Eighty-five thousand and counting. This is the number of bodies incarcerated at any one time in Britain’s crumbling and overcrowded prisons. It’s a figure that has almost doubled over the past 20 years, a carceral inflation that puts England and Wales at the top of the table for its per capita prison population in Western Europe.
Prison expansion has been overseen by successive New Labour and Tory-led governments at the same time as neoliberal policies cut deep into the country’s social fabric. The notion that ideological attacks on the welfare state tend to be accompanied by the bolstering of the penal security state is not new, but now there are concrete moves to lay the foundations for further carceral expansion.
Already before the general election, the Ministry of Justice awarded the contracts to build Britain’s first “super-prison” in Wrexham, North Wales, a custodial facility that would hold more than 2,000 male Category C prisoners and will be managed by the prison service. If it goes ahead as planned this would make it the biggest prison in the UK by some margin and one of the largest in Europe. Some have compared it to the “supermax” facilities common in the United States.
In the US, supermax penitentiaries are part of the prison landscape since the second great confinement began in the 1980s. Here, nearly one percent of the adult population are behind bars, more than four times that of Britain. The situation is much worse for young African Americans who, by some estimates, have a one in three chance of spending time in prison, mostly for drug related offences.
Behind the renewed interest in the economies-of-scale of incarceration – first mooted by the last Labour government – are chronic conditions of overcrowding and severe shortages of prison staff after austerity cuts have hit the sector hard. The previous coalition government’s only answer appeared to be the determination to build its way out of the shortage of prison places, and there is little indication that a Michael Gove-led justice ministry would do things differently.
With continuing austerity cuts in mind, it is clear that the driving force behind the building of larger facilities is an attempt to minimise running costs. The closest possible comparison here is HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton, opened in 2012 as a private prison and managed by scandal-hit G4S. At a capacity of 1,600 prisoners it is currently Britain’s largest and also one of its cheapest to run. But it is far from a success story having been subject to increasingly poor inspection reports with high levels of violence and self-harm.
Lamenting the state of our prisons has long been a centrepiece of the mainstream political agenda. The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that the number of assaults in English and Welsh prisons having risen in the last year by about one thousand. Most worryingly, the figures also show a significant increase in the numbers of self-inflicted deaths in custody, from 52 to 88 in a year’s period. At the same time the National Offender Management Service reported that just one quarter of jails were ‘of concern’ or in the ‘of serious concern’ category.
These figures are a direct result of severe cuts to prison staffing levels. The Howard League for Penal Reform has found that prison officer numbers in England and Wales have been cut by 30% over three years, with some prisons having the number of their officers halved. While government ministers have denied that the prison system is in crisis, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, claims that the prison system was not only in crisis, but in a state of emergency.
The re-emergence of the term “crisis” in political debates follows a series of critical inspection reports overseen by the chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick. Hardwick has repeatedly pointed out that increasing levels of violence and self-harm in prisons were the result of policy failures. He has gone on to call for the government to conduct and publish a review into the difficulties HMP Oakwood and other new prisons experienced prior to any “supersized” prisons being opened.
While there is clear evidence of particular problems and strains in the prison system as a direct result of recent cuts, the term crisis – or indeed emergency – is misleading. It implies that the current conditions and injustices suffered in Britain’s prisons are somehow new developments and have reached a critical point. In fact the situation is far more serious.
In truth, modern British prisons have been overcrowded, dirty and dangerous institutions that have housed increasingly disproportionate numbers of marginalised and vulnerable groups for decades. The custodial population has been one that was forgotten and deemed unworthy of any serious care or reform some years ago and successive governments have not only neglected to address the growing population but have in fact pursued an increasingly punitive policy agenda.
Recent MoJ projections suggested that the prison population will rise by nearly another 5,000 in the next five years. These projections are informed by more prosecutions for violent and sexual offences, despite the fact that overall crime is falling. Britain is unlikely to go down the route of introducing “supermax” prisons in the way they exist in the United States. But expansion of the estate seems to be on the cards for now, both by building additional public facilities and buying more places in private prisons.
That commitment and the sheer scale of the prison building programme, along with ideologically-motivated austerity cuts, is of deep concern to many. There are certainly reasons to fear populist manoeuvring as the overcrowding of prisons gets pushed into the limelight.
Joe Simm, a Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, is outspoken against the plans for the Welsh super-prison. Commenting before the general election he told us that “building Wrexham prison represents political posturing at its very worst. It also sharply illustrates the morally bankrupt and hypocritical nature of the coalition’s law and order strategy.” Simm believes that this is not simply a technocratic measure to overcome capacity problems: “As ever, the [Wrexham] prison will be populated by, and soon overcrowded with, the poor and the powerless, delivering pain and punishment.”
In light of the entrenched inequalities within the prison system, the new government would be better placed to make a real and meaningful commitment to reducing the number of prisoners rather than increasing capacity. More prison places is not the answer to overcrowded, poor conditions, particularly when existing establishments are struggling to meet the basic needs of offenders after funding has been slashed.
Humane alternatives to prison need to be developed, based around principles of harm reduction for all. Alternatives that are less destructive to communities, prisoners and their families and that also compensate victims. Governments, policy makers, practitioners, activists and scholars need to re-engage with the abolitionist debate and construct a narrative around decarceration while keeping in mind the possibility of a future landscape without prisons and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation. A future where there are real alternatives to addressing issues of harm, where being a victim of poverty, inequality and social exclusion does not lead through the revolving door of prison.
A campaign against the Wrexham prison has been mobilising across the North West with meetings taking place across the region and locally to discuss the concerns. Groups are also mobilising nationally with a new campaign network launched in the UK. Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) has an abolitionist agenda at its core and is utilising a diverse range of tactics to counter attempts to expand the prison industrial complex. Plans are also afoot for a large prison abolition conference later this year bringing activists, campaigners and scholars together in order to formulate strategy and mobilise further action.