Building new prisons? How about no prison at all?

Richard Garside
Tuesday, 25 June 2013

What to do with the ageing and expensive prison estate in England and Wales.

Take Pentonville prison. One of London’s largest, warehousing 1,300 male prisoners, it opened in the 1840s and marks its bicentenary in the not too distant future. Or consider Dartmoor. Opened in 1809 to hold French prisoners of war, its cold and damp cells today are home to 650 prisoners in the isolated splendour of Dartmoor National Park.

Coalition ministers have started to shut older prisons. Former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke closed medieval Lancaster Castle prison in 2011. His successor Chris Grayling announced the closure of several ‘old and uneconomic’ prisons earlier this year.

The government wants cheaper, not fewer, prison places, Mr Grayling signalled in a keynote speech last November. More than a thousand ‘modern and cost-effective’ places are therefore being built on existing sites. Plans for a ‘Titan’ prison in Dagenham, first mooted by the Labour government, have also re-emerged.

Proposals by the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank offer a radical take on this agenda. Out would go more than 30 of the older prisons; in would come 10 to 12 new ‘Hub Prisons’ holding up to 3,000 prisoners each. The ‘prize’ would be a modern and efficient prison estate ‘truly fit for the 21st century’.

Illustrated with concept images by prison builder Carillion, the report acknowledges the input of PFI advisor Clubfinance Project Finance, criminal justice management company Sodexo Justice Services and management consultancy London Economics. On the front cover illustration a swan glides serenely across a lake in the landscaped grounds of an imagined future prison. Figures stand around a glass-fronted building. Two sit, rather incongruously, in trees by the lake. One unfortunate hangs mid-air, apparently impaled on branches.

The report promises a ‘campus style’ utopia of ‘small, self-contained, housing units and plenty of open spaces’. The Carillion site plan belies this. A spruced up version of Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze Prison ‘H Block’ complex, it points to a dystopian future of large alienating institutions, all with a price tag of at least £3.75bn in building costs alone. This is a report reflecting the interests of the private prison lobby, not the public good.

How we reached the point where the only imaginable future involves replacing existing capacity with new facilities is itself an interesting question. There are alternatives. The Spanish prison population has declined by 10 percent over the past two years. Latvia aims to reduce its prison population by one third. So badly did The Netherlands plan its prison capacity that it resorted to renting out spare capacity to Belgium.

In the 12 months to March this year, the prison population in England and Wales fell by 10 prisoners a day. Were this trend to continue the prison population in England and Wales would be around the 47,000 mark – close to half its current, highly inflated, level – within a decade. In place of the unimaginative and wasteful plans by the coalition and its ideological outriders to entrench the high imprisonment status quo, a bold and visionary policy agenda involves giving this current trend a helping hand.

The closure of dilapidated institutions is the right starting point. In place of money squandered on expensive and unnecessary new prisons should be a sustained investment in institutional, non-criminal justice, alternatives. Far too many people with drug, alcohol and mental health problems, for instance, end up in prison because of the dearth of affordable housing and good quality support services in the community. Most sane observers agree that it is pointless locking up tens of thousands of people each year for non-violent offences.

We should, though, set our sights higher and start to imagine a future without prisons. For sure there will be those whose acts of violence might require containment in the interests of public safety. They do not need to be in prisons nor places of punishment. The footprint in society of such institutions would also be far smaller than that occupied by the prison system.

Taking a long view, the emergence of prisons as a form of social control is a recent development. Their current dominance is a symptom of our collective failure to resolve more meaningfully the conflicts and antagonisms that mark our society. Rather than planning the next generation of prisons we should be addressing the underlying problems that creates the need for prisons in the first place. This cannot be done overnight. It would, though, be a fitting legacy to hand on to the next generation.