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Doing business in the prison sector: Politics

With an election looming, much of the policy decisions on where and how many new prisons should be built is guesswork

The government is fairly clear that the country requires around 14,000 new places by 2014. The Carter report in 2001 called for 7,500 of those places to be accommodated by three ‘Titan’ prisons. Earlier this year the idea, to the joy of the prison reform lobby, was scrapped in favour of a proposal for five prisons accommodating around 1,500 prisoners each.

The MoJ said these prisons would be procured through PFI, which favours the established PFI contractors, including Interserve, Carillion, Skanska and Wilmott Dixon. The first two schemes, at Beam Park West in Dagenham, Kent and Runwell in Essex, are expected to be completed by 2013. PFI deals certainly appear to be in the ascendency right now. But they depend, in part, on the remaining three 1,500 person prisons being built. And they remain controversial.

Smaller than the Titans, buts still comparatively huge, these prisons are still regarded by progressives as far too big for proper rehabilitation of inmates, and are widely regarded as susceptible to scrapping. Underpinning much of the reform debate is a belief that Britain already locks up too many of its citizens and alternative deterrents should be found.

“Most informed opinion would say that prisons policy should have two key policy objectives,” says Rob Allen, a prisons expert at Kings College London, “First, you should be acting on policies which provide alternatives to prison, such as drug rehabilitation centres. And the second criteria should be to make the experience of locking people up as normal as possible.” But drug rehabilitation centres are hardly going to plug the capital gap of a big prisons building programme especially if the government decides that, as Allen says, “when times are tough, there are better things to spend public money on.”

A possible future

The Government has given the green light to two of the proposed new prisons and has said it is committed to the additional three. It is also committed to maintaining a £250m a year maintenance element within the Alliance Framework, as well as suggesting there might be some additional new build work there as well. But, according to Ben Ullman, research fellow at think tank Policy Exchange, the government is unlikely to do that any time in the next nine months. “It looks like they are going to leave it to the next lot,” he says.

The Conservatives published a policy document, Prisons with a Purpose, last year which suggested they were no great fans of Titan prisons either. The document did however advocate Policy Exchange’s suggestion of leveraging the prisons estate to raise money for a new capital programme. Policy Exchange’s document, Unlocking the Prisons Estate says:

“By unlocking the value in the prison estate the Government could generate sufficient funds to construct modern prisons that are fit for purpose and offer a greater number of prison places. The National Asset Register undervalues the prison estate.

“This capital, released by selling a number of prison sites to property developers, could be used in two ways. The first option would create sixteen hundred new places. The second option would rebuild five of the worst prisons in England and Wales for £196 million and increase capacity by over a thousand.

“These proposals are not simply concerned with reducing building costs. As well as modernising the prison estate, the most comprehensive prison building program for a century would allow for radical redesign of the criminal justice infrastructure in England and Wales. Could the best designers move away from the bureaucratic tendency towards the “super prison”? More, smaller units may provide better opportunities for resettlement and reduce the extensive amount of travel between prisons. Building courts ‘attached’ to prisons would reduce delays and inefficiencies.”

Whether the Conservative Green paper which lauded this theory makes it into the Conservative manifesto remains to be seen. But if the next Government is a Tory one, we could see a radical new prisons policy, with fewer flagship projects but a more widely spread but still vast capital programme.”

Alliance contractor members

Willmott Dixon

Shepherd Cinstruction

Galliford Try

Shaylor

Wates

Interserve

Kier

Caledonian

Henry Boot

Carillion

Vinci

ISG