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Frances Crook's blog · 3 Aug 2021

New prisons are not being built with rising temperatures in mind

Frances Crook in front of office bookshelves

The climate is changing. Some estimates indicate that the UK could experience summer days of 40 degrees. New prisons are not being built with this in mind. Environmental claims are being inflated and the huge expansion in prison-building will be environmentally damaging, as well as being unsuitable and possibly dangerous for prisoners and staff.

The new prisons programme published in June says that 18,000 additional prison places will be added to the prison estate by the mid-2020s. There is much to be commended in the design of the new prisons, including technology, single cells and washing and sanitation. The green aspirations – through reducing emissions and investing in green drainage and water treatment – are commendable.

But, and it’s a very big but, it looks like the design will not be future-proofed as the cells and buildings appear to have very little ventilation. Imagine being in a virtually sealed cell when the temperature reaches 40 degrees. This summer, hot days must have been unbearable, but in new prisons people could actually cook.

I remember being in a meeting some years ago with the minister and officials discussing how to prevent suicides and being told how the new windows were an improvement because they had removed the bars (which allowed ventilation) and replaced them with sealed windows with only a small vent. At the same time as this discussion was happening, a riot was taking place on the landings because the heat was unbearable in the cells. As the world heats up, it will get worse. I can’t see that these new prisons are designed to mitigate extreme temperatures.

The designs appear to be so flawed as to be positively dangerous

There’s more that is worrying.

I note that the new prisons will have ‘a small sports pitch so that prisoners can keep fit and meet up in the fresh air’. A small outside space for 1,715 men! This indicates that a so-called training prison will provide very little outside exercise, presumably restricted to weights and other gym training, and men serving many years in prison will hardly get any fresh air.

The house blocks will be four storeys high, and the lower floors appear to have little natural light and be virtually sealed. Goodness knows there is a great deal wrong with the Victorian prisons – mostly caused by gross overcrowding and poor maintenance – but they were built with ventilation and natural light in mind. Indeed, the Victorian prison in Oxford was converted into a luxury hotel which shows it is not the design at fault, it is the way it is used and managed.

The environmental claims appear to be flawed too, as it is recognised that new build is always environmentally damaging and depleting.

There is no good reason to build more prisons. The environmental damage for all of us will be huge and the designs appear to be so flawed as to be positively dangerous.

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