The claim

“We have enough prison places for those that are sentenced to custody after these incidents. There is substantial capacity in the prison and youth justice system.”
Ministry of Justice spokesman, 12 August 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

There’s no getting away from the public outcry about the riots. But when two men were jailed for four years after calling for a riot on Facebook and another was locked up for six months after stealing bottled water worth £3.50, some began to wonder if the court of public opinion was leading to rather rough justice. David Cameron begged to differ, saying it’s “very good” that the courts are sending a tough message to rioters. But has the prime minister thought this through? Can the prisons accommodate the hundreds being remanded into custody? Over to the team to investigate.

The background

People are being arrested in their thousands in the aftermath of last week’s riots, and the sudden influx of people remanded into custody awaiting trial or convicted over the disorder is putting the creaking prison system in England and Wales under enormous pressure.

Channel 4 News got an exclusive look at a worrying memo from Ministry of Justice (MoJ) chiefs on Friday, which suggests that there are worries about whether will cope with the surge.

The leaked memo reveals that two teenagers were hospitalised at Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institution this week after a “nasty” assault.

It’s understood the incident saw prisoners already doing time in the tough unit attack three young men who were on remand for public order offences.

In the memo, prison governors are warned: “It is important that where remands/offenders are received thought is put into their background in terms of their experience of a custodial setting.

“Whilst the induction process ensures that remands/offenders are aware of the risks of stating where they live, what gang they may be in, what team they may support or faith they may be, it is worth ensuring that reception staff give a verbal brief and assess risk where they remand first time in custody people.”

The powder-keg potential of the situation is clear to voices from inside the prison system – rapidly rising numbers of new inmates, many of them vulnerable first-timers thrown in with serving prisoners, some members of street gangs whose violent rivalries will continue on the inside.

The Ministry of Justice told Channel 4 News it would “closely monitor” the prison estate “for any potential unrest”.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Prison Officers trade union, said the prison authorities are “terrified” of seeing large scale disorder break out as the pressure on cell places becomes intense.

He told FactCheck: “If they had a riot in prison and 200 or 300 cells are trashed, the number of places lost is really twice that, because those prisoners have to go somewhere else.

“Every month, across the prison estate, there are half a dozen incidents that that take a number of cells out of commission.”

So just how many places are still available?

On Friday afternoon, the MoJ said the UK’s prison population had reached a record high of 86,654 prisoners. The ministry says the “useable operational capacity” is 88,093, meaning there are 1,439 places left.

Is that really “substantial capacity?”.

According to the department’s own figures, 1,375 people have appeared before the courts in connection with the riots and 62 per cent – that’s 852 people – have been remanded into immediate custody.

But the Met Police have said they want to see 3,000 people convicted in total. They have only charged 1,005 so far so that leaves thousands of people left to go through the system if Scotland Yard hits its target.

Investigations, involving officers trawling through CCTV pictures and other evidence to identify more rioters is “far from over”, Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin has said.

And the MoJ has refused to clarify how robust its figures on remaining places are, after Napo claimed that the statistics on spare capacity failed to take into account cells that are currently uninhabitable.

Harry Fletcher said many of the prison spaces the ministry says are ready for use “are waiting to be refurbished or are unfit for habitation”. He added: “The actual figure is much lower.”

FactCheck asked the MoJ to clear up how many of those 1,500 prison beds are actually out of commission, but a spokesman refused to answer the question, saying: “We’re not looking to comment any further than our statement.”

The statement is: “We are managing an unprecedented situation and all the staff involved should be commended for their dedication and hard work during this difficult time.

“We currently have enough prison places for those being remanded and sentenced to custody as a result of public disorder.

“We are developing contingencies to increase useable capacity should further pressure be placed on the prison estate.”

The spokesman added that those “contingencies” include bringing new accommodation into play earlier than expected, “using extra places in the public and private estate” and reopening previously mothballed accommodation.

We also asked what guidelines the ministry has in place on how prisoners can be crowded into the same cell, and how what the ratio of prison officers to inmates should be, but we were referred to the same statement.

Channel 4 News understands that more prisoners will be told to share cells, and up to four jails earmarked for closure could be reopened.

Cathy Newman’s verdict

Has David Cameron forgotten the spending review he and the chancellor carried out in the Autumn? George Osborne demanded a 23 per cent cut in the Ministry of Justice budget by 2014/15. The Justice Secretary’s response was to pledge a reduction in prison places. Now the same department blithely talks about reopening the four jails it had planned to close. Where exactly is the money coming from? The public may be keen on throwing the rioters in prison, but less so on footing the bill.

The analysis by Patrick Worrall