This month, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is embarking on a new, long-term programme, a commitment we freely acknowledge could run for many years.
The new programme, with the working title After Prison, is grounded in a simple proposition: there is always a better way to use a particular piece of land than as a place for a prison.
Over the coming months and years, we plan to work with a wide range of partners – local, national and international – to make the case for the redevelopment of our existing prison sites for social benefit. Homes or hospitals community gardens or community centres; business hubs or green energy power stations; there are so many ways that the land currently occupied by prisons could be used in better ways.
The Centre first became involved in making the case for the redevelopment of prison sites following the closure of Holloway women's prison in north London. The initiative we set up – Community Plan for Holloway – worked with a range of local partners to ensure that the voice and interests of the local community were placed front and centre in redevelopment plans for the site.
When we set up Community Plan for Holloway, the decision had already been taken to close the prison. With After Prison, the starting point is very different. Some of our current prisons are set for closure: The Grange open prison in Worcestershire, for example, and Dartmoor prison in Devon, one of the UK's oldest prisons. But we are mostly talking about prisons that the government currently plans to keep open, in many cases, for years to come.
In our view, this strengthens, rather than weakens, the case for After Prison. If we are incapable of talking about how existing prison sites might be better used, we risk merely building and rebuilding existing prisons in perpetuity. This is one of the lessons of at least two prison sites: Wellingborough in Northamptonshire and Glen Parva in Leicestershire. Closed in 2012 and 2017 respectively, both are currently being redeveloped: as new prisons.
It does not have to be this way. Few of the 1.3 million visitors each year to Tate Britain, just across the river from the Centre's offices, will know that the gallery is built on the site of the Millbank prison. Opened in 1816, closed and demolished in the 1890s, Millbank became a byword for all that is wrong about prisons. Around the same time that Millbank opened, what became known as Brixton prison was being built in south London. It is still in operation, some 200 years later.
Some may find it difficult to imagine how the Brixton prison site might be used in better ways. Few, if any, would argue that Tate Britain should be demolished and a prison built in its place.
There is always a better way to use a particular piece of land than as a place for a prison. Exporing what this means – making the case for more prisons facing the fate of Millbank, rather than Brixton – is what this new initiative is about.