Howard League blog · 4 Oct 2023
Renting prison cells overseas
Broken promises. Embarrassing delays. Spiralling costs. A colossal planning failure that will hold the country back.
Most of the headlines from the Conservative party conference have been about HS2, but these stinging criticisms better describe the mess that the government has got itself into with prison overcrowding. The last three decades have seen many desperate and disastrous excuses for prisons policy, but Alex Chalk’s announcement that ministers are planning to rent cells abroad represents a new low.
How did we get here? Last Friday (29 September), there were 87,793 people in prison in England and Wales, and the number keeps rising. In March 2021, the population stood at 78,058; the government’s own projections indicate that it could climb to as high as 106,300 by March 2027 – that would be a 36 per cent increase in six years.
Already, the system is bursting at the seams. Official figures show that 77 of the 120 prisons – almost two-thirds – are holding more people than they were designed to accommodate. In the past year, two severely overcrowded prisons – Exeter and Bristol – have been issued with urgent notifications by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, requiring the Secretary of State to respond within 28 days with an action plan for improvement. A recent escape from Wandsworth prison in London shed light on the fact that it was holding more than 1,600 men when it only had room for 950.
The number of people in prison on remand – awaiting trial or sentence – is at its highest level for at least 50 years. Ministers’ meddling, which for a time included restricting moves to open prisons, has left people languishing in the system. Almost 3,000 people remain in prison on IPP sentences, which were abolished more than a decade ago (but not retrospectively). Probation services are overburdened and under-resourced, and too often people released from prison find themselves being recalled to custody. All while sentences continue to get longer and longer.
And the government’s attempt to build its way out of this crisis – at a time when there are insufficient staff to run the prisons we already have – has failed miserably. Hundreds of police cells have been handed to the prison service to create more space. Five Wells prison, which opened last year, is already attracting negative headlines. Problems in prisons spill out into the towns and cities around them, and, perhaps understandably, many people do not want new jails built on their doorsteps. As planning inquiries linger on, and the flow from the courts gets faster, ministers have resorted to Plan Z.
Renting cells abroad is not new, although we have only seen such arrangements in a handful of places. In the last decade or so, both Norway and Belgium have for a period rented prison cells from the Netherlands. Denmark is currently seeking to transfer some prisoners to Kosovo. But these are not simple arrangements and the governments involved have faced many practical problems – for example, ensuring that staff from the ’home’ nation are transferred along with prisoners, or in ensuring that relevant domestic legislation applies on foreign soil. Tellingly, both the Norwegian and Belgian experiments only lasted a few years before being quietly dismantled.
This will not stand. Here are some of the questions that the government must answer urgently:
How many cells are to be rented?
On Friday 29 September, the prison population in England and Wales stood at 87,793. According to the Ministry of Justice’s own measure of safe and decent accommodation, it ought to be no higher than 78,568. ‘Doubling up’ – requiring two people to share a cell designed for one – has become the norm in many prisons.
Where will they be?
In his conference speech, Alex Chalk said that the government was in discussions with European countries. The Times has reported that one of these countries is understood to be Estonia. In May, the Ministry of Justice announced that it had signed a “groundbreaking” prisoner transfer deal with Albania.
Who will be sent there and how will people visit them?
Many people in prison and their families will be anxious about this announcement. The government must provide more detail about who might be affected. The charity Prisoners Abroad, which supports British prisoners held overseas, has criticised the government’s proposal and spoken about the “isolation and trauma” that people experience when “imprisoned so far away from home and family, not understanding the language and being excluded from opportunities to work and participate in effective rehabilitation programmes”.
When will this happen?
It is understood that new legislation will be included in next month’s King’s Speech to allow for the transfer of people in prison to overseas jails. When does the government intend for transfers to begin? And for how long? There was a time when ministers would promise to replace crumbling Victorian jails with new prisons, only to find that they had to keep the old jails open because the population rose during the construction phase. Few politicians make those promises today; if overseas cells are rented, there must be concern that the arrangement will carry on indefinitely.
How much will it cost?
The government’s prison-building programme is already costing £4billion that would be better invested in hospitals, schools and other public services. Transfers to prisons abroad will only add to this colossal burden on the taxpayer.
What safeguards will be in place?
Most prisons in England and Wales are struggling with staff shortages, so it seems safe to assume that the rented cells will be staffed, at least in part, by officers trained in the host country. Such an arrangement is unlikely to be without challenges, and the prisons will have to be inspected regularly. This will have knock-on implications for the prison watchdogs. HM Inspectorate of Prisons already carries out overseas inspections as part of its work in immigration facilities. But independent monitoring boards (IMBs) – the teams of volunteers that visit prisons more frequently – also play an important role as eyes and ears on the ground. Could we see the creation of an IMB in Tallinn or Tirana?
Clearly, this list is not exhaustive. Perhaps the most important question is this – what will it take for politicians to change course and recognise that we must take sensible steps to reduce the prison population? As the criminal justice system grows larger and larger, even extending its tentacles overseas, so do the problems that we all have to solve.