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Looming crisis prompts prison governors' call for electronic tagging

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An "unexpected" surge in the UK prison population has led to the Prison Governor's Association calling for early release of inmates under electronic tagging. News that prisons had hit a population of 77,600 and were close to running out of space came just weeks after Charles Clarke announced the abandonment of the target of pegging prison population at 80,000 while - impressively - presenting it as a liberal move.

Both developments are connected (as indeed are so many of Clarke's headaches) to the doings of his illustrious predecessor, David Blunkett. A year ago Blunkett envisaged far more extensive use of tagging as building 'prisons without bars', by which he did not mean one you could walk in and out of at will. The ability to have large numbers of people sentenced and monitored but not in prison would, he thought, allow him to keep below the 80,000 ceiling without having to mess around with sentencing. He could therefore remain tough on crime without having to build lots more prisons. Unfortunately, news leaked out in August ('report here) that the tagging pilot had been a complete disaster, so bad that Clarke had ordered a media blackout on the report.

But the report's findings were eminently predictable, and were predicted here, among other places. Clarke was therefore left holding a climbing prison population, and in need of an alternative scheme to get a lid on it, hence the removal of the cap and the touchy-feely stuff about community prisons. This was possibly a bit optimistic, because it depended on squeezing a little bit more into the currently available real estate while crossing your fingers that you'd have time to reorganise to create the community prisons, then crossing your toes that reoffending rates fell and the population stopped climbing before the shit hit the fan.

As a plan, it looked to us a lot like what we in the trade call an 'Er, tell you what!', something of a spur of the moment desperate throw. The news that some prisoners are currently being held in police cells while space is found for them however suggests that Clarke is running out of road a lot sooner than he'd hoped. And the PGA's call for tagging and early release is, in light of the pilot report, satirical, right?

Well, no. The PGA genuinely believes that tagging works, and the PGA is not wrong. As we pointed out when Blunkett launched his madcap plan, tagging is successful when the subject wants to co-operate (i.e. they want to get out of prison, don't want to go back, so won't mess around), and it doesn't work on the ones who're likely to try to subvert the system (i.e. the more serious offenders Blunkett hoped to use it on). The trick is to be able to figure out which is which without making too many horrible blunders or monitoring failures like this one.

An early release tagging scheme set up at the last minute, just before the system hit the buffers, would be far more likely to produce own goals. The Home Office confirmed that an extension of early release was under consideration, but said there was still capacity in the system and that no decision had been taken. Meanwhile Fiona MacTaggart (now there's an appropriate name) claimed today that the rise in numbers was just a "spike". Which is possibly another 'Er, tell you what!'

* How, by the way, you may be wondering, can unexpected surges in prison populations happen? One suggestion we hear is that major outrages (e.g. the July bombings) have a subliminal effect on judges, who then proceed to bang people up harder than previously. Alternatively, criminality may simply have been slack in August, when many villains (not all of them in the Government) were on holiday. ®

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