Four 'supersized' prisons to be built in England and Wales

Justice secretary announces plan to create 5,000 prison places in east Yorkshire, Wigan, Rochester and Port Talbot

The justice secretary is to announce plans to build four new “supersized” jails in England and Wales, creating a total of 5,000 modern prison places.

Sites at Full Sutton in east Yorkshire, Hindley in Wigan, Rochester in Kent and Port Talbot in south Wales have been earmarked for development as part of the government’s £1.3bn programme to transform the prison estate.

Although the individual capacities of the new jails will not be decided until they go through the planning process it is expected each will have a capacity of more than 1,000 inmates, consolidating a new generation of “supersized” prisons.

The justice secretary, Liz Truss, said: “We cannot hope to reduce reoffending until we build prisons that are places of reform where hard work and self-improvement flourish.

“Outdated prisons, with dark corridors and cramped conditions, will not help offenders turn their back on crime – nor do they provide our professional and dedicated prison officers with the right tools or environment to do their job effectively.”

But the plans dismayed penal reformers who said the new building programme was not being matched by a plan to reduce the use of prison in the first place. The prison population has stabilised at about 85,000 over the last five years in a system with an “operational capacity” of just a thousand more.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the “massive investment in new prisons is not matched by a credible plan to reduce our reckless overuse of prison in the first place”. He added: “The prison estate certainly needs an overhaul, but reducing demand would mean closing prisons, not opening them. The government has admitted that it has no idea when overcrowding will cease, and this announcement takes us no closer to an answer to that crucial question.”

The four new prisons are part of a wider building programme to create up to 10,000 modern prison places by 2020. A total of nine new prisons are to be built, five by the next general election.

Prisons graphic

HMP Berwyn near Wrexham, which opened last month, is expected to become one of the largest prisons in Europe, holding more than 2,100 inmates when it is full to capacity.

Most of the prisons built over the last 30 years had an original capacity of about 600, so Wednesday’s announcement marks a change of scale in British penal architecture.

Announcements are also expected later this year on the closure of old Victorian inner-city jails as part of the government’s “new for old” policies. HMP Holloway women’s prison, which shut last summer, is the latest to close under the “new for old” policy.

The expansion in the size of prisons has happened on a piecemeal basis, with Wandsworth prison in south London, for example, now holding 1,560 inmates in a jail supposed to hold fewer than 1,000. Nearly 30 prisons now hold more than 1,000 inmates each.

Ministry of Justice officials say the final decisions on the new prisons will be subject to planning approvals as well as considerations of value for money and affordability. It will be open to the public prison service to bid to run the new prisons alongside private prison operators.

They also stressed that the new jails would create 2,000 jobs in the construction and manufacturing industries and provide a boost to regional economies across the country.

Truss said: “This significant building programme will not only help create a modern prison estate where wholescale reform can truly take root, but will also provide a thriving, economic lifeline for the local community – creating hundreds of jobs for local people and maximising opportunities for businesses.”

Council of Europe figures showed last week that England and Wales has the highest incarceration rate in western Europe. Although the prison population is within “operational capacity” it is far above its “certified normal accommodation” – the official measure of “good, decent” accommodation. Nearly 21,000 prisoners – a quarter of the prison population – are held “doubled up” in cells designed for one.

The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, said: “We need modern prisons fit for the modern age. But simply replacing one prison with another prison doesn’t deal with the overcrowding crisis. No amount of press releases can distract from that.”

Lord Woolf in his landmark 1990 report following the Strangeways prison riots recommended that prisons should not normally hold more than 400 prisoners. He said: “The evidence suggests that if these figures are exceeded, there can be a marked fall-off in all aspects of the performance of a prison.” The last Labour government proposed a series of 2,500-place Titan prisons but dropped the scheme in the face of cross-party opposition.


Alan Travis Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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