Skip Content

Howard League blog · 28 Jul 2021

It is time to stop building prisons

Prisons are used to dealing with the failures of other services. They shouldn’t be, but they are.

If we stopped building more prisons, arguably we could invest the capital in more hospitals, schools and homes. We could invest the running costs into mental health care, local activity and sports facilities, repairs to social housing – create your own list.

It is difficult to keep track of the exact number of new prison cells being planned as government has a tendency to re-announce its plans as if they are new plans, but it looks like an expansion of around 18,000 cells.

Six new prisons are planned at a cost of £4 billion. A 1,715-place, Category B men’s training prison has been announced next to Gartree in Leicestershire. This is in addition to the two already under construction at Wellingborough and Glen Parva. Three more are in the planning stages, all adjacent to existing prisons: one next to Full Sutton (which was vigorously opposed by local residents), a 1,400-bed prison next to Grendon, and one next to Garth in Lancashire. This massive expansion programme will create 9,670 new prison places, most of them opening in 2025.

Big prisons bring big problems

A further 8,000 cells are going to be added inside existing prisons, mostly using portakabins, and if history is anything to go by, this will involve putting the cabins on green space or exercise yards.

The overly optimistic, and naïve, puff is that the prisons will not be crowded but will provide purposeful activity. Yet we know that no prison does currently, nor has any prison ever, provide a full day of purpose and activity. The reality is that running costs are often cut back, staffing is reduced and repairs are not done. Nearly 200 years of the history of prisons is hubris and failure.

The most recent prison to be newly built is in Wrexham and was opened amidst a fanfare of optimism. Yet it was built with only work and education spaces for half the population and it has been bedevilled with suicide, self-injury, violence, drugs and call-outs to the local ambulance and hospital services. Big prisons bring big problems.

The original justification for building new prisons was to get rid of overcrowding and to close the Victorian prisons. That was never going to happen as experience has shown that the very announcement of more prisons means they encourage inflation of the use of prison. They are filled even before they are built. The claims have now been abandoned and the government is now saying that because the number of men, women and children in prison is going to hit 100,000, it needs to create the cells, even though overcrowding will continue for many generations to come.

It is time to stop.


  • Trevor says:

    I agree with the comments to France’s posts about stopping building prisons.

    It’s just a pity to know that the government won’t even consider France’s suggestion.

  • Rona Epstein says:

    I do so agree with you Frances, and Claire Durtnall puts it very well. More prison places are a destructive and brutal step. See:

  • Bernie Corbett says:

    When they build more roads, the cars and lorries come to clog them up. When they build more prisons, more “criminals” are created to fill them. The police have to catch more people. The courts have to jail them. And when the prisons are full again the government, desperate for a populist gimmick, announces another prison building programme. I understand that violent and dangerous people must be in prison to protect the public and in the hope that their lives can be transformed. But they are a small minority. Our prison system takes people who are not dangerous — mostly just in poverty or with mental health issues — and turns them into broken souls many of whom have little option but to return to antisocial behaviour. Such people need care and humanity, not punishment and brutality. We know it is madness. The government knows it is madness. But for the sake of the tabloid press and the votes of an ill-informed electorate, the upward spiral continues. Who can save us from this travesty of justice? Start demolishing prisons now.

  • Claire Durtnall says:

    It is time to STOP building prisons and invest in mental health, social care, education, hospitals, youth and family support services. Let’s tackle the injustices and inequalities and create a humane society which functions as it should.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation