Outraged prison officers warned today that Britain's whole justice system was heading for a meltdown after the Con-Dems announced plans to axe seven jails.
Tory Justice Secretary Chris Grayling dropped the bombshell on corrections staff as he cheerfully announced he was axing the seven prisons across England and Wales - despite widespread overcrowding and record prison populations.
HMP Bullwood Hall, Canterbury, Gloucester, Kingston, Shepton Mallet and Shrewsbury will all close, while Chelmsford, Hull and Isle of Wight will be partially decommissioned.
Mr Grayling said older prisons cost too much to maintain: "There is clear evidence that by replacing old uneconomic places with modern prison capacity we can drive substantial savings for the taxpayer and I am determined to do just that."
Mr Grayling said he would commission new wings for a combined 1,260 beds at HMP Parc in Bridgend, HMP Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, HMP The Mount in Hertfordshire and HMP Thameside in London.
But the prisons marked for closure hold a combined 2,600 prisoners themselves - meaning prison capacity across England and Wales will shrink by more than 1,000 places on the whole.
Prison population figures released last week showed 83,632 people in the prison system - around 92 per cent of the "useable operational capacity," the maximum prisons can hold while remaining safe.
An investigation by the Prison Reform Trust last August found 77 out of the country's 131 prison musters were above authorised levels - in some cases nearly doubling it.
Meanwhile the prison population is expected to hit 85,000 by next year on current projections. After the announcement, an estimated 95 per cent of useable operational capacity.
The Prison Officers Association's Mark Freeman told the Morning Star the decision was "pandering to the private sector."
Of the four new wings announced, three were in private prisons - meaning one in five private prisons would expand compared with less than one per cent of those publicly run.
Meanwhile the resurrected "Titan" scheme for US-style "super jails" - holding up to 2,000 prisoners each - would almost certainly be contracted out as PFI deals.
"We've got prisons that are so overcrowded, but they're ignoring that issue and putting money into the nice new private prisons."
Mr Freeman said the news was even more alarming in the wake of plans to outsource up to 70 per cent of the Probation Service's core work, announced earlier this week.
"It's scandalous what they're doing," he said. "The whole justice system - if you're not careful - could go into meltdown."
The civil servants' Public and Commercial Services union called the plans "privatisation by stealth," with one in five prisoners now held in for-profit prisons.
Meanwhile Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon said the public interest lay in driving down the prison population.
It would be a "gigantic mistake" to pour taxpayers' money into discredited titans when small community prisons were much safer and better for reducing reoffending.
But prisons should be a last resort, not a dumping ground, she said.
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