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Building prisons in England and Wales: the bigger, the better?

Published Friday, February 12, 2016

The current Government has a policy of replacing old prisons with new (and often bigger) prisons, but will this help to raise standards in prison and reduce reoffending? Is bigger better or, conversely, is small beautiful?

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Keeping pace with the prison population: building prisons

This Commons Library briefing describes the expansion of the prison estate as successive governments have sought to keep pace with the rise in the prison population – a rise that accelerated in the early 1990s.  

It examines

  • The rise, fall and projected rise again of the prison population
  • The current Government’s plans to increase prison capacity by building “new for old” and selling off Victorian prisons in city centres
  • The Government’s preference for larger prisons on the grounds that they are more efficient
  • What the increasing size of prisons might mean for prisons’ ability to reduce reoffending and provide decent, safe and effective regimes and
  • The Labour Government’s abandoned plans for even bigger “Titan” prisons

The proposed size of the prison at Wrexham (and another new prison to replace Feltham young offenders’ institution) has revived some of the arguments about Titan prisons and the optimum size for any prison establishment. Is bigger better or, conversely, is small beautiful?

The rise, fall and rise again of the prison population

The prison population rose sharply from the early 1990s, but has more recently levelled off. In December 2011 it reached a record high of 88,179, but since then has fluctuated at around 85,000 and is currently at 85,461 (including those held in immigration removal centres, as at 29 January 2016).  The prison population is projected (according to the MoJ’s most recent projection) to reach 89,900 by March 2021.

What is the Government doing to provide more prison places and improve standards?

The current Government has (broadly speaking) continued the policies of previous Governments.

Many commentators have suggested that the appointment of Michael Gove as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice will mean a shift in the Ministry of Justice’s policies towards prisons and other criminal justice matters. Some key policies of his predecessor, Chris Grayling, such as new dual contracting arrangements for criminal legal aid provision and a further cut in fees paid, have since been abandoned or postponed.  Even so, the Ministry of Justice remains committed to the policy of “new for old”, selling off antiquated prisons (which they argue are less efficient and less cost-effective) in city centre sites in favour of building new prisons to better designs.

Michael Gove has argued that the drive to reduce reoffending could be helped by closing ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons and building new, safer and more efficient prisons:

"[We] have to consider closing down the ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons in our major cities, reducing the crowding and ending the inefficiencies which blight the lives of everyone in them and building new prisons which embody higher standards in every way they operate. The money which could be raised from selling off inner city sites for development would be significant.

It could be re-invested in a modern prison estate where prisoners do not have to share overcrowded accommodation but also where the dark corners that facilitate bullying, drug-taking and violence could increasingly be designed out".

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has recently outlined his commitment to prison reform, saying that he wants to see a “modern, more effective, truly twenty-first century prison system”.  The reforms would follow the general pattern of the Government’s reforms to other public services.  New prisons could (he argued) help raise standards, as many older prisons are inadequate:

"These are places that were barely fit for human habitation when they were built, and are much, much worse today".

Although (he said) prison is needed for serious offenders, simple incapacitation is not enough and there are “diminishing returns” in increasing levels of incarceration.

The Justice Select Committee, though, has investigated prison planning and policies and has questioned whether the Ministry of Justice will be able to achieve its aims.  The Committee agreed that the new for old policy was right in principle, but identified various factors - such as the need to keep open older prisons, to cope with a rising prison population – which might get in the way of implementation.

In similar vein, Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has also suggested that the plan might prove to be unworkable:

"I do not think this will work, not least because we have been here before. … Some of the prisons are not owned by the Ministry of Justice but by the Queen or rich landlords. So the Ministry may not get the profit from any sale. The cart and horse argument is pretty tricky too, as you have to build the new prison to house people before you flog off the old one. New prisons get filled up immediately so you end up with the full new one and the full old one …"

What did previous Governments do?

From 1997, the Labour Government undertook various initiatives to expand the capacity of the prison estate, to ensure it kept up with the rising prison population. It also aimed to increase efficiency.

Its two major prison building programmes were the Core Capacity Programme (which was to provide 12,500 places by 2012) and the New Prisons Programme (which was to provide a further 7,500 places alongside the closure of 5,500 inefficient places). Originally three “Titan” prisons were to provide those 7,500 places.  This proposal, however, attracted a great deal of controversy and criticism.  It was suggested that Titan prisons would be difficult to manage, would not help to tackle re-offending and would not address the more fundamental problem of the UK’s over-reliance (as some commentators see it) on imprisonment.  The plan for Titan prisons was subsequently abandoned.

The Conservative party manifesto at the 2010 general election offered a commitment to increasing the capacity of the prison estate to meet demand. The Liberal Democrat party’s manifesto, on the other hand, stated that their proposals to reduce the prison population would end the need for the building programme.  Under the coalition Government, the contract for the new Thameside prison was let and a competition launched for a new prison in Wales at Wrexham.  At the same time, the Ministry of Justice announced the closure of several prisons, as it sought to replace older prisons with new capacity and so bring down operating costs. 

Other Commons Library briefings on prisons are available on Parliament’s topic page for prisons.

Commons Briefing papers SN05646

Author: Gabrielle Garton Grimwood

Topic: Prisons

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