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Last Updated: Friday, 31 August 2007, 23:45 GMT 00:45 UK
Analysis: Prison challenges ahead
By Dominic Casciani
Home affairs reporter, BBC News

Prison officers on strike
One out, all out: Officers said strike was "reluctant victory"

We don't know a great deal about what was going on inside England and Wales' jails amid this week's prison officers' strike - but we do know that some governors were making the sandwiches.

With many jails severely disrupted by the lightning industrial action, a handful of managers in many institutions spent the day on catering rounds, trying to keep prisoners fed, watered and quiet while locked in their cells.

While the officers went back following a High Court injunction, their action has put prisons centre stage again after the population hit a record high earlier in the summer.

Pay talks

The key grievance which led to the strike was a row between the Prison Officers' Association (POA) and the government over their pay award.

We're not going to let this go
Brian Caton
Prison Officers' Association

Prime Minister Gordon Brown wants it phased over the year - 1.5% now and the rest in November. That's a line he says he is determined to hold in the face of similar public sector pay claims.

But the association says phasing means their members have been short-changed for two years running.

The POA has described the strike as a "reluctant victory" and believes that it has got its grievances back onto the ministerial agenda.

And after a day of talks, the POA and Ministry of Justice issued a joint statement - conciliatory in tone - but backed up by tough talking from the union's leadership. The POA has not yet changed its mind about pulling out of a special wider industrial relations agreement next May, claiming the deal has been undermined by ministers.

But while pay was the strike's trigger, the background circumstances of mounting pressures in the prison system should not be forgotten.

Prison life

Prison life has returned to normal, according to reports. Governors unlocked as normal on Thursday morning following the strike. Some reported a lot of frustration among inmates - but also a sense of getting on with it.

3,832 prisoners released since 29 June
126 recalled for breaching terms
41 reoffended
Ministry of Justice predict 30,000 early releases over a year

Many prisoners had spent 24 hours locked up but a lot of that frustration was run off in the gym or dissipated in other purposeful activity such as classes and offending behaviour courses - all part of the road to release.

Some POA members are understood to have taken some verbal abuse, but the union also says some prisoners applauded their members for taking a stand.

Fears of a mass confrontation were misplaced: prisoners simply took the enforced lock-up on the chin.

The toughest part of the strike had been catering. With only managers left to run the worst-affected jails, governors were forced to use a controlled unlocking procedure whereby only a few inmates were allowed out of cells at a time.

Lunch was sandwiches made in the kitchens and eaten in cells - prison budgets don't cover to a mass delivery from the local take-away.

Population pressures

While the pay talks will continue, the underlying problems of prison overcrowding are undoubtedly playing a critical role in morale in the prison service.

The prison population has been growing ever since Labour took power. But that growth became a crisis in June when the government came close to running out of beds with 81,000 in jail and police or court cells.

The Ministry of Justice sanctioned a limited scheme of early releases on licence to ease pressure.

It was politically sensitive - and has led to some 3,800 inmates being released within weeks of finishing sentences of less than four years.

Some of those released have re-offended - but that shouldn't have come as a surprise: Six out of 10 prisoners re-offend within two years of release anyhow.

However, a close look at the figures show what the government is still up against.

The early releases eased the population pressure and the Ministry of Justice says it expects 30,000 inmates to be let out early over the course of a year.

But despite the releases, the population has crept up again to approach the same record levels that precipitated the crisis in the first place - 80,762 as of 31 August.

Top governors have warned ministers that they estimate that the prisons will be facing a similar population crisis before Christmas, if the sentencing trend continues.

Prisons strategy

So what are ministers planning to do? Some 9,500 new prison spaces have been pledged by 2012 - and the first 500 of these will be available by January 2008. That sounds good - but official estimates suggest that by 2014 the cells will run out again.

Prison cell
More cells - but ministers say they want more use of community sentences

The first anniversary of Operation Safeguard, special powers to use police cells to house convicts, comes up before that in October. Up to 400 cells have been available under the procedure at a cost of 385 per prisoner per night.

Around the same time ministers are expecting a report reviewing the prison options for the longer term.

Prisons minister David Hanson has said that there needs to be more imagination in the use of community sentencing options created by the government.

These include special drug and alcohol treatment orders and home detention curfews.

The minister has told MPs that he is visiting judges, magistrates and probation officers to promote these alternatives to prison for some criminals expecting sentences of less than a year.

But the challenges do not end there. Ministers are trying to speed up foreign prisoner deportations.

And pressure groups say the best thing ministers could do is start to move mentally ill inmates out of jails and into treatment.

The Prison Officers' Association will be meeting ministry officials in a fortnight to continue their talks over pay and conditions. The specifics of the pay award could be resolved quickly - but that in itself won't deal with the POA's planned withdrawal from its pay and conditions agreement, put in place to underpin all negotiations with government.

But the bigger question is how long it will take to solve all the challenges prisons currently face.

A graphic explaining how the prison population has fluctuated

Prison officers during the strike action

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