Guest post by The Tartan Con: The government’s approach to our prisons is an admission of failure

I am pleased to host this guest post by The Tartan Con, a leading prison reform blogger.

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The Ministry of Justice issued a press release on the 28th of June announcing the news that they were to build 4 more prisons over the next six years. (To read this wonderful piece of self-promotion click here.)

This is in addition to the two new builds underway at Wellingborough, near Northampton and Glen Parva in Leicestershire. This therefore gives England 6 new prisons within the next 6 years

Let’s cast our minds back to the hazy old days when Liz Truss, who was the then Secretary of State for Justice, announced the building of 4 new prisons. In that release (a copy can be found here) she stated the, then, government’s intention was to build 5000 new spaces which would create 2000 new jobs. More importantly, this announcement was touted as being “new for old.” Meaning that there would be closures of the more Victorian, not fit for purpose, gaols that riddle the prison estate and lovely new ones would take their place. So, new shiny prisons were announced, sites had been identified and, off we go. At least, that’s what I thought.

Local communities were up in arms at having a prison located near them. Because, well, prisoners are awful people and they were sure to scale the 20 feet walls, leap over the barbed wire and pillage the local community, weren’t they? Town Hall meetings were held, placards were made, leaflets distributed and NIMBY’s (not in my back yard’s) sucked their teeth. Eventually, planning applications were withdrawn. Therefore, as is the case with most of the government’s new initiatives, the idea of building more jails was soon to be consigned to the trash can of history.

Some two Justice Secretaries later and bids were to be invited from the private sector for the operating of a new prison to be built on the site of the old HMP Wellingborough. Later this year bids will be invited for the operating of a new prison at the old HMP Glen Parva site. Both of these prisons are being financed with taxpayer money and indeed in 2018 the government announced a ban on prisons being built using private company’s money and that all building would be publicly funded from thereon in. The operating of these two prisons, however, will be carried out by the private sector; with the operator of the first prison being announced in the very near future. Thereafter tenders will be asked from, again, the private sector for Glen Parva. The government has yet to announce whether the next onslaught of warehouses – sorry prisons- will be privately managed or publicly run.  I am not going to go into the pros and cons of private versus public; save to say that the government have said that at least ONE out of the four will be publicly run. Kind of gives you an idea of what the government think of our state-run prison service, doesn’t it?

Those of you that know me, know that I am not an abolitionist, I actually see the need for prison. If someone has been found to be such a dangerous a person that they cannot live in our society then democracy says that we must remove that person from it. However, the government’s announcement seems to me to have been issued with some glee; almost as if they’re proud of the fact that the UK incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in Europe, save for Poland.

It is as if they are saying “Look what we are doing, we are building more prisons, this will keep society safe!” I paraphrase of course, the actual release states “Four new prisons are to be built across England over the next six years – boosting efforts to cut crime and kickstart the economy.”

Let’s take a look at that statement, shall we?  “Cut crime.” How does building a prison cut crime? It does not. It purely houses people that have committed a crime.  What it does allow for us to do; is to jail more people. The government has been rather sneaky here, and I know that must have come as a shock to you, but in the release given by Liz Truss she deliberately mentioned that she would be closing old prisons that are not fit for purpose. Yet Richard Heaton (he of the civil service) admitted on 29thJune this year whilst giving evidence at the Public Accounts Committee, that the government has no intention of closing any prisons, Rather, they plan to increase current estate. I believe he even said, when trying to justify building more prison in order to reduce over-crowding that “We don’t have overcrowding in our prisons, rather we have crowding.”  Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you this year’s winner of the Humphrey Appleby award for civil service jargon.

I am comforted, however, that the latest press release from the MOJ informs us that the new prisons will have concrete walls! I kid you not!  Here was me thinking that polystyrene blocks would have been more economical. Additionally, thank goodness for their ingenuity of using pipework to deliver the water! The Oxygen thief that wrote this press release needs to find another vocation in life (and perhaps a hug). The bar-less windows are a nice touch, though!

The act of building new prisons stupefies me somewhat. Let’s look at the case of HMP Berwyn; the last prison to be built by the government that opened in 2017. It was heralded to be the “prison of the future”, yet it only holds about 75% of its capacity.  It’s that bad that even the workshop provider, that bastion of bailouts, Interserve PLC allegedly tried to get out of the contract and only opened one of the two workshops proposed.  This therefore means that a large proportion of the residents have no purposeful activity at all. Rather they languish in their cells watching daytime television, becoming experts on how to buy and sell antiques and how to buy a house at auction and renovate it on a small budget. If this is the “future” it doesn’t bode well for the new prisons, does it?

Building 6 more prisons isn’t an accomplishment of which to be proud. It’s admitting failure on a colossal scale. Prisoners fall into many categories and lumping them into a prison for “x” months and hoping that after “y” months of inane boredom, attendance at courses that are ill-equipped to help, stuffing balloons into plastics bags for 12 hours a week as a job and being locked in a cell for @16 hours a day just isn’t going to make society any safer. These people who are jailed are going to be released one day. Who knows they might even be the NIMBY’s next-door neighbour? Think about that, won’t you? The next time you say, “lock them up and give them bread and water” remember that the serving prisoner today could be your next-door neighbour tomorrow.

Prisons need to be decent, safe, clean places where we place those who have committed such heinous crimes that are so are abhorrent to us that we cannot face them. They must offer to help the person remanded to a term of incarceration that ability to start rebuilding themselves, if they so desire. In my opinion, the only way to cut crime is to get to the root cause of why that person commits the crime in the first place. A person must not be sent to a prison as a place of safety by a magistrate or judge.  Prisons must not be used for those souls who are disturbed, addicted to substances or victims of historic abuse; to name but a few real maladies. We must stop sending people to a prison, located in the middle of nowhere and miles from their families, as the first option. The sooner the judiciary realise this, the sooner we can stop building warehouses for society’s forgotten many.

I wish the government well in their expansion plan. I only wish that it would have stuck to its word and that we could have closed some of the Victorian hell holes that blight our countryside today.  Those edifices of despair in which we place our fellow citizens for an inordinate amount of time and then turf them back ono the street hoping that they will not reoffend; all the time getting upset with them when they do. But if they continue to try and build themselves of the problems of society as opposed to facing them; I will be there to help pick up the pieces of the fallen few and at least I can visit them in bar-less window lined cells with a good concrete wall!

Thomas Paine once wrote that “when our jails are empty and our streets free of beggars, then can a country be proud of its constitution.” Our jails are full, and our streets filled with those just trying to survive. Not much to be proud of, is there?