Grayling ploughs on with plan for ‘super-jail’

Minister sets out scheme for UK’s biggest prison despite warnings that concept is discredited

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The Independent Online

Britain’s biggest “super-jail” holding more than 2,000 offenders could be built within years despite concerns about the safety and effectiveness of large prisons.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling today announced three possible locations for a new giant prison, alongside plans to  shut seven older and smaller institutions.

A steep fall in numbers behind bars over the last year has enabled him to announce a sweeping overhaul of the prison estate which will also save £63m a year for the Treasury.

The concept of the “titan jails” was considered and rejected by the last Labour government, amid concerns that they would be difficult to run fail and do little to cut reoffending. Ministers also feared strong local opposition to their construction.

However, Mr Grayling has revived the idea and is considering the feasibility of building a giant prison in London, the North-West of England or North Wales. It would be one-quarter larger than the country’s largest jail, Oakwood, near Wolverhampton, which opened last year.

Mr Grayling said he was pressing ahead with planning for the “next generation of prisons”, but the Prison Reform Trust warned it would be a “gigantic mistake” to revive the “discredited” idea of titan jails.

The jail population stood at 83,632 in England and Wales last week, a fall of more than 2,700 since a year ago and nearly 5,000 below a peak in late 2011.

The prisons to close are Bullwood Hall, Essex; Camp Hill, Isle of White; Canterbury; Gloucester; Kingston in Portsmouth; Shepton Mallet, Somerset, and Shrewsbury, while some cells will also be taken out of use at Chelmsford and Hull and prisons. Around 2,600 spaces will be lost as a result of the moves.

Shepton Mallet’s closure will seal the fate of Britain’s oldest operating jail which opened for inmates in the 17th century and was used during the Second World War to store historic documents including copies of the Domesday Book and Magna Carta.

Four new mini-prisons – known as houseblocks - will be built alongside the existing jails of Parc in South Wales, Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, The Mount in Hertfordshire and Thameside in London. Between them they will be able to hold 1,260 offenders at what the Government claims is half the cost of locking them up in older prisons.

Following a drop in numbers of teenagers in custody, a Young Offenders Institution at Ashfield, Notts, will also be converted into a full adult prison.

Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, denounced the closures as “unnecessary, irresponsible and amounting to more privatisation by stealth”.

Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, said: “The public will want reassurance that there’s enough prison places over the coming years to keep safely behind bars those found guilty of serious crimes, and that enough is being done to rehabilitate and reform prisoners to stop them reoffending.”

Does the PM still think: “the idea that big is beautiful with prisons is wrong.”

Asked three years ago what he thought of “super-jails”, David Cameron replied: “The idea that big is beautiful with prisons is wrong.”

His response has been borne out by reports on Wandsworth prison in south London, which until last year was Britain’s largest jail housing around 1,600 offenders. In October it was described as the country’s most “unsafe” jail for inmates by the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Locking up offenders in even bigger “super-jails” was first considered a decade ago by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett who dispatched a senior official to study a 3,000-inmate prison in South Africa.

The idea was vetoed on cost-grounds only to be revived five years later by the Justice Secretary Jack Straw. He announced plans to open three multi-storey “Titan” jails holding more than 2,000 inmates each in London, the West Midlands and the North West.

Critics said the new mega-jails would become monolithic “warehouses” that struggled to rehabilitate offenders, while fierce opposition campaigns were threatened in areas where they could be opened. The idea was again dropped.