You can’t keep a bad idea down – The Economist

 In Press

IN APRIL 2009 the Labour government dropped plans to build three “Titan” prisons housing 2,500 offenders each. Dominic Grieve, now attorney general but then a member of the Conservative front bench in opposition, asked Jack Straw, the home secretary of the day, whether he had run out of money or out of spin. Mr Straw said meekly that he had taken on board the negative views of most of the experts consulted. So it is a bit of a surprise today to hear Mr Grieve’s cabinet colleague Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, announce something very like a new Titan prison, with capacity for more than 2,000 inmates.

Closing crowded, crumbling prisons is a good idea in principle. It is hard for such places to provide the facilities for learning and work that can help prisoners find their feet on release. The nine prisons that Mr Grayling intends to shut down in whole or in part over the next few months, losing 2,600 places in the process, are all moderately to very crowded. Shrewsbury was running at 195% of its certified normal accommodation in use at the end of November. Canterbury was at 150% and Gloucester at 131%, with Hull not far behind. (Several of the nine prisons—including Shepton Mallet, Shrewsbury and Hull—get something bordering on rave reviews from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons nonetheless.)

But replacing them with huge, understaffed “warehouses”, as Roma Hooper of Make Justice Work calls them, is a bad one. She points out that other European countries—in particular France—have thought better of it. Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust cites evidence that small community prisons tend to be safer and better at reducing re-offending than large ones. Prisoners who are able to keep in contact with families and employers, and where prison staff actually know who they are, do better on the outside than those who are shipped across the country to big, impersonal facilities. For the Howard League for Penal Reform, Titan prisons are “a titanic waste of money”.

Indeed, not long ago it seemed that Tories thought the same. Alan Travis of the Guardian tweets that David Cameron said four years ago “the idea that big is beautiful with prisons is wrong.” Nick Herbert, the policing minister until last September, reckoned in 2008 that “huge prisoner warehouses…[were] not the right answer”.

So why are they the right answer now? Cost, mainly. Mr Grayling expects to save £63m ($102m) a year by closing the old prisons, and says that offenders can be held in new ones for half the cost. A key component will be slimmer staffing ratios, the easiest way to cut prison budgets. As for Mr Straw four years (it feels like a lifetime) ago, saving money looks a much stronger motive for renewing the prison estate than improving rehabilitation.

In fairness, Mr Grayling also plans to build four “homeblocks” attached to existing prisons (three of them privately run), providing 1,260 places. It’s not clear just what these amount to. It’s also not clear that the new superprison will be built soon: feasibility studies are the immediate goal. It is possible that Mr Grayling will close the old prisons, build the four mini-prisons, and wait and see what more is needed.

The prison population, currently 83,632, is now falling. The most recent projection of the likely number of people who will be locked up in June 2017—90,300—is 5,000 lower than the one made a year earlier. Though this is usually a finger-in-the-wind exercise, there are reasons to think it might be right about the trend. If it is, the overall “operational capacity” officials like to refer to—90,450 at present—would appear to be roughly on the mark, though there is room for only around 81,000 prisoners without overcrowding.

All in all, it has been a topsy-turvy week for penal policy. There was much good sense in Mr Grayling’s proposals on January 8th to shake up the probation service. There is some good sense in his proposals today to replace old prisons with new ones. Underlying both announcements, however, is an uncertain tension between right-wing hang ‘em high rhetoric, compassionate Conservatism, cost-cutting zeal and assumption that the private sector holds the answers. Which is, no doubt, to be continued…

Read the full article on the Economist website.

Recommended Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search

Crime Prison and Institutions