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British prison ships proposal revives memories of deadly 'hulks'

[JURIST] UK Home Secretary John Reid [BBC profile] is soliciting bids for the provision of prison ships to house approximately 800 inmates to relieve pressure on Britain's overcrowded jails. The system has neared its 80,000 inmate limit [JURIST report] and the country's reconviction rate has reached a record high. Currently, Great Britain has only one prison ship, HMP Weare, but it was closed [BBC report] by Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers in 2005 after being found to be inadequate, cramped, overpriced, and in the wrong location.

Reid's move has inevitably evoked memories of the notorious prison ships maintained by British authorities in North America and England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when otherwise abandoned "hulks" were repurposed to house American prisoners of war and convicts awaiting transportation to Australia. During the Revolutionary War, more Americans died on 16 dank, overcrowded, and unsanitary prison ships in New York Harbor [Newsday backgrounder] than in all the war's battles combined. During the Northern Ireland "troubles" of the 1970s, the British also used a prison ship to house Irish nationalists being held without trial.

The prison ships option appears to be only one of several under official consideration, however. Other possibilities include increasing the speed at which some foreign prisoners are deported and moving other inmates to open jails. Reuters has more.

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