Rearranging the deckchairs

Richard Garside
Friday, 14 January 2011

What to make of yesterday’s announcement by the Ministry of Justice that it is closing three prisons.

One of the three – medieval Lancaster Castle – is a fine historic monument. It is hardly a fit place to house prisoners in the twenty first century. Another, Ashwell, is a semi-ruin after being extensively damaged in a riot last year. The third, Morton Hall, is being turned into an immigration detention centre. A change of purpose perhaps but people will still be detained there against their will. These were, in other words relatively easy decisions to make. It hardly feels like the beginnings of a brave new world of decarceration.

Stepping back from the immediate question of the prison population, what is going on here? Alan Travis points out in The Guardian that places in immigration detention are set to expand by some 3,500 places. This more than outweighs the modest reduction of prison places announced yesterday. It is greater too than the planned reduction of 3,000 prison places by 2014.

Then there are the latest figures on compulsory detention under the Mental Health Act. Fighting Monsters highlights the quite staggering 30 percent increase in detentions between 2008/09 and 2009/10, from 32,649 to 42,479. Are we witnessing a displacement from prisons into other custodial settings?

More than 200,000 people are locked up against their will in prison, immigration detention or police custody in the UK in any given year. The possible movement between these different settings deserves more attention that it currently gets. It is entirely possible that we will witness a fall in prison capacity and prison numbers, while seeing a rise in the overall incarcerated population. While reformers celebrate small victories on prison capacity, they would do well to remember that there are various ways in which individuals can be deprived of their liberty.