Prisons in the UK: could inmates be held in police cells to cut overcrowding and what is Operation Safeguard?

Justice minister Damian Hinds said there had been an “acute and sudden increase” in the prison population

The government has requested the use of 400 police cells after a sudden increase in the prison population.The government has requested the use of 400 police cells after a sudden increase in the prison population.
The government has requested the use of 400 police cells after a sudden increase in the prison population.

The government has announced it has requested the use of 400 police cells to house offenders after an “acute and sudden increase in the prison population”. Damian Hinds told MPs the Government has asked to use the police cells to hold inmates after a surge in overcrowding in male prisons over the last few months – the “first time ever” such a rapid increase has occurred.

It comes after there was an “unprecedented increase” in the number of offenders coming into prisons in the north of England, according to the Ministry of Justice.

Making a statement in the Commons, Hinds said: “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.”

The problem was “specific” to male prisons but youth jails and women’s prisons had “ample capacity” Hinds said as he stressed the country has “not run out of prison places” and the emergency measures – which will provide the “immediate additional capacity” needed – “do not reflect a failure to plan ahead”.

The MoJ said the public would “rightly expect us to take the action necessary to create the extra spaces we need” and that “keeping the public safe and cutting crime by taking dangerous criminals off the streets remains our number one priority”.

Deputy Chief Constable Nev Kemp, who leads the NPCC’s work on custody, said police have “contingency plans” in place to launch the “temporary measure” and will work with Government to make sure arrangements are as “safe and efficient as possible”. He added: “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.”

What is Operation Safeguard?

Hinds said the National Police Chiefs Council had been written to in order to request the temporary use of up to 400 police cells through a protocol known as Operation Safeguard.

Operation Safeguard is an “established protocol” which has been used before in periods of “high demand”, including between 2006 and 2008, he said, but added: “There has also been this highly unusual acute short-term surge, increases of over 700, and then over 800 in the last two months.

“It is the first time ever we have seen that sort of increase for two consecutive months. There are a number of capacity increase options that we have but they are just not possible, they are not available in that short timeframe. At no point in the last five years have we had fewer than a thousand cells available across the entire prison estate,” he told MPs.

What has been said about the situation?

The Prison Governors’ Association said the use of police cells would place extra pressure on the police service, and increase risk to prisoners. Responding to the announcement it said: “Previous Governments have used public sector prisons as a cash cow for savings: either through savage and deep budget cuts, or through the sustained lack of capital investment in the prison estate.

“We are seeing the consequences of these political decisions now with the announcement that the formal use of police cells will be used to extend the capacity of the prison estate. The term ‘Safeguard’ is used to describe the process where police forces are required to provide cellular spaces to accommodate prisoners who would normally be held in the custody of the Prison Service; ‘Safeguard’ also requires the relevant police force to staff and supervise the people held in their custody.

“The use of police cells under these conditions is an exceptional measure and, in our view, should be reserved for unforeseen circumstances where no other options exist. We do not believe the circumstances that sees this announcement are unforeseen and we believe there are other options open to Government.

“The use of police cells will place additional stress and pressures on an already fragile police service, and it will inevitably reduce the available numbers of police personnel to attend their core, front line duties. The use of police cells increases the risk to prisoners who would normally be in prison custody, and whilst we accept that additional measures will be put in place to mitigate some of these risks, a police custody suite should never be considered an alternative to prison.”

Meanwhile, Steve Reed MP, Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary said: “Despite reports of rape and sexual offences hitting record highs, the Conservatives cut more than 10,000 prison places since 2010, while the Justice Secretary is more interested in the fight to save his job than the fight against crime.”

Plaid Cymru Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts said the use of police cells to hold offenders “shows the utter failure of Westminster’s justice policy”.

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