Britain’s Mega Prisons- Where are They Now?


In 2016 the British government announced plans for the biggest expansion of the prison estate in decades. Six new mega prisons were to be built in England and Wales, plus five new community prisons for women. This would increase the potential number of prisoners incarcerated by 10,000, five of the prisons would be operational by 2020. Prison reformists were against the expansion saying that it would not help to resolve the issues within Britain’s failing prison system. In the past whenever new prisons have been built they are soon filled with new prisoners and no old prisons are closed. It does not reduce overcrowding, just increases the state’s ability to incarcerate more prisoners. A robust plan is needed to reduce the number id people incarcerated before a new building program should start to ensure fulfils its purpose of reducing overcrowding and doesn’t just increase the number of prisoners the state can hold.

England and Wales have the highest rates of imprisonment in Europe, with Scotland a close third. The prison population has remained at a steady 84,000 in the last few years but that is a mind blowing 82% increase from the 1990’s. However, this week government statistics showed that the prison population had fallen to around 80,000 for the first time in years. Just as well given the progress of the new mega prisons!

In February 2017 HMP Berwyn opened to a great deal of fanfare, it was the second biggest prison in Europe, and cost £220 million to build. It would hold more then 2,100 inmates when fully operational. It is also expected to be the cheapest prison to run once fully operational, costing the state £14,000 per year per prisoner. Berwyn is a category C prison in North Wales. Currently it is one of the most expensive at around £36,000 per prisoner per year.

Berwyn was to be a new kind of prison, one that treated inmates with respect and gave them dignity. The prisoners were to have rooms not cells and were to be called men not prisoners or inmates. The prison has a wonderful library and a gym, the rooms have phone in them so prisoners can stay connected with family on the outside. The prisoners also have access to computers, but not the Internet.

Wardens will have to knock before entering rooms and each room has a shower and a toilet.

But something went amiss at HMP Berwyn and no one is exactly sure what, there are many rumours, but after nearly two years its is still only operating at 40% capacity whilst prisons all over England and Wales are full to bursting point. HMP Berwyn should have been fully operational by now according to its own business plans.

Buildings have had to be rebuilt and suffered huge delays, the workshop element was only providing a fraction of the 520 jobs it promised, and the flagship governor Russ Trent, a former Royal Marine was mysteriously removed from his post last year. Drugs and violence are increasing at the prison and it is deeply unpopular with inmates and their families.

One of the prisons main failing is that only 30% of the cells are built for single occupancy, the rest are double rooms. A few prisoners like to share a cell but most like to have some personal space. Prisoners share cells in other prisons due to a lack of rooms but in HMP Berwyn it was a deliberate design feature.

The New Prisons

In December 2016 the locations of first of the two mega prisons were announced, Wellingborough and Leicester in the Midlands. By Christmas 2017 planning applications had been submitted and in March the next six prison locations were announced. These were Rochester, Wigan, Port Talbot and Full Sutton in Yorkshire. Two of the prisons were to be mostly demolished and rebuilt, HMP Rochester and HMP Risley. They still have prisoners in them at the moment and no plans have yet been announced to close them.

By June 2018, the Government decided to cancel the women’s prisons due to lack of funds and instead they would build five new residential centres for women, but no time line has been indicated.

Five of the prisons were due to open in 2020 but so far only three have planning permission and as of August 2018 construction had not started on any of them.

In April 2018 planning documentation for HMP Wellingborough and HMP Glen Parva was submitted. It was also stated that Glen Parva would be financed by a public private partnership.

The Prisons: £1.3 Billion Earmarked for Prison Expansion

HMP Wellingborough in Northamptonshire was the first to be announced and it is set to hold 1617 prisoners and will cost around £143 million to build. The original prison was closed in 2012, and the new one is projected to take 18 months to build if it ever gets started!

The next was HMP Glen Parva in Leicestershire, it will cost around £170 million to build and will hold 1617 inmates. It is to employ 809 staff, similar to Wellingborough. The existing Glen Parva prison opened in 1974 and held young inmates.

Full Sutton In East Yorkshire is the next prison on the list, plans were announced in March 2017 and the planning application submitted in May. There was huge public outcry then and that is still ongoing now. The prison was granted consent in July 2017 but local people are still objecting loudly. Full Sutton was to have 1,017 prisoners. It will be a category C prison and will cost £91 million to build. In December the Ministry of Justice amended its planning request, the number of prisoners from is to rise from 1,017 to 1,440.  The local protesters renewed their calls for cancellation of the plans this week saying the prison would have a devastating impact on their village.

Fourth on the list is Rochester in Kent. HMP Rochester was an existing prison. There has not yet been a full planning application and in July 2017 it was announced that the plans would be delayed at least two years. The Guardian thought it might actually be a delay of five years or may never actually happen. The old prison has not been closed down due to a rise in the number of prisoners needing to be housed.

Fifth is Wigan, near Manchester. The plan here was to redevelop HMP Hindley but in July 2017 the government announced delays of at least two years. It would also not be possible to close down the old prison due to overcrowding throughout the prison estate. If Wigan went ahead it would cost around £140 million to build. HMP Hindley holds 664 prisoners. It opened in 1961 and became a youth custody centre in 1993. It is now a Young Offenders and Adult Male Category C prison.

Lastly but not least is the Port Talbot site, this announcement came in March 2017. The community of South Wales resisted the plans so strongly it resulted in the prison being rejected. It was supposed to be a category C prison holding up to 1600 prisoners. It will not go ahead at present.

In defence of the plans to build the super prisons former Justice Secretary, Liz Truss said, “We cannot hope to reduce reoffending until we build prisons that are places of reform where hard work and self-improvement flourish. Outdated prisons, with dark corridors and cramped conditions, will not help offenders turn their back on crime – nor do they provide our professional and dedicated prison officers.”

Prison reform organizations disagree with the plans, saying that there were not any real plans in place to reduce the numbers of prisoners incarcerated. With the present systems in place the new prisons will be filled with new prisoners rather than the overflow from the old Victorian prisons which needed pulling down.

After the riots in Strangeways, back in the 1990s, Lord Wolfe wrote a seminal report in which he recommended that prisons should not hold over 400 prisoners. He suggested that this the optimum number for the effective operation of a prison, after 400 there is a drastic fall off in all aspects of a prisons operation. Today’s government seem to have forgotten this report and are looking to build a generation of faceless, impersonal prisons where huge numbers of people can be incarcerated.

Prison Phone, Keeping prisoners and families connected
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