Robert Kaye is a public affairs consultant and a former adviser on Justice to the Conservative Party. He is author of Fitting the Crime: Reforming Community Sentences, published by Policy Exchange.
The recent announcement by the Ministry of Justice that it will close three prisons – Lancaster, Morton Hall and Ashwell – has caused understandable disquiet, with right-wingers such as Edward Leigh and Philip Davies lining up to attack Ken Clarke’s proposal. Leigh, for instance, says that he is opposed to the very idea of closing prisons.
The Conservative Manifesto last year promised that the party would redevelop the prison estate: this always envisaged the closure of old and expensive to main prisons in favour of new facilities that would be both better suited to rehabilitation and cheaper to run. It is not just scandalous, but counterproductive, that in many jails we are housing two prisoners in cells that even the Victorians thought only large enough for one, where the only concession to modernity (apart from the obligatory television) is the open lavatory squeezed next to the bed on which we expect prisoners to eat their meals.
Much of the estate is ripe for redevelopment as the property market recovers: why, for instance, are we still housing people in rat-infested Pentonville when the site, a stone’s throw from £2 million houses of Barnsbury, could be sold off for housing and a modern facility, tailored towards work, training and rehabilitation, constructed outside of expensive North London? Anyone who thinks Conservative Governments shouldn’t be in the business of closing prisons should visit the old HMP Oxford, closed by Michael Howard in 1996, and now a luxury hotel with an attached shopping centre and leisure development.
Indeed, the choice of Lancaster and Ashwell for closure is fairly sensible. Lancaster is a medieval castle, more suitable as a heritage attraction, and Ashwell, most of which was destroyed in a riot in 2009, would need rebuilding to be brought back into full operation, and ever since the riot MoJ officials have been looking for a way to dispose of it. (The closure of Morton Hall is a more problematic: even if the number of women in prison is reduced, women prisoners cannot be consolidated in a decreasing number of institutions without housing them further and further from home, breaking up families and damaging prospects of rehabilitation. We need more, smaller, women’s prisons, not ‘lady titans’.)
What really angers Ken Clarke’s critics is not his plan to reduce the number of prison places, but his plan to reduce the number of prisoners. The sentencing reforms announced in his Green Paper will reduce prisoner numbers to around 3,000 less than at present by 2014. Given that before the reforms, officials were predicting a rising prison population, this amounts to a net reduction in the number of prisoners of around 6,500. The problem is that simply closing prisons does not of itself reduce the number of prisoners, it merely increases overcrowding.
At the moment, half of prisons are individually overcrowded; three are operating above their safe level. 70 per cent of prisoners are held in overcrowded jails. There are now 8,000 more prisoners than there are places. You only need to do the maths to realise that even if Ken Clarke’s reforms are implemented – and with the Daily Mail and the Sun both determined that they won’t be, this shouldn’t be taken for granted – and even if they result in the predicted fall in prisoner numbers, prisons will remain chronically overcrowded. Supply and demand are simply not aligned.
However, there are elements of reform that could help reduce pressure on our prisons without compromising public safety. There is widespread agreement that more drug addicts and mentally ill offenders could be dealt with in alternative facilities (though it can’t be assumed that these would be any cheaper) and that more can be done to reduce the number of women offenders given custodial sentences. These are taken up in the recent Green Paper.
I would argue, though, that much more could be done. Consider foreign nationals. There are currently 11,000 foreign nationals in prisons in England and Wales – double the number there were ten years ago. In fact, this rise has taken up more than half of the new prison capacity brought on-stream in that period.
The manifesto included a commitment to extend early deportation of foreign national prisoners and the early removal scheme. This scheme allows foreign prisoners to be removed to their home country up to nine months before the end of their sentence. Conservatives proposed extending the scheme by removing the cap so that those on the longest sentences – who make up the largest proportion of the prison population and use the most resource – would get a discount proportionate to their sentence, while those convicted of the most serious offences, including murder and rape, would be excluded. This would have saved at least 1,000 – and potentially up to 3,000 – prison places.
In contrast, the Government’s plan to let off offenders with a caution provided they leave the country will free up only 500 prison places. The reason for this is that many of those who receive the cautions will have committed offences that would not result in a custodial sentence, yet it will do nothing to deal with those whose crime is so serious as to require a court hearing and possible prison sentence. It reflects a somewhat typical response of Whitehall officials to deal with ever more offences using administrative penalties and out-of-court disposals, a trend which both Liberal Democrat and Conservative frontbenchers rightly railed against in opposition, but now defend using the stock answers prepared by civil servants for their Labour predecessors.
Of course, releasing any prisoner early is to be regretted. However, when resources are scarce, surely it makes sense to concentrate those resources on incapacitating those prisoners who pose a threat to the public, and rehabilitating those who can be safely reformed. At the same time, if offenders can be removed to home countries where they will no longer endanger the British public, that should be done. There are simply not the resources for Britain’s prisons to be used as a dumping ground for the world’s criminals.