Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Titaning Our Belts: the Risks of the Wrexham Super Prison

  Today’s announcement that the 2,100 place Wrexham Super Prison will be run by the public sector is something of a surprise.  But with G4S and Serco still on the naughty step and other private providers up to their eyes in Community Rehabilitation Companies, maybe the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) think the Prison Service best placed to lead what is likely to be a controversial and risky project. Today’s ministerial statement suggests that notwithstanding the barrage of expert criticism levelled at the idea of very large prisons, detailed plans and funds to implement the Titan concept are far from decided. The MoJ, it says, "will continue to work with the Welsh government and other partners to agree the necessary resourcing as delivery requirements are finalised".

Such negotiations may be tricky. With a population of 670,000 North Wales probably needs a prison of no more than a thousand at most. Yet it will be getting a facility twice what is needed. Today's statement again emphasises the positive impact of the big new infrastructure project on local businesses. The drivers of prison policy now include job creation alongside efficiency and economy with all three trumping questions of the effect on prisoners.

Lord Carter’s original proposals for Titan jails back in 2007acknowledged the operational challenges associated with large prisons - the possibility of disturbances, difficulties in meeting the needs of special groups and in recruiting and managing large numbers of suitable staff.  These issues still pose risks. He failed to note the change this marks to the purpose of imprisonment - away from an approach which seeks to minimise the exclusionary aspects inherent in detention and towards a model of exile in which offenders are held in large numbers apart from society. While economies of scale may be possible in the provision of food, education or drug treatment, “super jails” will struggle to prepare their residents for return to the various communities in which they live.

The risks and challenges inherent in large prisons are reflected in the widely held expert view that small is if not beautiful then at least less ugly.  The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) state that “it is desirable that the number of prisoners in closed institutions should not be so large that the individualization of treatment is hindered. In some countries it is considered that the population of such institutions should not exceed five hundred”.  The SMRs date from the mid-1950s but 35 years on Lord Woolf’s 1991 inquiry into the disturbances at Manchester Prison recommended that the size of prisons should not exceed 400. In fact Woolf referred to a 1988 Prison Service Design Briefing which described a capacity of 600 as providing the “optimum balance between the need for effective relationships and control of prisoners and economies of scale”; but the Inquiry report recommended that a 600 place prison would be better run as two prisons with 300 places.

Fast forward 13 years to then Prison Ombudsman Stephen Shaw’s investigation into the fire and disturbance at Yarls Wood immigration centre, where he noted that “developments in prison design since 1990 suggest that the maximum of 400 places suggested by Lord Woolf .... was unduly conservative. Recent prison experience, Shaw argued, demonstrates that larger prisons can operate successfully. He described economies of scale and the efficient use of public money as “proper considerations”, identifying as a critical element “that they must be capable of zoning down – both in times of emergency and to provide safe, more homely units to reflect the needs of different groups within the population.

In approving larger prisons, Shaw seems to have had in mind something well short of Titans, remarking that “1,000 place prisons are no longer unusual”. North of the border, a review of the Scottish prison estate had concluded the optimum size for a new prison was 700. This was partly for reasons relating to management complexity and operational stability, but partly because of proportionality - getting the correct scale of prison in relation to the overall prison population and aligned with other facilities. 

It was the Chief Inspector’s view south of the border which seems to have temporarily slain the Titan concept during Jack Straw’s consultation which followed Lord Carter’s original proposal for Titan prisons. Anne Owers told the Justice Select Committee in December 2007 that small prison do better in terms of safely, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement. “That is because they provide an environment in which people are known, in which relationships can develop, in which people are often closer to home.” The Inspectorate found large prisons, old prisons and private prisons were less likely to be safe.  Smaller prisons were almost two-and-a-half times more likely to perform well in the Inspectorate’s tests of respect than large prisons holding more than 800 prisoners.
Purposeful activity and resettlement scores were not directly related to size however.   Resettlement was predicted by the percentage of prisoners living within 50 miles of the prison; indirectly this finding would suggest local prisons closer to centres of population should produce better results.

Other research has been more equivocal. Back in 1980, a literature review by Farrington and Nuttall yielded no empirical evidence that prison size influences behaviour inside or after leaving prison. Prison offences were less likely in larger prisons, but it was impossible to control for the kinds of inmates in each prison. In a more controlled analysis there was a strong tendency for the more overcrowded prisons to be less effective. Size was only weakly related to effectiveness, and this association was reduced further after controlling for overcrowding. Since then Alison Liebling has concluded that “several analyses of prison life and quality provide empirical support for the argument that small is better”.

In 2013, the Policy Exchange Think Tank ignored this work when publishing a report by a former prison governor with what they described as a potentially “game changing contention”. “For a long time,” they claimed, “it has been assumed, without evidence, that smaller prisons outperform larger ones. But size is irrelevant. When it comes to prisons, we prove that, contrary to popular myth, small is not good and big is not bad.” While the involvement in this report of private companies Sodexho and Carillion raises questions about its objectivity, it seems fair to say that there is no recent conclusive body of research that can decisively inform policy making about the optimum size of prisons in the UK.

Much depends on how facilities are organised, staffed and managed within the perimeter. The benchmarking and outsourcing which ministers claim has saved £300m per year has pushed many prisons close to the edge. Despite welcome improvements at 1600 place Oakwood reported this month, there are still serious problems. It's possible that G4S have had to provide additional resources from their own pockets to address the most serious challenges. If so, the official contract cost of £13,000 per prisoner per year will be a dangerously low benchmark for Wrexham's budget. 

Even if resources are adequate, Alison Liebling is surely right to warn that “larger prisons, with highly competent but remote governors may make the struggle for legitimate regimes and staff behaviour harder”.

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