Prison population hits record after English riots

19th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

The prison population in England and Wales swelled to a record high this week, the Ministry of Justice said Friday, as more people convicted over the recent riots were sent to jail.

The total number of prisoners hit 86,654, which was 723 more than the previous record of 85,931 set last week.

The new figure is less than 1,500 places short of the usable operational capacity of 88,093.

The sentences being handed down -- including four years each for two men who tried to incite a riot on Facebook even though no violence resulted from their call -- have been criticised by some campaigners and lawyers as overly harsh.

The Prison Service said it was managing an "unprecedented situation" following the wave of looting, arson and violence that swept through English cities earlier this month.

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

"We are developing contingencies to increase usable capacity should further pressure be placed on the prison estate."

More than 100 people per day are being locked up as courts try to clear the surge in cases resulting from the riots.

Of the 2,800-plus people arrested so far, some 1,300 have appeared in court charged with offences.

Two-thirds of them have been remanded in custody as courts take a tough approach on the worst civil unrest in decades.

The Guardian newspaper said the riot sentences were on average 25 percent longer than for the same offences last year.

In the magistrates court cases the paper analysed, 91 percent of those appearing were male, while 49 percent were aged 18-24, with a further 17 percent aged 11-17.

A majority lived in poor neighbourhoods, with 41 percent coming from one of the top 10 most deprived areas of England.

Meanwhile 66 percent of the neighbourhoods where the accused live got poorer between 2007 and 2010.

In London, rioters often looted shops in their own area, while in other cities such as Manchester and Birmingham, people travelled into the city centre to loot, the analysis found.

Prison Reform Trust campaign group deputy director Geoff Dobson warned that the surge in prisoner numbers meant jails were becoming "human warehouses... hard-pressed to offer any employment or education.

"The likelihood is that for some first-time offenders this will provide a fast track to a criminal career."

The Law Society professional body said that while justice should be swiftly administered, it should be done "effectively and fairly and with calm heads".

It warned that a mountain of appeals would be costly to the public and risk the reputation of the rule of law.

© 2011 AFP

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