Prison building programme given kickstart by MoJ

Work with Offenders looks into the detail of the announcement to build new prisons.

The Ministry of Justice has announced four new prisons are to be built across England over the next six years. This announcement seems to be part of the government strategy of investing in infrastructure in order to regenerate the economy which is reeling under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last August, Boris Johnson announced that 10,000 new prison places will be created as evidence that the government was “serious about fighting crime”.

The MoJ has released few details at this time. While it clarified that the first new prison to be built is next to HMP Full Sutton in East Yorkshire, this is old news. East Riding Council approved plans for a new “super prison” with the capacity to house 1,440 prisoners in June 2019. The other three new prisons are currently no more than aspirations, since the locations for them have not even been identified yet. All we know is that the MoJ plans to locate one prison in the North-West and two in the South-East.

The MoJ also reminded us of two other prisons currently in the process of being built; construction is said to be “well underway” at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, and early works have started at Glen Parva in Leicestershire. Both these projects will create new “Titan” prisons, each housing 1,680 prisoners in category C resettlement prisons.

It seems unlikely that the three new prisons in unidentified locations will be started any time soon since history tells us that the prison planning process is usually particularly lengthy with local communities often raising a wide range of protests rather than have a large prison built in their neighbourhood.

Nevertheless, it is clear that it is the economic impetus which is the main driver of this announcement. The MoJ stresses that “thousands of jobs will be created overall in the areas surrounding the prisons during construction and once they have opened. This will provide a major spur to local economies and support the construction industry to invest and innovate following the Coronavirus pandemic.”

The Treasury is also keen to emphasise that the actual construction process will be faster and cheaper. Drawing on lessons from recent school building programmes, it is promised that the new prisons will be built more quickly, sustainably and cost effectively. Modern construction methods and technology means that components such as concrete walls and pipework for water and electricity are built by companies around the country using standardised processes and then assembled on site. The Treasury is keen to point out that this means the economic benefits of the investment will reach companies across the country.

The new prisons are designed with enhanced security in mind. Bar-less windows will stop waste being thrown out and prevent prisoners accessing drugs and mobile phones flown in by drones. High speed network cabling will also be incorporated to enable modern security measures such as airport-style security scanning, to prevent the smuggling of the illicit items that fuel violence. Hopefully, the cabling will also enable resettlement efforts to be modernised with prisoners having (controlled) access to appropriate parts of the Internet.

In terms of whether these prisons will be public or private sector, it seems that the government intends to operate a mixed market approach with the commitment “that at least one prison will be operated by the public sector”.

It’s clear that these new modern prisons will provide much better living and working facilities for prisoners and the staff charged with their care, especially compared to our crumbling Victorian prisons such as Pentonville, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. Building such large prisons is economically attractive and recent prisons boast much cheaper costs per place.

However, many justice reformers voice strong opposition to these new super-sized “Titan” prisons which 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 other main concern is that modern new prisons, despite providing better living conditions and being more economical to operate, will not necessarily result in the closure of our outdated establishments. History tells us that the more capacity we have in our prison estate, the more likely we are to send people to prison.

In the 15 years between 1993 and 2008, for example, the prison population grew by an average of four per cent every year despite a long and sustained drop in the crime rate over the same period. Reformers claim that we should be sending fewer people to prison and closing our most outdated 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 on prime inner city sites) to developers.