The Ministry of Justice has requested the urgent use of 400 prison cells as it announces it has run out of space for male prisoners, facing a ‘highly unusual’ surge of more than 800 prisoners in the last two months.
The government has blamed strike action by criminal barristers over the summer for causing a backlog in prisoners being held on remand. The total number of prisoners currently held on remand in England and Wales is 14,000.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) disputed these claims, saying the remand prison population was already at a fourteen-year high of over 13,000 before they went on strike.
In a statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday, justice minister Damian Hinds told MPs: “In recent months we have experienced an acute and sudden increase in the prison population, in part due to the aftermath of the Criminal Bar Association strike action over the summer which led to a significantly higher number of offenders on remand.
“With court hearings resuming, we are seeing a surge in offenders coming through the criminal justice system, placing capacity pressure on adult male prisons in particular.”
He added that this constituted the request to enact Operation Safeguard, an emergency protocol that hasn’t been enacted since 2008.
Mr Hinds said this was an established procedure ‘to ensure our prison system can operate effectively and safely during periods of high demand.’ The Prison Governors’ Association warned that this plan would cost taxpayers, and that these circumstances were ‘not unforeseen’.
The Chair of the CBA, Kirsty Brimelow KC said: ‘Barristers’ action was taken as a last resort to prevent the complete collapse of the criminal justice system and force urgent increased pay into legal aid.’
A spokesman for the CBA told the Independent that the surging prison population backlogs had ‘been caused by government funding cuts to the criminal justice system.’
This view was echoed by Ellie Reeves, a shadow justice minister, who said ‘it is 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.’