Prison ships on horizon

Prison ships could be used as a solution to the problem of Britain’s bursting jails, the Home Office has confirmed.

Britain’s last such ship, HMP Weare, was shut down in 2005 after chief prison inspector Anne Owers described it as “unsuitable, expensive and in the wrong place”.

But with prisons reaching absolute capacity, the government has posted adverts in the EU journal for firms to come forward with bids for ships offering between 200 and 800 places.

A government spokesperson said that home secretary John Reid was constantly looking at “innovative solutions” to prison overcrowding.

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker told BBC News 24: “What [Mr Reid] is determined to do is to ensure we’ve got sufficient prison places, and obviously he’s looking at a number of ways of doing that and a prison ship is one possibility.”

Yesterday the government re-activated Operation Safeguard, a scheme that sees inmates detained in police cells, with 240 cells provided by 19 separate police forces.

A Home Office spokesman explained that the home secretary saw the decision as a “necessary and pragmatic move”.

The total number of prisoners in England and Wales reached 79,714 on Friday, 65 less than last fortnight’s all-time high.

A government spokeswoman said that overcrowding problems were more pronounced in certain areas of the country.

“A number of prisoners are being held in police cells under Operation Safeguard but the number changes daily,” she said.

“Implementation started on Thursday 12th October, and in the first instance about 240 cells from 19 forces will be used.

“There is potential for expansion of up to a total of 520 police cells through October and November.”

The opposition has previously opposed Operation Safeguard and criticised the government’s lack of foresight on prisons. Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg today said the situation was a result of “inexcusable incompetence”.

“Prison cells are enormously expensive, and looking after prisoners will be a huge distraction for the police,” he warned.