Published: 00:01, 17 May 2018
| Updated: 10:43, 17 May 2018
Overcrowding at Sheppey jails is forcing prisoners to eat, sleep and use toilet facilities in cells designed for one.
The crisis - seen more acutely at Elmley than any other detention centre in Kent - is said to be contributing to a huge rise in assaults on staff and other inmates.
Shocking figures from the Ministry of Justice show some 1,224 inmates were crammed into just 1,007 spaces at Elmley Prison on the Island in March.
Meanwhile, nearby Swaleside is operating at a dangerous 95% capacity, with room for just 48 more prisoners on site before it becomes full.
Campaigners say that the unchecked rise of the prison population is responsible for an increase in attacks within the jails - a situation described last week as a “national emergency”.
Figures show 305 assaults were recorded at Swaleside in 2017 - more than five times higher than it was five years ago - with 106 attacks directed at staff.
Furthermore, there were an additional 281 at Elmley last year - including 61 on staff - which is more than double the number in 2012, while cases of self-harm have also rocketed at both jails over the same period.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Overcrowding isn’t simply a case of being forced to share a confined space for up to 23 hours a day where you must eat, sleep and go to the toilet.
“It directly undermines all the basics of a decent prison system, including work, safety and rehabilitation.
“Despite a virtually permanent programme of prison building, overcrowding has been an unchanging reality of our prison system since 1994.
"Building prisons isn’t the solution - breaking our addiction to imprisonment is.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Prison numbers can fluctuate, which is why we have robust plans in place to ensure we always have enough prison places for those sent to us by the courts.
“We will always ensure there are enough cells across the prison estate, and manage this in a way that gives taxpayers the best possible value for money.
“We are investing £1.3 billion to build modern new establishments, with up to 10,000 new prison places and better education facilities.”
Concerns about overcrowding are growing at Kent’s other prisons too, with Maidstone only able to offer room for another 25 prisoners, while Rochester has 13 spaces remaining and Cookham Wood just four.
Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson earlier called on prison warders to be armed with PAVA spray amid concerns about escalating violence.
The Sheppey MP made the suggestion during a Commons debate on prison conditions.
He said he believed some inmates were deliberately causing trouble to remain behind bars for longer and continue running lucrative crime gangs while inside.
The Tory is also calling for harsher punishment for inmates who attack staff and a meaningful clampdown on drugs and mobile phones smuggled into cells.
In the last quarter there were 21,270 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in the UK and 8,429 attacks on staff - though very few prosecutions.
During 2015 and 2016 there were only 149 prosecutions.
Speaking earlier, Mr Henderson said: “That hardly seems a deterrent. If a police officer is attacked the full weight of the law rightly comes down on the attacker.
“If a prison officer is attacked, too often nothing happens. That cannot be right.”
He said Sheppey prisons had introduced drone-free zones to stop drugs and phones being dropped over the walls and called for gas masks to be issued to officers to protect them from the effects of breathing in the drug ‘spice’ smoked by inmates in cells.
Mr Henderson has asked Justice Minister Rory Stewart to let prison officers retire early like the police and firefighters. Currently they work until aged 66.
The government is doubling the maximum sentence for attacking prison officers from six months to a year, there will be stiffer tests for drugs and additional powers are to be introduced to ban mobile phones from jails.
Standford Hill Prison in Eastchurch Meanwhile, Kent’s prisons are almost full to capacity, according to the latest government data.
Of the seven jails in the county, there are just 171 of the 4,359 total number of cells currently unoccupied, statistics from the Ministry of Justice show.
Although none of the prisons is officially overcrowded, when you look at the operational capacity figure which against the overall population, all seem to be stretched.
Maidstone, which has a capacity for 600 prisoners, currently has 60 spaces, Rochester has 13 spaces and capacity for 695 and Swaleside has only 48 out of its 1,059 cells available.
At the end of March, Cookham Wood had four unoccupied cells with an operational capacity of 188, Elmley has 28 of its 1,252 cells left empty, East Sutton Park has 15 out of 101 unoccupied and three in Standford Hill are empty out of 464.
Meanwhile, prison governors should temporarily release inmates during the day to engage in work, training and education in the community, a new report claims.
The Prison Reform Trust says such a scheme would be a huge incentive to good behaviour within jails as well as an effective aid to resettlement by allowing prisoners to re-establish contact with friends and family.
It argues the project would also benefit victims of crime, with a proportion of the wages earned by prisoners released on temporary license (ROTL) paid into a victim’s fund.
Last year alone, the scheme raised £1.1 million for victims.
The scheme already has a track record of success, with less than 0.1% of releases on temporary licence resulting in failure, according to the report.
In 2016, there were just 17 failures as a result of alleged further offending - the equivalent of five arrests per 100,000 releases.
Justice Secretary David Gauke has promised to look at the availability and use of release on temporary licence to get more prisoners into work and training, and an employment strategy for prisoners is expected to be unveiled in the coming months.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “ROTL has the potential to be a massive incentive for good behaviour as well an effective tool for resettlement.
“But to work, governors need a clear and unequivocal message that they will be supported and encouraged in its use.
"Carefully managed risk in the short term will deliver a long term dividend in better resettlement and public protection."