Another reprieve for our dilapidated Victorian prisons

Work with Offenders explains the government’s u-turn on closing our antiquated penal establishments

Penal reformers have two major complaints about our prison system. Firstly, that we lock up far too many people (England and Wales imprison the second biggest proportion of its population in Western Europe, first place was recently ceded to the Scots).

Secondly, that we hold far too many prisoners in very poor conditions in our many dilapidated Victorian-era jails.

The current government takes a different view. It thinks we should send more people to prison; one of the first things that Boris Johnson did on taking up office was to promise to build 10,000 new prison places. This announcement was all the more startling since the previous, also Conservative, Justice Secretary, David Gauke, had spent most of the previous year advocating his campaign of “smart justice” which included curbing the number of people sent to prison for short sentences.

Now, the government has made it clear that it is also changing direction on its promise to phase out the use of our older prisons. Another previous Conservative Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, announced in November 2015 that the government intended to modernise our prison estate and phase out the use of our older prisons, many of which were proving increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. One of the advantages for the government was that most of these old prisons are in our city centres and occupy prime real estate which could be sold off to developers to subsidise the new prison building programme.

However, this Tuesday, Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer told the House of Commons Justice Committee that we would still need our oldest prisons to house increasing numbers of prisoners. She said that the government’s initiative to release prisoners who have committed serious crimes of sex and violence later in their sentence and the creation of 20,000 new police officers would both add to our prison population and we would need to retain the places in these old prisons.

But just how old are our prisons? Well, our research found that no fewer than 34 of the 120 prisons currently operating in England and Wales were first built before 1900. These include many of our most famous institutions such as Dartmoor, Brixton, Pentonville and Wormwood Scrubs. City centre prisons such as Bedford, Leicester, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester also all date back to Victorian times. While some of these prisons have been significantly updated over the years, others, remain almost exactly as they were when originally constructed – in the case of Pentonville, 175 years ago.

Of course, new prisons are very expensive to build. The new “Titan” prison which has just started construction in Wellingborough will cost the princely total of £253 million. However, new prisons are also much cheaper to run, as well as being safer and providing prisoners and staff with decent living and working conditions.

Our Victorian prisons are frequently the ones which are most harshly criticised in inspection reports for having the most punitive and unsanitary regimes. Indeed, only last week the government announced that it would close the 200-bed “open” prison unit known as The Grange” on the site of Hewell prison in Worcestershire because it was in such poor condition and would be too costly to refurbish.

It will be interesting to see how the government defends this decision if the current trend for increasing levels of violence and self-harm in our prisons continues.