Is building nine new prisons good news?

Our history shows that when new prisons are built, they are too frequently filled with more prisoners while old prisons are not decommissioned at all.

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A major new prison reform programme

Yesterday (9 November 2015) the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove and Chancellor, George Osborne, made a joint announcement of

A major new prison reform programme

Here’s the announcement in full from the MoJ website:

Chancellor George Osborne and Justice Secretary Michael Gove have today (9 November 2015) unveiled a major new prison reform programme including plans to build 9 new prisons. The radical reforms will ensure Britain’s prison system is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century, and the new prisons will allow the government to close old Victorian prisons in city centres and sell the sites for housing.

This will allow over 3000 new homes to be built, boosting house building in urban areas and helping thousands of working people achieve their dream of owning a home. The Victorian prison site at Reading will be the first to be sold. Around 10,000 prison places will move from outdated sites to the new prisons, significantly improving rehabilitation, and saving around £80 million per year due to the reduced costs of modern facilities.

Chancellor George Osborne said:

This spending review is about reform as much as it is about making savings. One important step will be to modernise the prison estate. So many of our jails are relics from Victorian times on prime real estate in our inner cities. So we are going to reform the infrastructure of our prison system, building new institutions which are modern, suitable and rehabilitative. And we will close old, outdated prisons in city centres, and sell the sites to build thousands of much-needed new homes. This will save money, reform an outdated public service and create opportunity by boosting construction jobs and offering more people homes to buy.

Five of the new prisons will be open before the end of this parliament. The government will also complete the new prison being built at Wrexham, and expand existing prisons in Stocken and Rye Hill.

Currently half of criminals re-offend within one year of being released, and nearly half of all prisoners go into prison without any qualifications. The Chancellor and Justice Secretary made the announcement ahead of a visit to Brixton prison, a Victorian prison in South London.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove said:

This investment will mean we can replace ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons with new facilities fit for the modern world. We will be able to design out the dark corners which too often facilitate violence and drug-taking. And we will be able to build a prison estate which allows prisoners to be rehabilitated, so they turn away from crime. It is only through better rehabilitation that we will reduce reoffending, cut crime and make our streets safer.


Which prisons will be closed?

Details are currently very limited. We’re not clear how many prisons will be closed and which prisons they will be.

Apart from Reading, different commentators have suggested: Brixton; Dartmoor; Leeds; Liverpool; Manchester; Pentonville; Wandsworth an Wormwood Scrubs.

We also don’t know where the nine new prisons will be built – it sounds as if the new Titan Prison at Wrexham and the expansion of Stocken and Rye Hill aren’t included.


What will be the impact on the prison population?

Those in the criminal justice field are seeing the announcement in the context of Mr Gove’s recent announcements that as a country we could make less use of prison.

But why do we need to build new prisons if our goal is to reduce the prison population?

In the 15 years between 1993 and 2008, the prison population grew by an average of 4% per year (despite crime falling steadily over the same period.) Surely, we could just reverse this process, send fewer people to prison and close the most out-dated prisons in a methodical, planned way, with the added bonus of garnering extra money for the public purse by selling the land (much of it prime inner city sites) to developers.

Modern prisons are cheaper to run. But that is often if they are super-sized “Titan” prisons like the new one being built at Wrexham. Titan prisons are notoriously difficult to run safely and inevitably mean that the majority of prisoners are held many miles from home, making family ties hard to maintain and resettlement plans difficult to achieve.

The fear of many penal reformers is that we will suffer from a paradoxical “Field of Dreams” scenario:



If we build it, they will come.

In other words, our history shows that when new prisons are built, sentencers usually ensure that they are too filled with new prisoners while old prisons are not decommissioned at all, resulting in still more people in prison.


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