What next for our prisons?

Photo credit:   msmail

June 21, 2013 // By: Ben Estep

A new report this week called for the construction of 10 to 12 massive privately-financed prisons (each with a capacity of 2,500 or more) to replace up to 30 smaller facilities around the country. The report is a direct challenge to the long-held belief of prison reformers that larger prisons offer worse conditions for prisoners and lead to higher re-offending. Instead, Policy Exchange are arguing that it isn’t size that matters, but age.

Large facilities, such as the Titan concept considered in 2007, and the current government’s exploration of a single new prison on a similar scale have faced a range of criticism: that they are less effective and less humane than smaller facilities; that they are detrimental to safety, rehabilitative programming, staff-inmate relations, and resettlement planning.

Arguably, some of these concerns could be ameliorated by smarter, more flexible design. And, clearly, a small facility alone is no guarantee of quality – particularly if it’s overcrowded and under resourced.

But, while arguing against a facile fixation on scale, the report substitutes an equally unhelpful axiom: that “age is the key determinant of a prison’s effectiveness.” Last month’s damning inspection report on Serco-run HMP Thameside, which opened just last year, substantially refutes the gospel of newness. The inspection found high levels of violence, some inmates on 23-hour lockdown, and scant resettlement planning.

While this doesn’t mean that other new facilities can’t do better, it suggests that the “key determinant” isn’t age or size, but rather having the commitment and resources to deliver effective rehabilitation and re-entry support to help offenders rebuild their lives and turn away from crime.

The MoJ is under a tremendous amount of budgetary pressure, and decommissioning older, more expensive prison places may indeed make sense. But focusing only on cost per place is incredibly short-sighted. The recent decline in the number of people in prison, the first sustained fall in several decades, offers an opportunity to think more imaginatively: instead of thinking about newer, cheaper prison places, we should be looking at smarter, cheaper alternatives.


Criminal Justice

What next for our prisons?

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