Role of the Prison Officer - Justice Committee Contents

6  The prison building programme and clustering

The prison building programme

188.  In December 2007 the Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, announced to the House that the Government was adopting the recommendation in Lord Carter's review of prisons that a number of so-called Titan prisons should be built. £5 billion was to be set aside for the proposals, although this figure was later queried by the Justice Committee, among others.

189.   In a statement to the House on 27 April 2009 the Secretary of State announced the abandonment of the Titan prison-building programme. Instead, it is proposed that 7,500 prison places will be delivered through the building of five 1,500 place prisons. In the statement Mr Straw told the House that the Ministry of Justice already "successfully" operated prisons of 1,500 places.

190.  There are two prisons of approximately 1,500 places within NOMS: HMP Wandsworth with 1,456 places and HMP Liverpool with 1,443 places. However, these figures are for the 'operational capacity' of the prisons which is defined by the Prison Service as the total number of prisoners that an establishment can hold taking into account control, security and the proper operation of the planned regime or, in lay man's terms, the 'safe' level of overcrowding. Not only is it debatable whether the Ministry of Justice can claim to have experience of prisons designed to hold 1,500 prisoners, but pressure on the prison system, in the event, may lead to these new prisons operating with substantially more than 1,500 prisoners.

191.  In addition, the original 'Titan' concept was of an overall facility big enough to enable, if not require, the creation of smaller units within one perimeter. In contrast, the new institutions announced may mean, ironically, that actual 'house block' accommodation will be on a larger scale than that ever envisaged with Titans. The available evidence—including from HM Prisons Inspectorate and the Government-commissioned Corston review—strongly points to 'less is more' in the relationship of size to success with prisons. Professor Andrew Coyle told us: "All the evidence is that the best operating and delivering prisons in terms of public safety and value for public money are small, locally accountable prisons."[203]

192.  Professor Coyle's supported the Chief Inspector of Prisons' view that the maximum size for a 'run of the mill' prison was 500 prisoners. However, with vulnerable or otherwise particularly challenging groups of prisoners, Professor Coyle thought the evidence pointed to smaller units than 500:

I think if you are looking at specialised prisons, for example, for young offenders or for women, one of the clear conclusions of Baroness Corston's Report was that we needed [smaller prisons]. She was very clear in saying that what was the needed for them was small dedicated units. The same thing applies [to other groups of prisoners]. To draw a line from the Solent to the Wash and take 600 of the most disturbed youngsters and put them all in one institution in Feltham, you are really not going to achieve a great deal of rehabilitation. [204]

193.  Professor Coyle considered it inevitable that the new prisons would be built with the aim of reducing staff numbers, given that the Prison Service currently spends around three-quarters of its budget on pay:

The Government, despite the rise in prison numbers, is requiring the Prison Service, along with all government bodies, to have year on year reductions in cost. Given that something between 70-75% of the running of a prison is staff costs, the only place that one can reduce is the numbers of prison officers. There is an argument for saying that they are already too low, but I fear, if the pressure remains to reduce costs, that will be an inevitable consequence.[205]

194.  We heard in Sheppey that CCTV cameras, improved sightlines and automated locking—all potentially part of prison new-build—could only mean fewer officers and therefore less opportunities to provide pro-social modelling, build relationships and informally challenge offending behaviour.

195.  The prison-building programme seems to be entirely focused on economies which are focused only on security rather than maximising the opportunities for reducing future re-offending. It contradicts the Government's own research on effective prison size. The substitution of very large new prisons makes little or no difference to an approach which is likely to deliver what will effectively be warehouses for prisoners.

196.   We urge the Government to reconsider the prison building programme in its entirety. Prisons with 1,500 places will not be conducive to the rehabilitative work our evidence demonstrates should be at the heart of the prison programme.


197.  The debate over the clustering of prisons has frequently been overshadowed by, and indeed confused with, the Titan prison debate. During our visit to the Isle of Sheppey cluster, which contains a high-security B category prison, a local and remand C category prison and a D category open prison, both the virtues and the disadvantages of clustering were outlined by staff. The positive aspects of such a move (according to some officers, the "potentially" positive aspects) were the:

  • improvement in strategic management in areas such as reducing re-offending;
  • the ability of the prisoner to progress through the system while essentially remaining under the same management; and,
  • financial savings.

The negative aspects of clustering were held to be:

  • the drain on staff time of meetings away from their 'home' prison;
  • the reduction in senior staff numbers and their location away from staff on the ground, thus reducing staff access to senior management;
  • increased strain on slimmed down central services dealing with matters and queries crucial to prisoners' peace of mind; and,
  • the perceived easing of restrictions on the "over-optimistic" transfer of prisoners to lower security conditions.

Baroness Stern, who has a long-standing interest in criminal justice issues, has described clustering as creating "larger prisons by stealth."[206]

198.  The Chief Inspector of Prisons has expressed grave concerns over the likely impact on a high-performing prison of the clustering of HMP New Hall, a closed prison identified as unsafe and having a poor staff culture in its most recent inspection, and HMP Askham Grange, described as the best adult prison the Chief Inspector had ever seen. The Chief Inspector was strongly of the view that this clustering could only have benefits in costs saving:

I have not seen anyone justify [the clustering of HMP New Hall and HMP Askham Grange]…on the grounds that this is a jolly good way to run these two prisons, but it is a necessity in order to save the amounts of money that the Prison Service is having to look to save in this financial year. I think two points arise from that. One is that some prisons are specialised in their function and have become very good at it. We are very reluctant often to assess prisons as doing well across all our tests or, indeed, at the bottom end, doing poorly against all our tests. We have to believe they are really bad before we score them poorly across all our tests. We have to believe they are very good. In fact we have only once, for an adult prison in my time as chief inspector, scored a prison as doing well against all of our of four tests, and that was Askham Grange, and that was because it is a small prison focused on a very specific task and able to give individual care and individual programmes to the women coming through it.[207]

199.  The Ministry of Justice wrote that the expected benefits were: improving throughput of suitable prisoners from New Hall to Askham Grange; maintaining high performance at Askham Grange and improving performance at New Hall "by developing a more holistic approach to the management of female offenders across the prison estate"; and improvements related to reducing re-offending for women offenders with a specialised approach. The Ministry of Justice also refer to efficiency savings of £260,000 per annum at Askham Grange through reduced management and administration costs, and "assisting the drive to deliver £620,000 efficiency savings at New Hall". The Ministry of Justice say that the savings made "have enabled HMPS to support the continuation of Third-Sector led 'through the gate' support for women, in particular, the Together Women Project in the Yorkshire & Humberside region supporting women on short sentences and women held on remand."[208] A NOMS impact assessment concluded there would be "minimal impact" on operations at either New Hall or Askham Grange. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, when she appeared before us, did not seem to have been entirely convinced.[209] We note that it is over 35 miles between HMP Askham Grange and HMP New Hall; a car journey that involves traversing the outskirts of Leeds.

200.  The clustering of formerly separate prisons has the potential to yield upfront cost savings through reductions in the grade and/or number of senior management posts required per unit or facility and by the centralising of some services. There are, however, also risks. These include: reduced opportunities for engagement between prison officers and prison management by taking governors off-site leading to poor relations between management and staff and less effective initiatives to tackle negative staff cultures. The centralisation of services may also lead to restrictions in the responsiveness of such services to requests for information and remedial action from frontline staff dealing with prisoners' queries (an important feature of officer-prisoner relations and hence, potentially, of "dynamic security"). Our evidence, and the impression gained at Sheppey, indicate that the benefits of clustering may outweigh the risks where the institutions in question are more or less adjacent, or otherwise appropriately situated, there is a clear strategic and/or institutional rationale and there is buy-in to the arrangements from management and staff. Yet, the reverse is likely to be true where any or all of these characteristics are missing.

201.  A close relationship between local prisons could potentially have benefits in achieving the end-to-end management of a prisoner's sentence. Economies achieved by sharing prison services may be possible but 'clustering' should only be undertaken if it leads to the component prisons being able to function more effectively.

202.  Overall, the circumstance described in this section lead us to be worried about the way policy decisions are being taken within the Ministry of Justice. The Titan prisons proposal was recommended in a report by Lord Carter, described as being based on evidence. We found the report's conclusions poorly thought out, the evidence insubstantial and Lord Carter's arguments presented to us on the subject deeply unconvincing.[210] It was completely unacceptable for the Ministry of Justice then to proceed without making the case for its costly new proposals. For the 1,500 place prisons proposal, and/or further clustering, to be pursued when both concepts fly in the face of the Government's own research on what works makes little sense. Experiences demonstrates again and again that decisions made on the basis of short to medium term spending considerations often cause major financial and other problems in the longer term. Prison officers can only play the constructive role identified in this report and maintain good order as well as security within the prison estate if there is clarity of purpose and coherent management within the Prison Service. That should be driven by the imperative of making the public safer by holding prisoners securely but above all by ensuring that offenders are less likely to re-offend after release. This is the key to both long-term protection of the public as well as an affordable prison system. Our recommendations in respect of the role of the prison officer also require a new approach to a strategic policy on prisons.

203   Q 235 Back

204   Q 238 Back

205   Q 233 Back

206 Back

207   Q 176 Back

208   Ev 132 Back

209   Q 176 Back

210   See HC 184-ii (2007-08), Ev 55 ff Back

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