31 January 2008

Titan prisons are a mistake... yes... err, but they are going ahead.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons is usually fiercely independent and is not afraid to ladle out uncomfortable truths to governments regardless of political persuasion. In the 1990s, Judge Stephen Tumin was so outspoken that Michael Howard appointed a military man, presumably thinking that he would take a no nonsense, hardline approach to prison conditions. He couldn’t have been more wrong! General, Sir David (now Lord) Ramsbotham marked his independence from the very start and he remains in retirement a strong advocate for prison reform as can be seen in this Comment is Free column in yesterday’s Guardian . The current Chief Inspector Anne Owers is by no means as high-profile as her predecessor but that does not mean that she is any less independent.

In her annual report published yesterday Ms Owers criticises plans to build three "super-prisons".

Not only does she paint a grim portrait of conditions behind bars (A 40 per cent increase in suicides last year, continuing overcrowding and the plight of mentally ill inmates) she blames government policies for last year's record prison population, which forced ministers to order the use of police cells to hold detainees and to approve the early release of non-dangerous inmates. "That crisis was predicted and predictable, fuelled by legislation and policies which ignored consequences, cost or effectiveness, together with an absence of coherent strategic direction." She says

She warns that the plans that government proposals for a vast expansion in jail places, mainly by building "Titan jails", would be counterproductive. "On the horizon loom the Titans – 2,500-strong prison complexes, flying in the face of our, and others' evidence, that smaller prisons work better than larger ones," she says. "They may be more efficient, but at the cost of being less effective."

Although a Labour blogger I rarely discuss politics these days. There are plenty of other people left and right who do a far better job of political blogging it than I ever could. However, the “Titan” jail plans are of particular local interest, Rainham being a prime candidate for the one sited in London. The plans caused a furore locally last year. Doomed Tory MP for Hornchurch, James Brokenshire (the constituency is being broken up and Rainham will move to Dagenham) was highly outspoken in his opposition. Although protests have subsided, Rainham remains a prime site. Ms Owers’s report may have come as some relief to protestors.

The relief was short-lived, however. Although Justice minister Jack Straw appeared to indicate that the government was having second thoughts about “Titan” jails, Gordon Brown confirmed that the government would go ahead with them "We will go ahead with these prisons following the consultation that [Straw] said would take place," he told MPs.

I will be interested to see what John Cruddas has to say about this subject as he is most likely to be Rainham’s MP after the next election.


Steve Bates said...

Are your prisons in the UK publicly built, run, and (especially) funded?

For over 150 years now, many prisons in the US have been privately owned and/or operated, with consequences you can well imagine... and apparently at no lower cost to the public. Your "titan prisons" seem to share some of the same issues, but the one that is different in privatized prisons here is that there is incentive by prison owners to operate them more cheaply and to campaign for laws that imprison more people longer. I see this as a horrifying conflict of interest. And believe me, Texas prisons are already numerous enough, cruel enough, and frequently overflowing due to mandatory sentencing laws... without adding to the problems through privatization.

jams o donnell said...

Most of our prisons are built directly by the Prson service but there are a number of private prisons . I daresay this number will increase. A lot are built on PFU.. A private contractor will build the prison and teh Prison Service will lease it and run it with its own staff.

Hmm campaigning for stiffer laws, Why does that noe surprise me!

Steve Bates said...

"Hmm campaigning for stiffer laws, ..." - jams

I admit that is conjecture on my part. With the increasing frequency of the relatively new 527 org's (named after the number of the law that permits them), it is now often difficult to tell who, exactly, is behind any issue-specific campaign. I'd be very surprised if the companies that run privatized prisons were not behind some of the "victims' rights" groups urging more executions and longer sentences.

jams o donnell said...

I wouldn't be surprised at all Steve. If it helps bring them custom so to speak....