Prison reformers condemn new 'Titan' jails as a 'gigantic mistake'

Proposals to build three huge new jails would "squander" public money and leave Britain the prisons capital of Europe, a coalition of 34 penal reform groups and unions warn today.

In a stinging letter to Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, union leaders and campaigners warn that the jails – each with a proposed capacity of 2,500 prisoners – would damage efforts to take criminals away from a life of crime and exacerbate mental health problems in jails.

The coalition, which includes the National Association of Probation Officers and the Prison Officers Association, as well as the pressure groups Nacro, the Prison Reform Trust and the Fawcett Society, condemn the plans for "Titan" jails as "misguided" and call for them to be scrapped.

The letter, timed to coincide with the closing of consultation on the plans, says: "The Government's proposals to build three 'Titans', each housing around 2,500 prisoners, would cement this country's position as the prison capital of western Europe, while squandering billions of pounds of taxpayers' money which could be better spent elsewhere. The proposals ignore evidence that smaller, local prisons work better than large ones, raise serious concerns about the wellbeing and safety of prisoners and prison staff, and would put at risk relationships between prisoners and their families."

Ministers plan to build a network of three US-style "Titan" jails under plans announced last year after an independent review by Lord Carter. They are designed to help ease pressure on the heavily overcrowded prison system. But yesterday, the Prison Reform Trust published a damning report on the proposals, branding them "a gigantic mistake". The trust said small prisons scored more highly than larger institutions on a vast number of measures used by prison inspectors.

Paul Cavadino, the chief executive of the prison reform group Nacro, said: "Resources should be used to improve the prison system, not expand it, and legislation should be introduced to reduce the use of custody, not increase it."

Sean Duggan, the prisons director at the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, added: "['Titan' prisons] could exacerbate already high levels of mental distress if prisoners are kept further from their families in larger, more impersonal establishments."

But David Hanson, the Prisons minister, argued: "We intend 'Titans' to be clusters made up of a number of smaller units within one perimeter wall. Each unit of, for example, 500 places, would serve a function in the process of educating, training and rehabilitating prisoners."