July 9. Here’s a happy tweet from the Ministry of Justice: ‘We are building 4 new prisons to: Improve rehabilitation. Help local economies. Support construction industry to invest & innovate. Part of our £2.5bn plan to create 10k additional prison places. Delivering modern prisons & keeping the public safe’ (thanks to my colleague Ros Crone, for this).
Each line has a helpful little illustration. The one for the construction industry has a crane and jib which at first sight looks just like a gallows. Next time perhaps.
The prison population of England and Wales has almost doubled over the last twenty-five years. According to the figures for 3rd July, the current population of 79,522 is just over two thousand less than the ‘Usable Operational Capacity’.* The press release accompanying the tweet stresses that the new cells will be an ‘addition’ to the present stock, presumably, taking into account the need to replace prisons no longer fit for purpose. They will be on top of already planned new prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva, which are to provide 3,360 places by 2023. The announcement reflects an expectation that prison numbers will expand still further in the coming years.
Last February, the then Justice Secretary of State, David Gauke, announced a policy of abolishing custodial sentences of fewer than six months. But he took the wrong view of Brexit, lost his Cabinet post, was thrown out of the Conservative Party and is now out of Parliament. His junior minister in charge of prisons, Rory Stewart, stated that ‘We should be deeply ashamed as a society if people are living in filthy, rat-infested conditions with smashed-up windows, with high rates of suicide and violence.’** He was quickly promoted to a Cabinet post at the Department for International Development, since abolished (do keep up!), before he was himself abolished, following Gauke’s trajectory out of office and out of Parliament because of his opposition to Brexit (and to Johnson personally).
As noted in my diary entry for June 2, the Ministry of Justice failed to implement an early undertaking to make an emergency reduction of 4,000 in a prison population threatened by mass infection in confined spaces. Now cause and effect has been reversed. The response to the virus demands growth not contraction. The overriding need is to get the economy moving. The MoJ’s press release explains the broader purpose of the announced expansion: ‘Thousands of jobs will be created overall in the areas surrounding prisons during construction and once they have opened. This will provide a major spur to local economies and support the construction industry to invest and innovate following the Coronavirus epidemic.’
This is the new mantra of ‘build, build, build’ given form. There seems no good reason why the Government should stop at 10,000. We need to be world class at something, and setting aside the United States we are already well ahead of advanced countries in the proportion of the population in prison. Each new prison takes undesirables off the streets, cures unemployment, boosts the private sector (only one of the new prisons is certain to be run by the state). What’s not to like?
Quite a lot, according to a new report from the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee.*** It has just demanded that the government ‘should end the Covid-19 visiting ban on children in England and Wales whose mothers are in prison and consider releasing those who are low risk… The committee said it had heard heartfelt evidence from children prohibited to visit their mothers during the outbreak which had exacerbated problems and posed a serious risk to an estimated 17,000 youngsters.’ It further called for the ‘early release for those mothers who can safely go back home with their children.’
The Committee is on the wrong side of history.
*Ministry of Justice, Official Statistics, Prison population figures: 2020. July 3, 2020.https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/prison-population-figures-2020
**Cited in House of Commons Justice Committee, Prison population 2022: planning for the future