Super Prisons: not that super

Sara Hyde

Yesterday saw the latest installment of the Secretary of State, Chris Grayling’s, criminal justice Jenga – this time, he stealthily whipped away a few prisons. Grayling announced the closure of four prisons (HMPs Blundeston, Dorchester, Northallerton and Reading) and the re-roling of three others by the end of the year (HMPs Verne; Downview; Warren Hill). We might all be cheering:  after all, these crumbling, decrepit buildings are not fit for purpose in a 21st century justice system. Besides, the Crime Survey of England and Wales tells us that serious crime is falling. Surely that means less people in our prisons, therefore less prison spaces needed? From this perspective, the overcrowding problem looks set to dwindle away and closing those prisons seems like a grand idea.

Although the numbers of people in prison has almost doubled since 1993. Back then 47,000 people were incarcerated compared to today’s 85,000. This is not because crime has risen, but because of populist punitive ideologies, harsher sentences and a lack of engagement with alternatives to custody for minor offences. With this in mind, we need more prison places not less.

The government’s answer to that is Super Prison. Super Prison is here to save the day – a lean, mean, fighting machine who can do everything at half price or less. Super Prison can house up to 2,000 men in North Wales without even thinking about how far that might mean they are being kept from their families and potential support networks. Super Prison won’t be operational until 2017, so it laughs in the face of the very present overcrowding crisis. Super Prison throws caution and evidence to the wind: who cares about the vast body of research that suggests large prisons are damaging and criminogenic? (Not Policy Exchange, that’s for sure). But Super Prison’s biggest achievement is that it’s cheap, cheap as chips – and we all know that that is the essential ingredient to a just and humane justice system: keeping it at bargain basement prices at point of delivery. Super Prison will probably provide prison places at around £13,200 per person per year (based on HMP Oakwood’s – new, 1600 capacity prison- current rate) compared to the UK average of £43,000. So Super Prison, thank goodness you are here to deliver the savings to the CJS we’ve all been waiting for. And with any luck, they’ll put you out to tender, so that you can make some money for your shareholders off the back of the misery of 2000 men, their victims and families, without so much as a sniff of an ethical debate.

Our criminal justice system desperately needs reform. It is ineffective and costs far too much. But if we want a system that encourages (re)habilitation, meaning less crime and less victims of crime, then the dehumanising Walmart logic offered by the super prison isn’t going to cut it. In 2012 HMP Oakwood and HMP Thameside (both large, newly built, privately run prisons) became operational. G4S run HMP Oakwood was initially known as HMP Jokewood as tale after tale of screaming inefficiency, idiocy and inexperience spread fast. Serco run HMP Thameside had an unannounced inspection earlier this year, which raised grave concerns: high levels of assault, inexperienced staff struggling to deal with violence, a restricted regime and 60% of prisoners locked up during the working day. Some prisoners spent 23 hours a day in their cells. This is the reality of how you keep costs low, by brutalizing and deskilling the population.

In contrast, Bastoy prison in Norway has a reoffending rate of 16%: their staff train for three years (our public prison officers do six weeks), their governor states ‘I run this prison like a small society’. Having expert prison officers to deal with sometimes difficult people in high octane situations, where good working relationships have built up over time is key in making prisons useful places where change can happen. Being able to desist from crime is about grappling with your humanity and connecting to others’ humanness. Whether it’s recognising the human damage caused by your crime through a restorative justice programme or whether it’s a discussion with an experienced wing officer who helps you access a job –  relationships are central to reducing reoffending. If we continue to build super prisons and run them at peppercorn prices by warehousing people, reoffending rates will soar. We need to think beyond the next electoral cycle.

Rather than rebuffing the idea of super prisons and entering into a nuanced debate about persistently pursuing fewer crimes for the common good, Sadiq Khan essentially comments on yesterday’s announcement with ‘we thought of it and we’d have done that ages ago’. When Titan prisons were first proposed in 2008 under the then Labour Government, Tory MP Nick Herbert rightly derided it; strangely, he seems a bit quiet this week. What about the use of smaller custodial units nearer people’s families? Or prisons that allow people to do meaningful work and training and not just modern day slave labour to create better profit margins? Or prisons that encourage taking responsibility and opportunities to be manifestly human and not just prisons that institutionalise, infantalise and encourage denial?

Building crime-free lives is about a more equal society, it’s about poverty, healthcare, housing and education. It’s about prisons that seek to build long-lasting change and not a prison industrial complex which assumes that profound change will come through stuffing a building to capacity with humans, like they are bottles of wine that will mature as if by magic when shut away somewhere cold and dark. We need to show long-term thinking and investment, spending the money required to really see a reduction in reoffending, less victims and safer communities.

(with thanks to @hmp_chaplain for #SuperPrisonsNotThatSuper)


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