December 01 2023

As prisons face their biggest crisis, why are we spending £250m on a titan jail?

As prisons face their biggest crisis, why are we spending £250m on a titan jail?

Proof #4 cover: 'No Comment', Koestler Awards 2017

Next month will will see the public concentrating on the Tory leadership campaign and who will be next prime minister. Consequent upon that, there will likely be yet another justice secretary and prisons minister as the new incumbent of Number 10 rewards loyalty and bestowpatronage as he or she forms their cabinet and ministerial team.

  • The latest issue of Proof Magazine is out now. The ‘Crime and Punishment’ issue featurss John Podmore, Nick Hopkins, Hardeep Matharu, Laura Janes, Rebecca Roberts and DuncanCampbell on the prisons crisis and more. Buy here.

But quietly in Northamptonshire just off the A45 the first sod will be turned for a new 1,680 place Category C prison on the site of the old HMP Wellingborough. A £253 million deal has been agreed with a company called Kier for the design and construction of the jailIt will be our second biggest prison after HMP Berwyn near Wrexham which has a capacity of 2,106. It is all part of a faltering programme to replace many of England and Wales’ crumbling Victorian prisons.

Few would dispute that some of our jails are past their ‘best before’ date, expensive to run and sometimes, like HMP Dartmoor, in completely the wrong place. It is also recognised that there are design-related benefits within the prison environment if companies like Kier, workingwith the MoJ, consult properly before building rather than simply provide off-the-shelf warehouses. There is some excellent research now into this area from Roland Karthaus (here). And while a new-build can embed such learning from the start it is not impossible to apply some of their principles retrospectively.

But have the issues been adequately thought through? Have priorities been carefully balanced? What are the cost benefit comparisons when the MoJ still faces overall cuts.

There is no correlation between how new a prison is and how well it performs. Some old Victorian jails can be well run; some modern prisons have performed badly and not just on initial opening. If there is a pattern in prison performance it is that any jail, new or old, can fluctuate wildly in terms of how it treats prisoners. Flagships can sink and relationships can overcome crumbling brickwork. It is more about leadership and culture than modernity.

It is also apparent that closing jails that are not fit for purpose does not yield any financial dividend. George Osborne and Michael Gove were right to close Holloway, but an opportunity was missed to use at least some of the money from the sale of the site to fund the recommendations of the Corston Review and build women’s centres.

But at a time when the prison service faces the greatest crisis in its history and when funding is being continually reduced, is this the best way of spending a quarter of a billion pounds?

It will undoubtedly deliver the holy grail of lower cost per place. A mantra of ‘big is beautiful’ seems to dominate the agenda despite any evidence that large prisons deliver better outcomes. It will also, along with Berwyn, flagrantly disregard the Mandela Rules, the standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners and the recommendations of the Mubarek Inquiry into the tragic murder of a young man by his racist cell mate, in having enforced cell sharing. Is two people living together in a toilet, truly the hallmark of a 21st Century prison?

The new Wellingborough will deliver much for the local economy in terms of jobs and support services and it is no wonder that local MP, the outspoken Tory MP is all in favour. It is unlikely however that the new staff recruited locally will buck the trend of leaving within their first year of service.

But in what other ways will it contribute to a troubled prison system. We are over two years on from the opening of our last ‘titanjail’. Strangely HMP Berwyn still operates well below capacity while other jails are grossly overcrowded. The governor who opened the prison left under a cloud after barely 18 months in the job to be replaced by a (very able) governor/director from the Private sector. But why the country’s largest and most prestigious jail was not suitable for aspiring governors in the public sector has not been explained. Berwyn has yet to have its first inspection by the redoubtable HM chief inspector of prisons Peter Clark but even when it does it will be difficult to evaluate any success or failure in terms of its size, function and design until it has been operating at full capacity for some time. We also await the publication of the latest prison service estate review which began in 2017. Where does Berwyn 2 fit into it?

So it appears that prison service is following on from the probation service debacle with a philosophy of ‘carry on regardless’ and policy-based evidence.

How might £250m be better spent on a prison service in crisis? One of the biggest current issues is getting people out of prison. Sentences are getting longer and prisoners are serving ever greater periods of time within them. Those on indeterminate sentences are going ever longer beyond tariff and those on fixed sentences also struggle to satisfy the Parole Board that release is a viable option. There are strong arguments that long term incarceration is actually doing harm.

Nevertheless it is a given that most prisoners will get out eventually but it is that successful transition into the community that is proving so hard for the system. And it is not just the catastrophic part-privatisation of probation that is the problem. Yes, we need a probation service that assists and problem solves rather than just acts as a reactive community police force.

Yes, the charitable sector needs to be embraced rather than exploited. And yes we must overhaul the interventions industry, but all this could be better supported by a more imaginative prison estate with smaller localised, minimum security facilities in communities where there are opportunities for housing, employment and the potential to rebuild family relationships. We need facilities with an ethos of problem solving and reintegration rather than dumb incarceration. This was inherent in the report of Baroness Jean Corston over a decade ago. The principles of supportive accommodation in the community can apply equally to men and young people as to women.

If nothing else some of the £250m to finally implement the Corston Report would transform the lives of thousands of women and tens of thousands of children. If there is not the imagination or bravery to develop new and innovative transition facilities a few million to bail hostels and Approved Premises would go a long way to reducing the prison population.

There are plaintive cries for the abolition of short sentences but that is only practicable with better community alternatives. They are cheaper in the long term than custody but up front they require investment in skilled professionals and meaningful schemes with proven interventions. They don’t come cheap, but they are cheaper thantitan jails.

The portents are not good. The good people of Northamptonshire will have their new jail despite some local resistance. They will be consulted on its name, (my money is on HMP Irchester) but is it really the best initiative in the current crisis.