Holding prisoners in police cells cost over £30,000 each day
The UK’s Ministry of Justice has incurred substantial costs due to an emergency scheme, Operation Safeguard, which was implemented to manage the overflow of prisoners by housing them in police cells. This measure was taken in response to a sharp increase in the prison population in England and Wales.
Between February and September, prisoners were placed in police cells on 1,272 occasions because nearby jails were at full capacity. The peak usage of this scheme occurred in May, with police cells being utilized 363 times. The total expenditure for this eight-month period amounted to approximately £38 million, averaging nearly £30,000 for each instance a prisoner was housed for a day.
This high cost is attributed partly to some police forces being asked to keep cells empty, which incurred charges even when they were not used. The expense is comparable to the average annual cost of housing a prisoner in jail and is significantly higher than luxury hotel accommodations.
Operation Safeguard was previously activated in 2008 by the Labour government during a similar prison overcrowding crisis. The Ministry of Justice has since halted the scheme following the introduction of an early release programme, which has seen more than 350 prisoners released up to 18 days before their scheduled release dates.
The prison population has now stabilized, falling 1,200 below the operational capacity of 88,943, a significant improvement from the peak of the crisis. The Ministry of Justice assures that Operation Safeguard is a temporary measure and that all expenses are covered within existing departmental budgets.
The largest payment under this scheme was made to West Midlands Police, amounting to £6.6 million, followed by Northumbria Police with £2 million. Some police forces received substantial payments for keeping cells on standby, even though no prisoners were housed during that time.
This situation has led to a national discussion on prison overcrowding and the government’s strategies to address it. A new law is being proposed to reduce the number of offenders sent to jail for terms of less than one year, aiming to alleviate the overcrowding issue. This law would apply to lower-level offenders, with judges retaining the discretion to imprison individuals deemed a risk to the public. Sex, violent, and terrorist offenders will be excluded from this provision.