Chris Grayling has announced his latest plans to rejuvenate the prison system. They include a 2,000 place super prison in Wrexham, a capacity which is way in excess of the numbers from the area locked up at any one time. Prior to 2010, the Conservatives were amongst the many critics of so-called Titan prisons, proposing in Prisons with a Purpose that yes, they would sell off old prisons but that these would be replaced by building smaller local prisons .
With a population of 670,000 North Wales needs a prison of no more than a thousand. If more progress were being made on the plan in the Coalition agreement to find alternatives for mentally ill and drug addicted offenders, the numbers could be smaller still. Grayling also seems to want to replace the struggling Feltham Young Offenders Institution with another Titan prison for London.
It is understandable that facing huge budget reductions, economies of scale are dominating thinking in the MoJ. But many may turn out to be false economies.
Look at Oakwood, the UK’s biggest cheapest prison with running costs allegedly less than half those of comparable jails. We await the Inspectors report of their visit in June but the local independent monitoring board have already described how resource constraints impact on the prison. The board have concerns about the amount of drugs, hooch and mobile phones that are being found and known to be in the prison. Much of the contraband is thrown over the fence, which is alongside a public highway but budgetary restraints have limited security cameras and extra netting in the area. Lack of work placements for prisoners is causing unrest with a fifth of prisoners locked back in their cell at 9.am as a result of not having purposeful activity; prisoners have little faith in the complaints system and do not feel that the staff are able to resolve their issues.
The MoJ is right to modernise the prison estate but their overall strategy is wrong. Grayling wants to make the prison system cheaper not smaller. It should be the other way round. Economies could easily be achieved by reducing the numbers in prison not the standards.