If the AA Guide started to judge hotels according to how small they were, we might find it rather confusing. The Ritz, with 133 rooms, would be considered far superior to The Dorchester, with its sprawling 250 rooms. “Super-hotels” such as The Savoy, with a vast 268 rooms, might be written off as “human warehouses” by the Inspectors, who would instead point tourists towards a smaller, grotty (but five-star) B&B.
Common sense tells us that quality is not dictated by size alone. For a hotel, as with many other services, great staff, a positive culture and world-class facilities are far more important success factors. But when it comes to prisons, that common sense seems to go out of the window.
Six years ago, when the Labour Government proposed building three new “Titan” prisons to address a crisis of prison capacity, everyone got into a bit of a muddle. The then head of the Prison Governors’ Association said “our instinct is that smaller is better”. Penal reform groups spoke about the 2,500 place prisons being “a gigantic mistake”. Even David Cameron, then Leader of the Opposition, argued that “the idea that big is beautiful with prisons is wrong”. The policy was dropped, amid the furore.
There was some evidence put forward at the time to support the naysayers: on a basic analysis, smaller prisons do perform marginally better than larger ones on key measures of decency, safety and levels of reoffending. But the prison estate is made up of decrepit jails built in the age of the Victorian penitentiary, former military bases, converted country houses, buildings from the 60s and 70s, and a number of newer, more recent additions. Many of our oldest prisons are the biggest. So why had no one thought to factor the age of the prisons into the equation?
Policy Exchange’s new report, Future Prisons, demonstrates that when you take age into account, the difference between large and small prisons melts away. In fact, new prisons outperform older prisons, regardless of their size, on every key measure of prison performance. In other words, it’s not size that matters, but age. This is a potentially game-changing contention.
Given the pressure on the Ministry of Justice budget, and the difficult decisions being taken on key services such as legal aid, it’s hard to justify the structural inefficiencies in our prison estate. One category C prison costs £108,000 per place to run (far more than at The Ritz). So why can another prison perform the same function for £26,000 per place? We show that these inefficiencies are driven by an estate skewed towards older and expensive-to-maintain prisons, often located hundreds of miles from the homes and support networks of the inmates.
Today we are setting out a radical plan to close around 35 of these prisons and replace them with 12 new “Hub Prisons”. These would be large, purpose-built establishments of between 2,500 and 3,000 places, able to house a number of different categories of prisoners at once, and built with new technologies, such as biometric security systems, hard-wired into their design and operation.
Far from being human warehouses, they would be designed from the ground-up to be positive, active institutions with good staff/prisoner relationships and excellent facilities for rehabilitation.
In London, for instance, our plans would see the closure of six cramped, damp dungeons like Pentonville, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs – and the construction of three 2,500-place Hub Prisons within the M25. This would cut the net running costs of London prisons by 23 per cent, as well as releasing significant cash through the sale of prime, inner-city sites.
The plans would require a significant capital outlay, but this would be dwarfed by the huge accumulated annual savings in operating costs. Hub Prisons could be financed through public sector borrowing, private finance (PF2) or through development financing. However funded, our plan would, if adopted, cut the operating costs of the prison estate by at least £600m a year, equivalent to 20 per cent of the prisons budget. Hub Prisons could also be located on brownfield sites, driving regeneration efforts and economic growth.
In the recent Spending Review, the Justice Secretary agreed to a further cut in his departmental budget of between 8 per cent and 10 per cent in 2015/16. Our proposals would put the prison estate on a sustainable footing for the future by creating of new, modern prisons, better geared to reducing reoffending, located in the right places. They would also deliver a whopping 9 per cent cut in the Ministry of Justice budget – a far greater scale of savings than can be achieved with the current physical environment. So isn’t it time we stopped paying posh London hotel prices to lock up prisoners?
This article originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website