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Inside Europe

Britain Suffering From Prison Overcrowding

Britain's prisons are full to overflowing and cramped conditions have been blamed for record levels of prison suicides. Yet building even more prisons doesn't appear to be the answer to the problem.

Manchester prison

Strangeways may look grand from the outside, but it's full to overflowing within

The Manchester Prison is a forbidding Victorian brick structure with turrets framing a gigantic wooden gate. This is a high security prison, and it is as good as full.

The prison formerly known as Strangeways is indicative of the situation in the UK -- it has the largest prison population in Western Europe. Many penitentiaries have been forced to nearly double their capacity in the past few years to deal with the huge increase in the prison population. More and more inmates are forced to share prison cells designed for one.

This has led to a growing number of prison suicides, such as Paul Calvert. He hanged himself after only two days behind bars. Prison suicides have tripled in the past few years, and some link this to the difficult conditions created by overpopulation.

Calvert had fought a 20-year heroin addiction, and could not face the harsh realities of prison life, says his mother Gwen.

"The system failed him," she says. "My Paul went to prison to lose his liberty, not his life. I'm so angry, this shouldn't have happened." Cell sharing is the norm

The prison service says there is no clear link to overcrowding and high suicide rates. But campaigners for prison reform, prison officers and lawyers say overcrowding has reached unacceptable levels.

Interior of Manchester prison

The prison's rotunda was refurbished in 1994

Martin Richardson, a criminal lawyer based in Manchester, says he spoke to an officer at a prison in Preston, who advised him that the prison was designed to accommodate approximately 490 prisoners.

"And he told me that they've been advised that as of the following week, they were expected to accommodate nearer to 800 prisoners," Richardson says. "That is achieved simply by doubling up prisoners in the cells. It is very unusual now to see a prisoner who is not sharing a cell with another person."

Opposition leader David Cameron has attacked the Labour government for failing to deal with the lack of prison space. An early release scheme designed to deal with overcrowding has made people here worried that dangerous criminals will roam the streets when they should be in jail. Mass-sized jails are under construction

But lawyer Richardson is worried another trend amongst police is making this problem even worse, namely a massive use of fixed penalty notices. He says the current level is 80 Pounds (91 Euros or $118).

"Everyone has stories about offenses that appear to be undercharged," Richardson says. "A less serious offense has been charged rather than the one that more fits the evidence."

Manchester police in front of a house

Manchester police are more likely to issue a fine than to arrest someone, critics say

According to a story Richardson heard from a colleague, two men had been brought in, apparently apprehended walking down the street in possession of a samurai sword each. They were given fixed penalty notices.

"Potentially a very serious crime was going to be committed," Richardson says. "I can't imagine they had any legitimate reason to carry a samurai sword down the street at two o'clock in the morning."

The government now wants to spend 1.5 billion Euros building three super-sized jails, each holding 2,500 offenders. This should all be in place by 2012.

But campaigners say such prisons are nothing but warehouses for storing criminals, leaving them little or no chance of rehabilitation. The result, they fear, is that people will go on re-offending, and the prison population will continue to grow. But so far, neither the government nor the opposition has come up with a better solution.

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