Probation union says release of 6,000 inmates delayed as ministry staff shortages appear to add to pressure on prisons
The Ministry of Justice faces compensation claims running into millions of pounds from thousands of prisoners kept behind bars beyond their release dates because of delays in the criminal justice system.
Napo, the probation union, claims the release of more than 6,000 prisoners is being delayed with nearly all of them held in the 30 overcrowded prisons across England and Wales.
The prison population in England and Wales stands at a record 87,000 and staff shortages at the Parole Board and the body that deals with the paperwork, the justice ministry's public protection casework section, appear to be adding to the pressure.
Probation sources say prisoners most affected are those who have been recalled to jail after breaching their licence conditions but whose parole hearings are overdue, those who are serving indeterminate sentences for public protection but have passed their "tariff date" and those reaching the end of their sentence who are overdue a move to an open prison.
Harry Fletcher of Napo said the prisoners worst hit were the 15,600 recalled this year for breaching the terms of their release licences after being automatically let out having served half their sentences.
Napo says the "overwhelming majority" of this group known as "overdue recalls"? whose numbers have grown sixfold from 2,400 a year over the past decade ? face average delays of three to four months beyond the date they are eligible for parole.
"Staff at local jails report on average 20 to 25 former prisoners are recalled each month, with virtually all of them experiencing delays before the public protection casework section is able to collate the paperwork for the Parole Board review," says the Napo report. "This is exacerbated by delays by the Parole Board in holding the review and there are further delays before a decision is transmitted to the individual jail. In addition, staff report that paperwork, files, emails and faxes are routinely lost, misplaced or disappear. The root cause is insufficient staff to file, chase and prepare case files."
Prisoners serving indeterminate public protection sentences are also affected. More than 3,000 have passed the recommended tariff set by their trial judge but their release has been delayed because they have not completed or been able to get on a required offending behaviour programme.
The final group is long-term prisoners who the Parole Board has recommended should be moved to open conditions but have not because of a shortage of places.
Fletcher said the prisoners were increasingly resorting to legal action. "It appears that thousands of prisoners are being held beyond their release date because of lack of resources at the Parole Board and Ministry of Justice. This is costing the taxpayer millions in unnecessary incarceration," he said.
"Not surprisingly, scores of legal actions are now being taken against the government for wrongful detention. Other prisoners are taking legal action because the Parole Board has said they are fit for open conditions but they haven't been transferred. A mix of fewer staff, more prisoners and delays mean the Prison Service faces meltdown."
But a Parole Board spokesman said the backlog was at its lowest point for two years and 45% down on the peak of 2,500 cases in April 2010. He said 1,359 prisoners on indeterminate sentences were listed as officially in the backlog as of 9 December. This includes those whose parole hearings are overdue and those who are to due to go before the board in the next couple of months but have yet to have a hearing date set.
The figure includes prisoners beyond their tariff date and life sentence prisoners but appears to exclude those who have been recalled to prison or are waiting for a move to open conditions.
"Some of these prisoners may be eligible to claim compensation for delays in hearing their case," said a Parole Board statement. "In 2010/2011 a total of ?70,400 was paid out to 29 prisoners in compensation on behalf of the Parole Board. The vast bulk of this was compensation for breach of human rights in respect of delays. So far in 2011/2012, ?160,500 compensation has been paid out to 29 prisoners," he said.
A recent National Audit Office report estimated the taxpayer faced a ?5.1m bill for keeping prisoners beyond their release dates because of parole delays between November 2009 and July 2010.