The future of the left since 1884

A super-size mistake

As the Ministry of Justice announces that a ‘super-prison’ will be built in North Wales to house up to 2,000 inmates by 2017, it seems that Chris Grayling will be keeping any hopes of meaningfully rehabilitating offenders safely behind bars...


As the Ministry of Justice announces that a ‘super-prison’ will be built in North Wales to house up to 2,000 inmates by 2017, it seems that Chris Grayling will be keeping any hopes of meaningfully rehabilitating offenders safely behind bars for the foreseeable future.

This development has been lauded by some as a panacea to the endemic overcrowding in Britain’s prisons. But this is a clear case of the government giving with one hand and taking with the other, as Blundeston in Suffolk, Dorchester, in West Dorset, Northallerton in North Yorkshire and Reading prisons will close and as many as 685 staff could lose their jobs as a result.

Something doesn’t add up. The latest prison population figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform show that four of the top five most overcrowded prisons in the UK are in England, not Wales – which are, in ascending order,  Wandsworth, Dorchester, Exeter and Northallerton.

It is not yet clear who is intended to be stacked up inside this new prison warehouse. But there certainly aren’t enough prisoners in Wales to fill it. So will they be shipped in from the pressurised hotspots spread around the rest of Britain?

This idea is innately problematic. Studies have shown that prisoners are significantly more likely to reoffend when they don’t have regular visits while in prison, an issue directly linked to how far from home they serve their sentence. If prisoners remain close to their families, they are much more likely to emerge with some remaining links to the outside world. Otherwise the damage to the wellbeing of offender’s children, especially, can be brutal. Baroness Jean Corston found that around 18,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year – that’s enough to fill 70 average-sized primary schools.

Of course, prison overcrowding is a pressing problem, and the government is right to bring it to the fore. But we must dig deeper to find its root cause. As Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust said today, the number of “serious and violent offenders who pose a danger to the public” and actually need to be behind bars is “comparatively small”.

As much as 71 per cent of men and 81 per cent of women are in prison for a non-violent offence. For these offenders, the government must expand our portfolio of alternative sentencing options and accept that as a country we are locking up far too many people for petty and non-violent crimes. Although Grayling’s policy resembles the Labour government’s one-time plan to establish Titan super prisons, Sadiq Khan recognises in the Fabian pamphlet Punishment and Reform that addressing the imperatives of both punishment and rehabilitation is a balancing act that we must get right in order to break the cycle of reoffending.

Khan says that “dealing with the underlying issues many offenders face so they can get a job, reconnect with family and find a home upon release… [is] essential to rehabilitation”. Indeed, the only way to deliver reoffending targets is to assign the majority of offenders to small, community-based rehabilitation units. An overwhelming proportion of prisoners have multiple and complex needs, from drug addiction and mental health problems to histories of sexual and physical abuse.

These alternatives really work. Similar programmes in other countries such as the Horseroed prison, a low security residential unit in Denmark report markedly improved reoffending rates, while Baroness Corston has being championing the successes of non-custodial options for female offenders.

Community sentencing is also cheaper. The ministry of justice has faced considerable cuts under the coalition and would no doubt need to make more under a Labour government. But rather than super-sizing our order and blowing £250 million on an American-model prison, the only real way to deliver further savings is to reduce substantially the numbers in prison and provide magistrates alternative sentencing options.

After all, what seem like small reductions in reoffending rates translate into significant savings to the public purse. Research carried out by the New Economics Foundation on women offenders found that if community alternatives to prison were to achieve an additional reduction of just 6% in reoffending rates, the state would recoup the investment required to achieve this in just one year.  These savings are worth more than £100 million over a ten-year period.  Even the US attorney general is moving towards cutting prison numbers, but Labour has yet to commit to this.

So as the super-prison announcement reinvigorates public debate about the future of the criminal justice system once more, can we expect Labour to truly move away from their old stance? The soundbite “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” promised much but resulted in a soaring prison population as well as a lower crime rate.

The Labour party must be seen to genuinely want to address the causes of crime by tipping the balance towards a policy of rehabilitation. Khan promised the party conference this time last year that he would be “tough on re-offending” – a similar pledge this year would be more than welcome.

Anya Pearson

Anya Pearson is a former assistant editor at the Fabian Society.


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