Why is Michael Gove building new prisons and is it a good idea?Posted: December 10, 2015
Everything you need to know about plans to sell off old prisons and open nine new sites
Nine new prisons will be built in England and Wales, housing 10,000 inmates and allowing the closure of a group of inner-city prisons, justice secretary Michael Gove and chancellor George Osborne announced last month.
The plans, hoped to save £80m a year, form part of the chancellor’s November spending review. The government will sell the vacated sites for housing and use sales receipts to finance the new prison-building programme, which is expected to cost more than £1bn.
“So many of our jails are relics from Victorian times on prime real estate in our inner cities,” said Mr Osborne of the prisons likely to be sold off.
Reading prison is already on the market and last week Mr Gove announced Holloway prison would follow suit. There is speculation Pentonville and Brixton prisons will also be sold.
The government says modern prisons will save money and are better suited to the rehabilitation of prisoners.
But is the government telling the whole story, and do its arguments stand up?
How will new prisons improve rehabilitation?
Reoffending rates by former prisoners have remain stubbornly high: 45 per cent of adults are reconvicted within a year of release.
Because of their design, new prisons are easier to equip with the training and work facilities that aid rehabilitation. Only 39 per cent of ex-offenders who have jobs reoffend, compared to 59 per cent of those who are unemployed.
Detail on the facilities planned for new prisons have so far been scarce. But sceptics question the efficacy of replacing one type of prison with another, when community sentences are more effective at reducing reoffending than short prison sentences, and cause less harm to families.
Will building new prisons really save money?
The government predicts its plans will save up to £80m a year, due to the reduced costs in running new prisons.
But is new prisons are merely designed to save money by allowing the oversight of more people with fewer staff, they may not be so beneficial to prisoners after all, said Jackie Russell of Women’s Breakout.
Her organisation is an umbrella group that represents services working with women in the criminal justice system. Ms Russell doubts whether the projected savings really can be delivered without detriment to vulnerable people.
“While the closure of Holloway has come as a political ‘gift’, it appears to be part of a scheme to reduce costs across the criminal justice system and increase income through land disposals, and is not designed to improve the circumstances and outcomes for female offenders.
“My experience tells me that claims on future savings are often wide of the mark.”
What’s wrong with old prisons?
The justice secretary claims the investment in new prisons allows the government to “replace ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons with new facilities fit for the modern world”.
“We will be able to design out the dark corners which too often facilitate violence and drug-taking.”
Old prisons are notoriously more dangerous and difficult to run.
In his latest report on HMP Holloway, the chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick said: “Its size and poor design make it a very difficult establishment to run and in which to meet the complex needs of the often very vulnerable women held.”
But recently opened prisons tend to be dangerous. This is largely down to poor staff training, poor management, poor design and the size of the prisons, according to the Howard League.
“Many staff were inexperienced and lacked confidence and there were dangerously high levels of frustration among prisoners,” wrote Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, after his last visit to HMP Oakwood, which opened in 2012.
It is unclear whether the new prisons will include ‘super-prisons,’ a term for modern, large prisons. A spokesperson for the Howard League warned: “evidence suggests that the larger the prison, the more difficult it is to manage and the more dangerous it is likely to be.”
Will prisoners be moved further from home?
One of the merits of the inner city prisons is they allow prisoners to remain near to their families, which helps reduce reoffending and mitigates the impact on families.
The government has not yet announced where the new prisons will be but if inner city prisons are closed, it’s likely many inmates will be held further from home, making it harder for children and relatives to visit prisoners.
In his latest report on Holloway prison, Nick Hardwick highlighted the value of placing prisoners near their communities: “At a time when the women’s custodial estate is being reviewed, the significant advantages of the prison’s location should be set against its poor design.”
Will the size of the prison population change?
It’s too early to say. But new prisons rarely go hand in hand with a shrinking system.
The prison population is estimated to rise from it’s current number of 86,000 to almost 90,000 by the end of the financial year 2020/21. The government has only committed to building five of the total nine prisons during this parliament.
“But by the time a new prison is built, there are more than enough prisoners to fill both old and new. What rarely happens is a shrinking of the system,” Andrew Neilson, the Howard League’s director of campaigns, warned on the Open Democracy website.
Reformists urge the government to use the exercise as an opportunity to reduce the prison population, in particular by abolishing prison sentences for those who have committed minor offences.
Jackie Russell, director of Women’s Breakout, said prisons should only be used for women in extreme cases: “We would be happy if the prison population of women was significantly reduced, all women’s prisons closed, and the very small number of women for whom a prison sentence is the appropriate disposal were accommodated in purpose built, small custodial units.”