Prisons could face human rights challenge

12 Dec 02
Britain's over-crowded prison system is close to breaking point, with inmates suffering 'degrading' conditions that could lead to legal challenges against the Prison Service, the sector's watchdog has claimed.

13 December 2002

Anne Owers, head of the prisons inspectorate, told the Commons' home affairs select committee that the Prison Service was now operating at full capacity, while the government and courts system continue to apply policies that often end in 'unnecessary' custodial sentences.

Owers' comments came after the Office of National Statistics released figures indicating that prison numbers – already a record 72,500 – could top 109,000 by 2009. This compares with 42,000 in 1990.

The Prison Governors' Association claimed billions of pounds were needed to offset the crisis, which it said was partly caused by the government's 2001 manifesto pledge to prosecute more criminals 'without any understanding of just how to punish them'.

Owers said cash was needed to build extra prisons and to prevent re-offending by providing better programmes to help inmates settle back into the community.

She attacked the courts for not making better use of non-custodial sentences for those charged with lesser offences, adding that more could be done to help treat sick and mentally ill prisoners.

Prisons were so overcrowded, she said, that 20% of single-bed cells were now shared. 'Those men are also locked up for 22 to 23 hours of the day. These are degrading conditions.'

Consequently, Owers said, some prisoners could soon initiate lawsuits against the Prison Service. Committee members feared that legal challenges could even emerge under Article 3 of the Human Rights Act, which stipulates that 'no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment'.

But the Home Office was quick to blame the courts. Prisons minister Hilary Benn said he had warned judges to consider non-custodial sentences for non-violent and first-time offenders. 'We have no intention of compromising public protection, but nor do we advocate a policy that will push up prison numbers for its own sake.'


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