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Howard League blog · 31 Aug 2017

Building massive jails in remote locations is a recipe for disaster

This government, as with so many of its predecessors, is trying to build its way out of a prison crisis. It has never worked in the past and it will not work this time.

I do not need to rehearse the facts about the dire state of prisons and it is now generally agreed that something must be done. The trouble is that, if that something is the wrong thing, the state of prisons will be made worse, not better.

I tend to think that it is best to use evidence when deciding on policy, particularly when lives are at stake and when billions of public money is going to be spent.

The evidence is that new prisons are not safer than old prisons and that big prisons tend to be more impersonal and therefore more dangerous.

The evidence also points to a building programme expanding the system rather than offering opportunities to reduce the unnecessary and expensive use of penal custody.

The evidence indicates that expanding the custodial estate fixes the use of prison in the mind of the public as being the appropriate response to low-level offending and consequently influences political expectations and inflates the system.

Taking a look at the 10 new prisons opened since 1997, we see a grim picture. They are:

Parc, run by G4S and opened in 1997
Altcourse, run by G4S, opened in 1997
Lowdham Grange, run by Serco, opened in 1998
Rye HIll, run by G4S, opened in 2001
Dovegate, run by Serco, opened in 2001
Bronzefield, run by Sodexo, opened in 2004
Peterborough, run by Sodexo, opened in 2005
Isis, run by public sector, opened in 2010
Thameside, run by Serco, opened in 2012
Oakwood, run by G4S, opened in 2012

Two hundred and sixty-four men and women have died in these prisons since they opened. There have been 8,188 recorded incidents of deliberate self-injury.  There have been 3,952 recorded assaults.

These shiny new prisons were supposed to create safer environments and reduce reoffending when people were released. Neither of these happened.

In fact, violence, drug taking and self-injury are just as awful in newly-built prisons as in Victorian prisons. This is particularly stark as some of these new prisons have been protected from the gross overcrowding inflicted on Victorian jails.

The new prisons are big prisons. Oakwood, for example, holds over 2,000 men These are impersonal holding stations where staff are moved from one wing to another and do not have the capacity to get to know their captives.

Decisions made today will lead to increased violence and self-injury and people dying by their own hand

Berwyn in North Wales, which opened earlier this year, is designated to hold 2,100 men when it is full. The prison was designed to replicate the worst prison conditions as three-quarters of the men will be forced to share cells that include open toilets and little ventilation. There are not enough education and work places for all the men and the work available is repetitive, rewarded with pocket money and for just a few hours a week. Within a few years this prison will be a hotbed of resentment and violence.

I have said before, new buildings do not necessarily create a better environment than old buildings. If that were the case, Oxford and Cambridge colleges would all be pulled down in favour of new build. The issue is how the buildings are used, how they are maintained and how many people are crammed into them.

The government’s policy of building massive jails in remote locations is a recipe for disaster that will endure down the generations. Decisions made today will lead to increased violence and self-injury and people dying by their own hand.

I will hold this government to account, as I have its predecessors.


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