AN independent watchdog is urging the Ministry of Justice to look at prison “overcrowding” to make them more suitable for the 21st century.

Durham Prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) is asking ministers to look at the issue because of the high number of prisoners housed there.

The prison in Old Elvet is running at close to its legal occupational capacity of 996, with around 400 prisoners more than the “ideal maximum” and the majority of inmates share cells.

John Davidson, chairman of the IMB, said: “In the 21st century more effort should be made to provide single occupancy cells.

“That’s not the governor’s problem. It’s a national issue so we are saying the Ministry of Justice should look at it.”

The IMB’s annual report, published yesterday, is the first to be produced since Durham became the country’s first reception prison in May last year, resulting in a “higher churn” of inmates.

It has meant increased workload for staff as well as the need to make changes to the prison’s education and drug and alcohol services.

Mr Davidson said: “They have had some teething problems with increased work load but they have managed it very well.

“We’re looking forward to this year when we need to make sure it continues to move forward and work.”

Around 40 additional staff members have been employed, with another 30 expected to start in the coming year, to help cope with the workload associated with receiving additional prisoners and in making greater use of video court appearances.

The prison is now receiving up to 30 per cent more prisoners than previously, most of whom do not stay for more than a fortnight.

Another consequence of the change has been to replace the prison’s drug and alcohol service with a pilot mental health unit, which it is hoped will be a prototype for others elsewhere.

Extra funding was also secured to update facilities at the Victorian prison, including getting new washing machines and tumble-driers and refurbishing showers.