Prisons are on course to run out of space by spring despite the early release of hundreds of offenders, ministers have been warned.
Figures seen by The Telegraph show that only 550 spaces remain in male prisons, with 99.35 per cent of jail cells full to capacity, while 113 spaces are left in the women’s estate at 97 per cent of capacity.
The number of spare places has fallen by about 200 in a week with governors forced to ramp up the early release of prisoners under a scheme that allows them to let out inmates up to 18 days before the date they were due to go free.
Officials are also looking at the possibility of reactivating the scheme under which the Ministry of Justice pays police forces to use their cells to accommodate the overflow of prisoners.
The looming overcrowding crisis comes despite measures announced last year by Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, when the Prison Service came within 150 places of running out of space. These included releasing offenders such as burglars serving up to four years in jail a quarter of the way through their sentences.
The Conservatives pledged to build 20,000 more cells by the mid-2020s and two new jails have been opened. They are now understood to be at close to capacity, while plans for three prisons in Lancashire, Leicestershire and Buckinghamshire have been delayed by problems gaining planning permission.
The pressure can be eased by the early release scheme that allows individual governors to free prisoners up to 18 days before they officially complete their sentences and commission police cells. Some 400 were earmarked for the scheme, known as Operation Safeguard, last year.
However, further major changes in the Government’s new sentencing bill have yet to receive legislative approval from Parliament. These include reducing the number of offenders sent to prison for under 12 months under a presumption on judges and magistrates that they should instead be punished in the community.
Ministers are also taking powers to allow offenders serving sentences of more than four years to be released more than six months early on electronic tags and to rent cells in foreign prisons with spare capacity.
Mark Fairhurst, chairman of the Prison Officers Association, said: “This is something that was predictable and preventable. It is entirely down to government incompetence and lack of investment in our prisons.
“If they had invested in infrastructure through their time in office, they would not have over 1,500 cells out of use because of fire risk.”
The Ministry of Justice said: “We are creating an additional 20,000 prison places – the biggest prison expansion programme since the Victorian era – so we can lock up dangerous offenders for longer.”
It said anyone convicted of a sexual, terrorist or serious violent offence was excluded from early release.