In late 2015 the government announced a ‘prison building revolution’. David Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Gove have, over recent months, called for a change in the way that people in prison are dealt with.
Old Victorian prisons are to be closed, the land sold and money invested in nine new establishments with a focus on rehabilitation, education and reform.
There is good reason to be sceptical about the apparent benevolent intentions of this sudden concern with the welfare of people in prison. As myself and Will McMahon have argued elsewhere, this is about asset stripping and privatisation – central themes to the government’s public sector reform programme.
When you examine the proposals in more detail, the focus is on:
- selling off of state assets and public land;
- deregulation; and
- performance management to support the commodification process.
With an increased involvement of the private sector in prisons and wider criminal justice services we are likely to see an expansion of the system – and a growth in the numbers of people passing through it.
While the initial announcement of prison closures highlighted the need to do away with ageing buildings, the first closure to be announced was Holloway.
Holloway was a surprising choice, given its relatively modern design compared to many other prisons. First built in 1850, it had been knocked down and rebuilt in the 1970s. While the prison is not without its faults, it is the only women’s prison in London. In the future, women will be sent further outside the capital from local connections, friends, services and transport links. The closure of the largest women’s prison in Europe is taking place without any strategic thinking on what should replace it in London and suggests that the primary goal is simply to capitalise on the land.
Imprisonment and punishment in the UK has proven to be an appalling failure.
Over the last 30 years, the UK has become over-reliant on police and prisons as a primary means for dealing with social problems. The number of people criminalised and sent to prison has spiralled out of control. Re-conviction rates remain high, victims’ needs are not met and social inequalities have continued to grow. The current use of imprisonment is unsustainable, unethical and ineffective in responding to social problems and harms.
We are calling for an immediate moratorium on prison construction. We support plans for the closure and demolition of existing prisons and demand that the land be signed over to local authority control on the agreement that it is used for much needed social housing.
This is an opportunity for a fundamental rethink in how our society responds to harm. A key part of such an approach should be to strengthen welfare and local services – and scale back the number of people criminalised and imprisoned. We need to build safe and healthy communities – not prisons.
Zack Ahmed, Sacha Darke, Chris Hignett, Tom Kemp, Sarah Lamble, Gloria Morrison, Alexandra Phillips, Hannah Pittaway, Rebecca Roberts, Neena Samota of The Reclaim Justice Network
In recent days, both Michael Gove and Lord Faulks have said that the government’s role is not to change sentencing policy to reduce prison numbers – it is simply to provide prison capacity for those people sentenced by the courts.
Both have (unconvincingly) argued that through better prison management, ‘reoffending’ rates will be reduced and subsequently so will prison numbers.
This is ill-informed and ignores the central role that political and policy decisions play in driving prison numbers. England and Wales does not have one of the highest prison populations in Western Europe because of ‘reoffending’ rates – it is connected to political choices about how as a society we respond to, reduce and repair social harm, ‘crime’ and inequality.
Instead of prison?
‘If the Government had announced that Holloway was to close and the site be used for social housing, but not before a small women’s prison and, preferably, two women’s centres were open in different parts of London, I would hang out the flags,’ said Baroness Corston this month in the House of Lords. ‘In the absence of such a commitment, I remain implacably opposed to this wrong-headed policy.’
In opposition to the reconstruction of Holloway prison, in 1972 a campaign group called Radical Alternatives to Prison put forward a proposal for what else could be done on the site. Entitled Alternatives to Holloway, the pamphlet set out to make the case against the use of imprisonment.
Instead of rebuilding the prison, it called for community provision, housing and facilities that would benefit local people. While the terminology and language in places seems a little dated, the analysis is in many ways still spot on.
The ‘alternatives’ outlined are also worth revisiting and are reproduced below. There are some useful suggestions on what else could exist on the site of Holloway prison. The text also suggests that in the longer-term, it is important to reconsider how social problems are defined and dealt with.
Alternatives for the site at Holloway
There will be a large secure building and a large open space, both of which could be used for many different purposes. Since security arrangements would not be necessary, some of the alternatives could be self-contained units with their own entrances into the street. The suggested alternative uses would involve a re-evaluation of the plans, but as work has begun on the staff quarters only, it would not be too difficult to put some of these suggestions into effect.
- That part (of the secure building) be used by some of the London courts as an outpatients department for medical and psychiatric reports.
- That part be run as a voluntary long term community for, say drug addicts.
- That part be used as an open bail hostel.
- That part be used as an open hostel for some alcoholics or other heavily institutionalised people.
- That part me available to local groups for various activities such as play-groups, adventure playgrounds, etc: a large part could be used as a community centre.
- That part provide short-term ‘crisis’ accommodation and other help.
- That part be used for flats for homeless families.
Alternatives to prison involve a change in attitude towards those who are perceived as ‘deviants’ and a move away from scapegoating, punitive-therapeutic mentality that is epitomized by Holloway. They require a broader perspective in which ‘crime’ is seen, not as a threat on which war must be waged, but as a reflection, along with suicide, mental hospital admissions, strikes and political unrest, of a disharmony and dissatisfaction throughout the whole social order.
The long term aims of an alternative approach are therefore as follows:
- To break away from the artificial criminal/non-criminal distinction and the concept of criminality as a manifestation of pathological individuals.
- To develop a variety of ways of resolving conflicts and deal with behaviour that hurts others… in the context in which it occurs and with the active involvement of those concerned.
- To help bring about social changes in inequalities of opportunity, power (over decisions affecting one’s life) and wealth and in discrimination in education, housing, work and leisure, that are related not only to ‘crime’, but to more fundamentally to the ever present and perhaps ever increasing tension that a hierarchical society like ours inevitably produces.
Any practical action should embody the following principles:
1.Wherever possible, it should operate at a community level.
2. Action taken out of the local context should only occur with the consent of those concerned.
3. It should avoid creating a situation of dependency, and concentrate on developing self-dependency.
4. It should aim to be self-determining.
5. It must work towards ends which are positive from the point of view of the individuals or groups involved.
6. It must not involve stigmatisation.
Some 44 years later and prison numbers have rocketed. In the 30 years leading up to 1972, Alternatives to Prison claims that numbers of women in prison hovered between 800 and 1,000. It now sits at around 4,000. When Holloway was rebuilt it was under the guise that it was for the benefit of women in prison – to create a therapeutic environment. The same false promises are being made again. We need to learn from these failures and identify alternative uses for the land and different ways of supporting women in contact with the criminal justice system.
The solutions outlined in Alternatives to Holloway provide a useful reference point for discussions about alternatives. Community based services, treatment and small custodial units should all be on the table. The prison visitors centre at Holloway could be retained as a resource for women subject to criminal justice supervision. This is, however, not enough. We need to resist falling into the trap of recreating and replicating the criminal justice services and systems we are trying to break free from.
There is an opportunity here to be far bolder in our vision and ambitions.
As Angela Y Davis argues in her book ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’, ‘we would not be looking for prison-like substitutes for the prison…. . it is about imagining a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions’. This, she argues, is not just about offering an alternative to punishment or prison that occupies the same footprint in society.
Playgrounds, social housing, treatment centres, health care facilities – these are some of the crucial building blocks of safe and healthy communities. Rather than handed over to private developers, the land at Holloway should be protected and ultimately used for the benefit of the local community.
Thanks to John M Moore for telling me about the Alternatives to Holloway pamphlet.
On 19th April, the Reclaim Justice Network is organising a public meeting in Islington.
Rebecca Roberts sits on the steering group of the Reclaim Justice Network and is also Senior Policy Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies