British prisoners face serving time abroad to ease pressure on jails

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British nationals sentenced to jail in England and Wales could be transferred to prisons elsewhere in Europe under radical legislation to address the crisis in the penal system to be announced on Monday.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk will also outline plans to release imprisoned foreign nationals earlier than currently allowed and deport them to their home countries to try to tackle the chronic shortage of space in jails.

The minister will tell the House of Commons that he intends to bring forward legislation — expected in next month’s King’s speech — to reform the justice system, including allowing any prisoner to be held in jail abroad regardless of their nationality.

Government insiders confirmed that preliminary talks were being held with Estonia about housing British prisoners but declined to say which other European countries had been approached.

They accepted the scheme could be costly — not least because the government might have to pay for families to visit relatives in overseas jails — and would only be pursued if it represented value for money.

Chalk is expected to justify the move by pointing to experiments by Belgium and Norway in the last decade to house prisoners in the Netherlands.

Labour’s Shabana Mahmood, shadow justice secretary, said the idea was a “symbol of the way in which the Tories have run our criminal justice system into the ground”.

Chalk’s proposed reforms will also focus on sending home what the government described as “thousands of dangerous foreign criminals” sooner than currently allowed.

He will announce a removals scheme that could see foreign prisoners sent home 18 months before the end of their sentence. At the moment, they can be removed up to a year before the end of their sentence.

Chalk will announce that more caseworkers would be deployed to focus on removals, claiming it could save £70,000 per inmate. “Instead of letting foreign nationals take up space in our prisons at vast expense to the law-abiding public, we will take action to get them out of the country and stop them from ever returning,” he said.

The Ministry of Justice said “strict new conditions” would ban them from returning to the UK.

Ministers will also look to work with other countries to secure prisoner transfer deals — like one recently agreed with Albania — for more serious offenders. They want more criminals from overseas to serve their sentences in their home countries rather than in England and Wales, a move that could save £47,000 per inmate a year.

The justice ministry said the prison population had registered unprecedented growth following the Covid pandemic and the barristers’ strike.

Prisons in England and Wales are close to bursting point partly as a result of changes to sentencing rules intended to ensure serious offenders remain behind bars for longer, the government has acknowledged, with the length of the average prison sentence increasing by 57 per cent since 2010. 

Backlogs in the court system have also reached record levels. Figures published on Thursday showed there were 65,004 cases waiting to be heard at crown courts in England and Wales at the end of August — a 7 per cent increase on the same period in 2022.

Some 15,500 people are in prison awaiting trial, 6,000 more than were on remand before the onset of coronavirus. The overcrowding has been exacerbated by a higher than usual number of offenders entering prison this year.

Official figures published on October 6 showed that the prison population, at 88,016, was only 651 short of the “usable operational capacity” of 88,667.

Labour has said it would tackle the prisons crisis by delivering an extra 20,000 prison places, hiring more crown prosecutors to tackle the case backlog and by opening specialist courts for rape charges.

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