Titan jails are now upon us. The first will be launched upon the choppy criminal justice seas of North Wales. It will have some two thousand deck chairs built in the G4S shipyards. SERCO will provide the band and Chris Grayling will be iceberg-spotter-in-chief. Everything will be arranged on a campus style, conveniently heralded in a recent report by right-wing think tank, Policy Exchange.
The report was adamant that size mattered and one site could house facilities of different security category and purpose, not unlike Lindholme Prison in Yorkshire – its open prison unit was recently criticised by Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwicke, as one of the worst they have ever inspected. Policy Exchange also stated that large, modern prisons have better re-conviction rates than older jails, an assertion which must rank as one of the most interesting arrangements of facts in modern criminology. Re-conviction rates for individual jails may be the holy grail for bean counters but are as illusory as they are dishonest.
It is ironic that the good burghers of North Wales are clamouring for this penological behemoth in their midst. Prison building in the 1980s was hampered by planning objections from local communities worried about house prices, the escape of dangerous prisoners and association with ‘houses of shame’. Even when planning was approved the last battle would be over the name of the prison which must not, it was argued, reflect that of the town itself. This gave rise to esoteric names like HMP Whitemoor rather than HMP March, in Cambridgeshire and HMP Belmarsh rather than HMP Woolwich. More recently we have had Oakwood, Isis and Thameside. Even now I doubt we will have HMP Wrexham.
It is a sad reflection on our economic times that politicians in North Wales regard the expenditure of over £100 million on what is, in effect, a penal colony, in their midst, as appropriate investment for the community. Yes it will bring employment but so too would £100million on green energy, social enterprise and many other forms of sustainable economic development.
The late 19th century American Major General, Smedley Butler coined the phrase, ‘War is a racket’ in his book of the same name. He asserted that in his extensive military campaigns he was ‘a high class muscle man for big business’ and a ‘racketeer, a gangster for capitalism’ . Many would argue that little has changed. The USA has, however, in the last three decades added another lucrative racket, imprisonment. The war on drugs with its targeted alienation of the poor and minority groups has swelled the coffers of many multi-nationals as some states spend more on prisons than they do on education. But if war is a racket for the US, then it is a mere amateur compared to a nation like ours that has practised it for hundreds of years. Prisons as a racket, we are learning fast as more and more is handed to the private sector by a civil service, described by its former boss Gus O’Donnel, as lacking adequate skills in procurement and contract management.
Locking people up efficiently is not the answer to the problems of our prison system. Yes, the system needs to cost less and it can, by locking up fewer people, dealing with them in the community and making sure that those incarcerated don’t quickly find their way back behind bars. An announcement has been made of the development of some 17 regionally orientated resettlement prisons. A great idea – get on with it!
We currently only have three such jails, yet we release 80,000 prisoners a year. Locking people up is easy, it’s the getting them out such that they don’t come back that’s the difficult bit.
And maybe, just maybe, we could be a little more imaginative about what we do with all this those we lock up simply because we are mad at them. Take three recent ‘public enemies’: Chris Huhne, Vicky Pryce and Trenton Oldfield (he who entered the boat race without a boat).
We have spent a lot of money on them to extract our vengeance for their effrontery, and for what? Huhne’s new CV with its criminal record will not hinder the millionaire the way it does the average ex-prisoner in south London. He may not get back into government but he will not go hungry and may even be a more interesting after-dinner speaker.
Pryce, we are told, is writing an economic analysis of the prison system having walked the grounds of East Sutton Park for six weeks and become expert in the field. It will undoubtedly out-sell my own efforts after 25 years (bitter? me?)
Mr Oldfield will be deported though rumour has it that, at the next boat race, the banks of the Thames will be lined with hundreds of wet-suit clad, Spartacus imitators with ‘I am Trenton Oldfield’ emblazoned on their backs. That would make for a lot of arrests but would certainly enhance an otherwise meaningless, elitist sporting event.
Could we not take some of Huhne’s millions off him to build a swimming pool in a deprived area eschewed by the mythical Olympic legacy? Ms Pryce could do the financial modelling and management and the dolphinesque Mr Oldfield could do many hours of community service sharing his undoubted aquatic skills. Of course not, our anger must be swift and simple and costly.
Maybe when we start locking up bankers and the plethora of News International journalists awaiting trial we will establish a real cohort of educated middles classes behind bars who might engineer a real debate.
Or perhaps we will just be flooded with more bloody prison diaries.
John is Professor of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Durham, author and freelance criminal justice consultant. He worked in the Prison Service for 25 years and governed three prisons – Belmarsh, Swaleside and Brixton - and spent three years as an inspector of prisons.