Shine A Light

New prisons, old politics?

Without more radical reform, new for old prisons will repeat the mistakes of the past.

Andrew Neilson
30 November 2015
Prison officer watching from landing (unknown).jpg

Prison officer watching from landing (Howard League)

George Osborne has decided to provide the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) with the capital to build nine new prisons. As the Chancellor painted it in his Autumn Statement, this would mean “better education facilities and other rehabilitative services, while selling ageing, inefficient prisons on prime real estate to free up land for new homes”.

But this decision warrants closer inspection. When the move was trailed three weeks ago, it became clear that only five of the nine new prisons would be built in this Parliament. One should take any announcement that any government makes about a parliamentary term beyond this one with a heavy pinch of salt. All the initial talk was also about closing dilapidated Victorian prisons, with Pentonville the particular name in the frame. Yet it was another north London prison, the women’s jail Holloway, which eventually made its way into the statement.

Of all the London prisons Holloway is the easiest for the government to close, but given so many of the women held there are on remand or sentenced for minor offences, a bolder approach would have been to close the jail and stop sending these women to prison in the first place. Holloway as it currently stands is not even that old, with much of it substantially rebuilt in the 1980s. Only thirty years ago, these buildings were the future.

History tells us that new prisons are often built to replace old, failing ones. But by the time the 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.

The spending review figures for the MoJ do back up a narrative of building new prisons and closing old ones. Digging into the detail, it seems that the department has committed to selling off £640m of land and property assets by 2020. Some of these will be court closures but the largest land assets will clearly be prisons. The land released by these sales is estimated to be enough for 5,000 new homes.

The MoJ has been given a capital injection in the early years of the Parliament to build their new prisons, with £1.3bn being provided by the Treasury for prisons and some £700m to invest in technology meant to mitigate the impact of court closures. Much hope appears to be invested in “video conference centres, allowing up to 90,000 cases to be heard from prison instead of court”. Despite a poor record with new technology, the MoJ is not giving up on it yet.

Beyond the capital spending, however, the prisons and courts systems must still deliver resource savings of 15 per cent by 2020. For the prisons, that means reducing running costs by a further £80m a year when the reforms are complete.

Given the impact of cuts to prison budgets over the last Parliament, this is a tall order indeed to achieve – unless the MoJ is bold about reducing demand on both the courts and prisons systems. The alternative is more of the same: more suicides, more violence, more drug abuse and enforced idleness behind bars.

Prison population projections published by the MoJ last week also look at the period up until 2020. Based on current policies, they suggest the population will continue to grow – climbing from just under 86,000 last week to almost 90,000 by 2020. Such is the department’s confidence in Chris Grayling’s probation reforms, it predicts the number of people recalled to custody because of breaches of technical conditions (as opposed to new crimes) will rise every single year between now and 2020. The future under these projections is bleak.

Radical change might yet happen – it would certainly fit the traditional division of labour that the Chancellor gets to announce the shiny new infrastructure, while the Secretary of State gets on with the more difficult matter of reform. Michael Gove is bold and radical enough by reputation to do something more lasting than put his name to a few more Pentonvilles and Holloways of the future.

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