A mixed report
A couple of weeks before Christmas, the National Audit Office published a report which examined the value for money of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) prison estate strategy. It is an interesting report because it contains both strong praise and trenchant criticism.
Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, summarises the report like this:
“The strategy for the prison estate is the most coherent and comprehensive for many years, has quickly cut operating costs, and is a significant improvement in value for money on the approaches of the past. However, the Agency urgently needs to improve new prisons and look at ways to close fewer high-performing ones in future. The new larger prisons are bringing economies of scale but the Agency does need to understand the consequences in terms of performance of building very large prisons.”
The NAO commends NOMS for finally taking a strategic, longer-term approach to estate management after decades of crisis management to cope with the rapid increase in prisoner numbers.
The main focus of the strategy has been cost reduction, where NOMS has been successful – saving £71 million between 2010 and March 2014, with predicted savings of £70 million a year going forwards. New accommodation is also of a much higher quality (and much longer life expectancy) than the prefrabricated units which were the usual method of increasing capacity in the early 2000s.
The NAO also compliments NOMS on its improved project management experience, both in ensuring that new prisons are built on time and in the swift and effective closures – which now takes just three months.
It’s unsurprising to find that a relentless focus on cost cutting also has a downside. Although new accommodation is assessed as being of good quality with integrated toilet and shower facilities and safety features which reduce the risk of self-harm and suicide, it is often deliberately commissioned to enable shared cells. This is in direct contravention of UN and Council of Europe guidelines but appears to be a growing trend:
“Twelve per cent of prisoners in new capacity are sharing cells. In time, up to 34 per cent of the accommodation built since 2010 could be used to hold prisoners two to a cell. At the recently-announced new prison in Wrexham, prisoners could be expected to share in 58 per cent of cells.”
The NAO also criticises the way that NOMS selects prisons for closure. Many modern prisons – including those constructed under Private Finance Initiatives – are excluded from consideration because of the cost of terminating contracts early, even though several of them are the most expensive prisons to run.
NOMS is commended for building flexibility into the commissioning process in terms of security (building to a higher specification allows NOMS to upgrade/downgrade an establishment’s Category between B and C as needed, sometimes several times over a prison’s life). However, the same flexibility is not built in to facilitate purposeful activities with even very new prisons such as Oakwood unable to get most prisoners out of their cells and occupied in work or education because of the limitations of the building.
The NAO also criticises NOMS for not taking into account the availability of offending behaviour programmes when closing prisons. There are large numbers of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences who are, in effect, held in prison longer because they have to wait for so long to go on sex offender treatment courses and other programmes.
The NAO chooses to highlight a key challenge in managing the prison estate in the future. Many of the cost savings are due to commissioning larger prisons – the Titan Prison planned for Wrexham will be Britain’s largest with about 2,000 prisoners). Smaller prisons tend to perform better and, although, there is no evidence base, many criminal justice commentators hold the view that it is easier to help prisoners address their problems and plan for successful release at smaller jails.
Reliance on new super-sized prisons will also make it difficult for NOMS to make good on their promise to establish 71 resettlement prisons – a cornerstone of the MoJ’s ambition to reduce reoffending via the Transforming Rehabilitation initiative.
Many thanks to photographer Mark Harvey for permission to use the image at the top of this post. You can see his work at the Social Issues Library.