On Sunday it was reported that four new prisons will be built as part of a wider government construction programme designed to restore jobs and growth in the wake of the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
This is in fact a repackaging of an old commitment to provide 10,000 new prison places at a cost of £1.3bn first announced in the Autumn of 2015 under the premiership of David Cameron. In the original formulation of the policy, a number of inner-city Victorian prisons were to be closed and sold off, the receipts used to build new prisons and extend or redevelop existing ones.
Only one prison, HMP Holloway, was closed as part of this programme. It sold for only 40 per cent of its estimated value. A number of the projects are still going ahead (see this recent House of Commons Library paper for details), but plans for an entirely new prison at Port Talbot were abandoned in the face of strong local opposition.
Boris Johnson's ascent to Prime Minister in the Summer of 2019, following the resignation of Theresa May, saw a new commitment: to plough £2.5bn into building 10,000 prison places on top of the 3,500 which remained in train from the previous programme. This sat alongside proposals to increase the number of police officers by 20,000, restoring them to pre-austerity levels, after Labour appeared to have succesfully exploited police cuts for political gain.
Wolf in sheep's clothing
Whilst extolling the benefits of prison construction to local economies is a tried and tested way of selling it to wary local residents, the reiteration of the policy in this way and at this point in time suggests that the Conservative government see deteriorating economic conditions as the perfect opportunity to thrust new prisons onto desperate communities.
But there is another, more malign way in which the building of new prisons will interact with the economic and social consequences of coronavirus. Unemployment is expected to surge this Autumn if the furlough scheme is not extended. There have already been significant increases in out-of-work benefit claims. Social distancing measures and lockdown have interupted other forms of social provision and support, and social isolation is having a heavy toll on mental health.
In short, precarity and vulnerability are being extended to greater numbers of people, and intensified for those who bore the brunt of a decade of austerity. The pool of candidates for prison is increasing.