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New prison population projections: an admission of failure
Director of the Prison Reform Trust Peter Dawson asks why we are so keen to spend £4bn on new prisons.

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This is a guest post by Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust.

Prison population to jump by 25%

The most recent prison population projections attracted little if any public attention, despite an estimate that close to 100,000 of our fellow citizens could be in prison by 2026. This was quickly followed by the Chancellor’s statement on spending priorities which, though limited to a 12 month horizon for many issues, announced with apparent pride that £4bn had been found to build 18,000 new prison spaces. That too aroused precious little interest.

It’s worth pausing over those numbers.

It’s well known that we top the European league on incarceration. While other countries see their prison populations fall, we are planning for a 25% increase over just 6 years. To cope with that, we plan to spend an average £222,000 on every new prison space – coincidentally not very different from the average cost of building a new three bedroom house. We will do that knowing that prison has the worst record for reducing reoffending of any criminal justice intervention, and that the government’s own estimate of the current economic cost of reoffending is £18bn annually.

One might imagine that some of that £4bn was earmarked to replace the many prisons that are regularly condemned by inspectors as unfit for use – the wrong buildings often in the wrong place, costing a fortune to maintain and to staff. But 18,000 new spaces will only cover the projected increase in the prison population. It will not solve the chronic overcrowding that undermines every aspect of the prison service’s statement of purpose, from safety and security through to decency and rehabilitation. When we’ve spent that £4bn, we’ll still be operating overcrowded 200 year old prisons bursting at the seams, and many thousands of prisoners will still be sharing cells that are too small to accommodate them.

It’s like building  a new motorway knowing there will be a traffic jam from the day it opens.

© Andy Aitchison

In the upside down world of Whitehall, this will be seen as a “good settlement” for the Ministry of Justice. Departments that secure big capital spending promises look like winners. But it’s actually a testament to chronic failure. None of this £4bn comes with any promise or expectation of an impact on crime rates, and we know previous similar prison building programmes have done nothing to reduce reoffending. For want of any better justification, the government has even resorted to the argument that new prisons make sense because they boost local economies.

The size of our prison population is not some inevitable act of fate. It’s the product of a series of political decisions that start with the way we support the most vulnerable in our society but finish with the way we choose to punish people, more often than not when that support has failed. The number of people in prison reflects the severity of the punishment we choose to inflict, and in particular the length of time for which we choose to lock people away. Countries with lower prison populations are not more dangerous, and countries with higher prison populations are certainly not safer.

So a prison population of 100,000, paid for at the cost of all the new homes, schools and hospitals that the Chancellor could have funded instead, is no cause for celebration. In 2017, we published an analysis by a former Director of Finance for the prison service, that showed that £3.7bn had been spent on new prisons since 1980. In the same publication we were reporting record overcrowding, record levels of violence and self-harm, but more or less identical levels of re-offending. This Justice Secretary will be long gone by the time this new building programme completes in 2026, but there is nothing to suggest that his legacy will be any different.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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