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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

Prison promises

So, the Daily Telegraph prediction proved to be correct.

In his Spending Review the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has indeed announced 18,000 new prison places at a cost of £4 billion over four years. Most of the places had already been unveiled by ministers, leaving around 4,500 that represent a genuinely new announcement.

What's less clear, however, is why the Government intends to embark on such an ambitious prison building programme.

In August 2019, the Ministry of Justice said the number of prisoners across England and Wales would probably reach 82,000 by 2024 - a reduction of 1,000 on the number who were then behind bars.

Since then, largely because the coronavirus led to a fall in crime and an increased backlog of court cases, the prison population has dropped to just under 79,000, with operational capacity at more than 81,000.

This year's decline in numbers is clearly a blip; once restrictions on people's lives are eased and the courts start hearing more cases there'll be more offences, more prosecutions and more prisoners. But that still won't account for all the new places that are planned for.

The word from Whitehall is that the 18,000 places are EXTRA places, or at least intended to be. There are said to be no current plans to close any jails (though it's not something ministers and prison officials tend to advertise in advance). If the places are added to the existing estate they would boost capacity to nearly 100,000.

What other factors might require an increase in prison capacity?

Well, the Government has proposed sweeping sentencing reforms for serious and violent offenders which, according to its Impact Assessment, would result in an additional 700 adult and youth offenders being locked up by 2029. But that's a fraction of the 18,000 places being promised.

The other main change concerns policing: forces are recruiting an extra 20,000 officers by 2023 taking overall numbers back to the levels they were in 2010. With more police available to apprehend criminals and process cases, it's thought detection rates will rise with a knock-on effect for prisons. Even if this does require more places - and no details have yet been given - it's hard to believe that it necessitates a prison building programme on the scale outlined by Sunak.

It leads me to two possible conclusions. Either, despite what sources say, the Government IS planning to close outdated jails so that some of the 18,000 places end up modernising the estate rather than adding to it. Or, ministers want to reduce overcrowding by building in more "headroom" - so that fewer inmates have to share cells.

Both outcomes would be widely welcomed - particularly if it meant jails were less like warehouses and more equipped to engage offenders in purposeful and meaningful activities to change their behaviour and transform their lives.

Let's see if ministers reveal what their intentions really are.

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Nov 25, 2020

A useful political slogan for the forthcoming local elections in May 2021: "To be tough on crime, we need prisons".

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