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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 October 2006, 09:03 GMT 10:03 UK
Overcrowding 'eases' in prisons
The prison population dipped slightly during the week
Overcrowding in British jails - said to be at "bursting point" last week - has eased, reducing the need to use police cells to hold inmates, governors say.

Britain's prison population reached a record 79,843 at the weekend, in theory leaving just 125 more spaces.

The home secretary has announced emergency measures to cope, with police cells now available if needed.

But the Prison Governors Association said it was unlikely they will have to be used as inmate numbers had dipped.

The association's general secretary, Charles Bushell, said numbers had fallen by about 200 since the weekend.

Since the weekend, and I think particularly since the intervention of Lord Phillips, our numbers have declined by a couple of hundred
Charles Bushell
Prison Governors Association

He attributed this partly to a call by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, for courts to make more use of community sentences.

"Interestingly enough, [police cells] won't be used unless they absolutely have to be, because they are very, very expensive," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Since the weekend, and I think particularly since the intervention of Lord Phillips, our numbers have declined by a couple of hundred.

"So actually, at the moment, we can probably cope with the current position for some time to come.

"But we may find in little pockets we have to use police cells because we have run out of room locally."

Record numbers

Since the start of 1993 the prison population of England and Wales has risen by 90% - from 41,600 to more than 79,600 in autumn 2006.

Last week prison governors warned jails were at "bursting point", prompting Home Secretary John Reid to announce measures including Operation Safeguard - freeing up hundreds of police cells.

Other tactics included using women's prisons to house male inmates and a controversial plan to pay prisoners from outside Europe a package of up to 2,500 to leave the UK.

The Home Office said the deal would not include giving cash handouts to inmates and was much cheaper than the 37,000-a-year cost of a prison place.

But Home Office minister Gerry Sutcliffe told the BBC: "The good news this week is that the population is reduced."

He added that the government backed Lord Phillips' call for fewer offenders to be jailed.

"What we have got to do is look at community sentences to see if we can get people on community payback schemes, and that's a matter for the judges and the judiciary."

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