In June 2013 the Policy Exchange think tank published a report entitled Future Prisons: a Radical Plan to Reform the Prison Estate. The proposals are based on the argument that the current prison estate is expensive and inefficient due to the continued use of Victorian prisons which are no longer fit for purpose. The report notes that it costs £108,000 per annum to house a category C prisoner at HMP Kennet, and only £26,000 per annum at Wayland. It therefore offers an alternative to the current system.
The suggestion follows that approximately 30 older prisons (including Brixton, Feltham, Holloway, Pentonville, Wandsworth, and Wormwood Scrubs) should be closed and replaced by between 10 and 12 new ‘Hub Prisons’ which would each hold between 2,500 and 3,000 prisoners. It is argued that these would be fundamentally different to the ‘Titan Prisons’ proposed by Labour in 2007, as the new prisons would be a replacement, rather than an expansion, of the prison estate.
A note of caution however is that the investment in new prisons will create an inevitable desire to put them to use, thus providing a disincentive to reduce the overall prison population. Juliet Lyon director of the Prison Reform Trust has come out in opposition to the report, stating that “With crime falling and community sentences and treatment to tackle addictions working to reduce re-offending, it would be a gigantic mistake to pour
taxpayers’ money down a super-sized big brother building prison drain.”
The primary argument in the report is that, upon completion, the new ‘Hub Prisons’ would offer a saving in excess of £600 million per year in operational costs alone. This represents 20% of the prison budget, and 9% of the Ministry of Justice’s overall budget.
At present a series of unpopular measures have been and continue to be put forward as a way of reducing spending on criminal justice. These range from the failed attempt by Ken Clarke MP to give prisoners a 50% reduction on the time served in prison for a guilty plea, to the reform of legal aid. The report states that: “[A]rtificially cutting numbers is not the right way to reduce the prison population or protect the public...it is also a politically toxic and inadvisable shortcut.” Rather, the Government should focus on cutting cost per prisoner.
I have little objection to an attempt to cut the cost per prisoner, if it does not mean a reduction in the quality of the prison system, a further reduction would be difficult to accept, however, the quote above makes an interesting point. Attempts to reduce the prison population by adjusting time served after sentence is likely to be an ineffective way of achieving reform (if reform were ever a true aim). The best way to reduce the prison population is to sentence fewer people to imprisonment, and for shorter lengths of time, thus reserving prison for those who are a danger to the public, rather than disobedient to the law.
I fear that it is not only the aforementioned ‘artificial’ attempts to reduce prison numbers that are ‘politically toxic’ but any attempt. If the media continue to perpetuate the perception that a decrease in the prison population equates to a failure of the Government to adequately protect the public, and politicians themselves continue to be unwilling to engage in a reasonable and most importantly fact based debate, followed by the bravery to implement policy based upon its outcomes, then the issue will remain toxic.
The report also found that new prisons outperform older ones, regardless of size, in areas other than cost efficiency, stating: “When comparing establishments with the same functions, re-offending levels, respect between staff and prisoners, decency, quality of life and safety measures are all higher for newer prisons than for older ones.” Herein lays the true value of the proposals, if they can be further substantiated.
The ‘Hub Prisons’ will be constructed based on a campus design with several semi-autonomous blocks. The most modern technology would be used, including biometric as standard, to ensure the security of the prisons.
There is a problem at present with many prisoners being held in prisons which are a significant distance from their families, which makes maintaining beneficial family connections difficult. The report points out that the current distribution of prison places does not represent demand, with too many in the South West, leading to these being filled by prisoners from London. The new prisons would be located on brownfield sites with good transport links, and would redistribute the prison places to areas with the greatest need.
A range of flexible accommodation settings around a central hub would allow for changes in prisoner demographics and need into the future. The report puts forth the idea of different accommodation blocks for prisoners at different stages of their sentence, thus enabling them to progress through their sentence in the same prison. It would also allow each part of the prison to be purpose built for that aspect of their sentence encouraging and providing better resources and an environment for rehabilitation.
An excellent suggestion is that the prisons have ‘halfway houses’ built into the complex to aid resettlement and ensure that prisoners are not put back onto the streets without the necessary assistance to help them from re-offending.
Prior to this report a feasibility project was announced in January 2013, in which six prisons would close and be replaced by a ‘super prison’ holding in excess of 2,000 prisoners, but Future Prisons takes the idea of replacing old prisons with new much further.
This report is not impressive because it claims to be able to dramatically reduce the cost of prison, which is a benefit which may make it palatable to politicians. The real value can be seen in the restructuring of the prison estate from penal warehouses to institutions which are designed and fit for a purpose beyond incapacitation.
The report alone is insufficient evidence upon which to conduct a radical overhaul of the prison estate but it is a significant point from which research should now develop, and perhaps holds with it the greatest potential for change within the prison system, as there has been little political desire to resolve the problems highlighted above up to this point. Yet with the incentive of significantly reducing the prison budget, action may be taken.