Incarceration nation?

Richard Garside
Friday, 21 May 2010

When the outline agreement of the new Tory-Liberal coaltion was published on May 12 a notable omission was the lack of any reference to prisons or a prison building programme. This led to some speculation that the outgoing Labour government’s prison building programme might be cancelled.

Now that the full coalition agreement has been published where do things stand? A ‘full review of sentencing policy to ensure that it is effective’ is pledged. There is also lofty talk of a ‘rehabilitation revolution’. But again there is no explicit reference to a prison building programme.

Going into the General Election Labour said it would ‘ensure a total of 96,000 prison places by 2014′. The Liberal Democrats pledged to ‘cancel the Government’s billion-pound prison building programme’. The Conservatives were, like Labour, committed to expansion:

In the last three years, 80,000 criminals have been released early from prison because the Government failed to build enough places. We are determined that early release will not be introduced again, so we will redevelop the prison estate and increase capacity as necessary to stop it.

Only the Liberal Democrats were therefore offering to rein in prison expansion, something last attempted by David Blunkett when he was Home Secretary. Blunkett’s plan to cap the prison population at 80,000 was shortlived. His successor as Home Secretary Charles Clarke, scrapped it.

The Lib Dem’s proposals were not, in fact, at all radical or ambitious given the rampant growth in the prison population over recent years. When the new Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke last had responsibility for the prison system as Home Secretary in the early 1990s the prison population in England and Wales stood at around 45,000. It is now around 85,000.

I have previously written on why I think significant cuts in criminal justice expenditure during this parliament are unlikely. Reformers hoping that a coaltion government, with little money in the bank, will usher in a new era of penal moderation are, I suspect, destined for disappointment. It is possible that Labour’s plans for 96,000 prison places will be downgraded. But the absence of any explicit commitment on prison building is striking. A growing prison population in the coming years still seems by far the likeliest outcome.