The prison estate and the pound sign

Helen Mills
Wednesday, 11 December 2013

As a qualitative researcher I’m often quick to point out the limits of interpreting the world through numbers. However, having worked on three audits of criminal justice spending and two editions of the Centre’s annual UK Justice Policy Review series, I’ve grown to appreciate rows of financial data about criminal justice. How much was spent in a particular area, the savings required in future years, the fluctuations in costs over time.

Sometimes hard figures can tell us a great deal.

I thought that last week when I read the recent consultation from the Ministry of Justice, Transforming management of young adults in custody. It contains proposals to end the practice of sending 18-20 year olds sentenced to imprisonment to Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and instead, incarcerate them within the adult prison estate. These proposals brought to mind another prison estate strategy, this time for women, which was released by the Ministry of Justice a few weeks before the young adults consultation. Plans were outlined to close two women’s open prisons, change another women’s prison into an institution for men and shut down a mother and baby unit at Holloway, in favour of increasing places within the remaining women’s estate. 

According to recent figures, the Ministry of Justice has cut its £9.5 billion spending by more than £ 1.1 billion in the two years since the election of the coalition government. Furthermore it must find another £2.1 billion of savings by the end of 2015.

If one were to read either of the recent prison estate documents without knowledge of these figures they would make for very strange reading indeed.

For example, in the young adult’s consultation much is made of the level of violence in YOIs as a motivation for incarcerating young adults in the adult estate. How is the Ministry of Justice reassured adult prisons are less violent for young adults?

'Governors and prison staff tell us that when younger adults are mixed with older adults there is a reduction in levels of violence among this cohort.'


The suggestion that the proposals for the female prison estate are genuinely influenced by a desire to locate women prisoners closer to home are hard to swallow when the geographic spread of institutions is reduced by the planned changes and facilities for mothers and babies are being removed.

But seen in light of the Ministry of Justice’s financial position, both proposals make perfect sense. Both are about closing higher cost institutions and bringing in cheaper places in a rationalised prison estate. If one were currently preoccupied with creating a marketplace for prison resettlement services, presumably rationalising the prison estate would also make a great deal of practical sense.

But for those of us who care about challenging imprisonment, for women, for young adults, or more broadly, there is little in either of these publications to engage with. Rationalising of the prison estate is not one and the same as reducing it. And I suspect these plans are primarily about housing the current prison population more cheaply, rather than necessarily planning to incarcerate fewer people.  

Helen Mills is Research Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies