisons to create an extra 20,000 places as demand grows for cell spaces, partially because of the Government’s recruitment campaign to hire 20,000 more police officers.

About 6,000 spaces have been created already and about 10,000 will be built by the end of 2025.

Labour has said it wants to build more prisons but whether the programme will continue as planned since the change in government remains to be seen.