Government plans to build Britain’s biggest prison are a titanic waste of money that will do nothing to cut crime, the Howard League for Penal Reform said today (10 January).

In a move which echoes the ill-fated Titan jail proposal of the last decade, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has announced that it is to start feasibility work on a new prison that could hold more than 2,000 prisoners.

The project – combined with the planned construction of four new mini-prisons – follows the opening of the G4S-run Oakwood Prison near Wolverhampton, which has been dogged with problems from the outset.

Although the Howard League cautiously welcomes the MoJ’s decision to close six older jails, the construction of new facilities means that the total number of places in the prison estate is to rise at a time when the government should be striving to save money by reducing the number of people in custody.

The prison population is actually falling, so it makes little sense to start work on a huge jail at a time when public money is scarce. Rather than building extra capacity in the prison estate, the government should instead focus on ensuring the decline in prisoner numbers continues.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “For a government who claims its top priority is to get the public finances in order, the decision to spend hundreds of millions on a titanic prison is bizarre. Time and again, our prisons have proven a colossal waste of public money, with 58% of those on short-term sentences going on to commit more crime within 12 months of release.

“The truth is that the government knows that there are far too many people in prison who shouldn’t be there, with the prison population having doubled since 1990. In particular, far more people who have committed non-violent crimes have been put on pointless sentences of six months or less. These people should receive community sentences, which are approximately ten times cheaper and are far more successful in turning people away from crime.

“But two years ahead of a general election campaign, the Justice Secretary is giving his desire to ‘sound tough’ a higher priority than giving taxpayers value for money or protecting public safety.”

Dartmoor Prison by Rob Purvis

Dartmoor Prison by Rob Purvis

The Howard League welcomes the decision to end the use of Serco-run Ashfield Prison as a children’s prison. An inspection report, published last year, found that restraint had been used at the prison 150 times a month – a nine-fold increase compared to the previous inspection.

Frances Crook said: “Long before it opened, the Howard League made it clear to the government that handing over children to a prison run by a private security firm was a recipe for disaster and have highlighted its failings ever since. With its closure as a children’s prison, we feel tragically vindicated.

“Ashfield has seen appalling levels of violence, with 1,039 assaults recorded last year, as well as excessive use of restraint, strip-searching, solitary confinement and the addition of extra days to children’s sentences.

“Ashfield is a case study in what happens when you prioritise shareholder profit over public safety and the welfare of vulnerable children.”

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