The Price of Prison

Social Insight — POSTED BY Charlotte Walsh on February 2, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Locking up a criminal in police stations to alleviate prison over-crowding costs as much per night as a week in the Canary Islands, figures show. The most obvious solution to alleviate this social and financial burden would be to decriminalize the use of prohibited drugs such as Cannabis and Ecstacy.

Last year 60,953 prisoners had to be housed in police cells as an emergency response to an acute shortage of jail cells.

Now figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats have revealed that it costs £459.52 to hold an offender in the alternative cells for one night.

This compares to an average of £77 a night to keep a male prisoner in a medium security jail.

It means the total cost for taxpayers last year of “Operation Safeguard” – the Government’s contingency plan to deal with prison overcrowding – was £28 million.

Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Jenny Willott said: “The Government’s gross incompetence in managing our prison system is leaving the taxpayer picking up a huge bill.

“Ministers have massively underestimated the knock-on costs of prison overcrowding.

“For £460 per night, a family could buy a week-long stay in a holiday villa in the Canaries.”

She added: “The Government has put us in this hopeless position by failing to plan for the future while putting record numbers behind bars in an effort to appear tough on crime.

“Rather than spending public money sensibly on our police forces and measures to reduce reoffending, the Government is squandering millions on increasingly desperate attempts to find places to house prisoners.”

Mark Wallace, of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Mismanagement and political meddling in the police are costing all of is dearly.

“Funds are being misspent, valuable officer time is being misused, and the Government has lost control of the situation.

“Successive Governments have failed to plan strategically for an effective prison service and it is unfair that the police are being expected to plug the holes.”

It came as the Prison Service was forced to re-impose the emergency “Operation Safeguard” measures after the prison population in England and Wales began to rise again.

Recent weeks had seen the number drop to under 80,000.

But on Friday it had climbed back to 80,778 – and 65 inmates were being held in police stations.

Others have been released early to free up more room in Britain’s prisons.

The cost per night of housing offenders in police cells is much higher than the Government’s original estimate of £385.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “The overall costs of Operation Safeguard have not risen.

“The original estimate of cost per night was based on previous use of police cells in 2002 whereas the current estimate is from a more realistic assessment based on actual recent costs.”

Director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon, said: “These figures reveal the shocking amount of public money being thrown away on the inappropriate use of police cells to bail out overcrowded jails.

“The price of this panic buying has been a waste of police time, a continuing rise in prison numbers and high reconviction rates.

“If the government focused on investing in drug and alcohol treatment for addicts, court diversion schemes for the mentally ill and effective community sentences, we would see both prison numbers and crime falling.”

Last year it was revealed that criminals being held in police cells have four times as much spent on their food as hospital patients.

They receive three meals a day, at a cost of £12 – whereas hospitals spend between £3 and £5 feeding sick patients.

It costs less than £2 to feed an inmate in prison, where meals can be mass produced by the prisoners themselves.

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