Imagining alternative uses for prison sites
This is a guest post by Matt Ford of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.
At the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies we have embarked on a new and ambitious project which aims to radically downsize the prison population in England and Wales.
Underpinned by the basic proposition that there is always a better way to use a particular piece of land than as a place for a prison, After Prison aims to stimulate thought and discussion with people who live in the vicinity of prisons about what they would rather see on those sites.
We believe that building support in local areas for alternative uses for prison sites, decided by residents, will provide the impetus for campaigning activity to close those prisons.
Our local activities will initially be focused around a few prisons, but we hope to expand to other sites over time. We will work to inspire people who live around other prison sites across the country to build their own campaigns, and provide them with the necessary support and advice.
This local activity will be accompanied by nationally-focused work addressing more strategic questions. How do you go about closing prisons? What do you do with all the people currently locked up in them? How do you ensure the workforce have alternative employment on at least equal pay and conditions?
How After Prison came about
For people familiar with the work of my organisation, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, you’ll be aware we have long argued for a radically smaller criminal justice system, including big reductions in our prison population.
With the criminal justice system being so big and complex, and inevitability so ingrained in people’s consciousness, our targets and audience have often been diffuse.
Our project, Community Plan for Holloway, which we ran between 2016 and 2019, had key lessons in that respect.
Community Plan for Holloway sought to build a broad coalition of local people and groups and work to maximise the influence the community had over the redevelopment of Holloway Prison in Islington.
Holloway Prison had closed in summer 2016 as part of then Chancellor George Osborne’s prison building and reform programme. Under this programme, some of the poorest performing prisons sitting on expensive inner-city land were to be sold off to the highest bidder, and the receipts used to build new prisons outside of cities.
The risk was that the highest bidder would be a private developer who would build luxury flats, unaffordable to most Islington residents.
Working with a broad group made up of local faith groups, housing activists, political parties and anti-prison campaigners we carried out a community engagement exercise asking residents how they would like to see the Holloway site redeveloped. We collected an impressive 1,000 responses which reflected the diversity of the borough.
The responses were unanimous: people wanted to see the site used to provide genuinely affordable housing, public space and community facilities. They did not want it to be used to build luxury, high-rise flats and gated space.
We then spent the next few years working with local people to make sure these demands were heard loud and clear by the Ministry of Justice, owners of the land, and prospective developers.
The outcome was better than anyone could have imagined when we started the project. In spring 2019, after a year of delays, the Ministry of Justice finally announced the buyer for the site. Peabody housing association would buy the site for £80 million, only 40% of the Ministry of Justice’s expected return. Peabody’s proposals included:
- 1,000 homes on the site, 42% of which at social rents and 18% London Living Rent and Shared Ownership.
- Public green space.
- A women’s building providing universal services and resources to women in the area.
- Temporary use of the visitor centre as a homeless shelter.
- A full consultation.
Key lessons from Community Plan for Holloway
What Community Plan for Holloway demonstrated to us is that by focusing in on a specific site occupied by a prison, you could stimulate thought and discussion with local people about what they would rather see on that site. It is a much more effective way of getting people to imagine a world without prisons than having a conversation about why they are an inadequate and unjust response to social problems and how we should get rid of ‘the prison system’ in an abstract and unfocused sense. This learning is fundamental to our approach in After Prison.
Closing down prisons is important now more than ever
David Cameron’s Conservative government envisaged Holloway to be the first of about ten prisons to close, but further closures never materialised. Boris Johnson’s government has now officially cancelled the programme of closures but maintained the promise to build 10,000 more prison places. Coupled with his plans for more police and longer prison sentences, we’re on the brink of an expansion in the prison population. We need bold action to imagine places after prisons.