Towards closing prisons: a blueprint for an alternative

David Toothill calls for the establishment of 5,000 ‘community improvement studios’.

Like slaves in chains we still send criminals behind bars. Individuals who have done wrong, like we all have, must be given an opportunity, after judgement, to repaythe victim and community for their offence. Most of them have committed crimes like debt-default, fraud, fighting, deception, impersonation, speeding, taking drugs or smuggling.  Putting them in cages, isolated from their family and surrounded by disturbed people is one step away from a coffin. Providing them with food, shelter, clothes and utilities is unlikely to inspire active citizenship. Locking them away for 23 hours in a cell may be punishment, but it probably won’t mend their ways. Encouraging them to study or work inside prison may put in place useful practice, but in such a closed environment the skill transfer is limited.

Evidence shows most prisoners re-offend. Most do not learn their lesson. Most create more victims and are let out to harm communities again – except this time they have better networks and inside knowledge of crime. Many have mental health problems. Many will be unable to find work and if they do, they will lose the post when their criminal record is uncovered. Many will be radicalised – feeling the system is taxed against them and they must tough it out. They invert logic: if the good guys are actually bad then killing becomes legitimate if you’re in a war frame of mind – ask George Bush or Tony Blair? Outcomes show prison does not work – today’s Caliphate is evidence.

An alternative blueprint is to operate up to 5000 small community improvement studios (CIS) around the country, whose aim is to be self-sufficient, ranging from specialist farming or market gardening centres to town and urban studios, where horticulture, sculpture, high quality social home building, fine food production and heritage schemes are practised around the notion of “making my neighbourhood better” through artisan craft standards.

About 10 – 20 offenders would be allocated to each studio, taking in up to 80,000 participants per year. The aims of the studios based on principles of;

  • Improving estates, public spaces and community assets
  • Supporting restorative justice and the rehabilitation of offenders
  • Serving a range of sentence types, based on contract, from 2 hours per week for young people to 2 or 3 days per week for adults ensuring they keep in contact with family and education/work
  • Non-profit operations with a cost neutral target and an agreed reserve of £150,000 per studio per year (which can be built up as assets) – making a total cost of £750million each year.

Ministry of Justice figures put the cost of prisons in the UK at £2,800 million (2014). The figures we work from would reconfigure this to;

5000 artisan studios taking up to 20 people @ £150,000 per studio 750
Therapists at £40,000 each x 5000 studios 200
Security officer@ £30,000 each x 5000 studios 150
Transition costs keeping one-third of prisons open 1,200
TOTAL COST during transition phase                                                      2,300

We estimate the potential saving to the country of opening small artisan therapeutic centres in place of prisons could be about £500,000,000, during a transitional period, with further substantial savings in the future.


Southbank MosaicsThis will take time to evolve as the present system adjusts and officers are re-trained into more effective and positive work practices and environment. Each studio could be staffed with a therapist, at least one ex-prison officer, a skilled artisan and an assistant or apprentice. Their broad role is to improve community safety and the enhancement of the natural and built environment. Within the model there should be provision for ex-offenders to be either employed, or supported to set up their own artisan studio.

David Toothill is Artistic Director at Southbank Mosaics CIC. A version of this article was first published in December on the Southbank Mosaics website.

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2 Responses to Towards closing prisons: a blueprint for an alternative

  1. John Moore says:

    When New Labour came to power their Social Exclusion Unit carried out some excellent research on who was in prison. Their report concluded that the key characteristics of people in prison was NOT criminality but social exclusion.

    However, just because the criminal justice system is currently being used as the principal response to many social problems it does not mean that there are no other possible responses. This proposal implies that the way to identify those people experiencing social problems, whose significance it correctly identifies, is through criminal justice. Hence the reference to those qualified to engage with these new institutions as “offenders”.

    If we want to deal with the problem of homelessness we need to do so through housing, not criminal justice, policy; if we want to respond to the problems of drug misuse, we should do so through health, not criminal justice, policy; if we want to do something about unemployment we need to address it through economic, not criminal justice, policy; and if its the consequences of mental illness we are seeking to engage with then we should again utilise health, not criminal justice, policy.

    By seeking to locate this alternative firmly within the paradigm of criminal justice and reserving access to it exclusively for those who are labeled ‘offenders’ this will not replace prison but create a new penal institution, that however noble its intentions are, will extend and strengthen criminal justice.

    Criminal justice is a brilliant weapon for oppression and repression but a useless tool for emancipation and liberation.

    The Social Exclusion Unit report can be found here:

    Click to access reducing_summary.pdf

  2. Interesting stuff that deserves a wider audience.

    It puts me in mind of my early days in probation in Old Swan in Liverpool, which served the Dovecot estate on the edge of Liverpool City adjacent to a later over-spill estate at Cantril Farm which was partly in Knowsley. (I got used to asking folk which day their dustbins were emptied to know which local authority to approach for Social Service related issues).

    Anyway, the probation team specialized with regards to the areas, as I came to my end of service in that team around 1980. My colleagues who focused on Dovecot established and were part of a small community centre group, who got up to all manner of activities. I think a more developed model operated in Sheffield with one of the original 6 pilot probation Day Training Centres (a product – I think of the Powers of The Criminal Courts Act 1973 [I could be wrong – it was the legislation that first introduced Community Service Orders, based on The Wootton Report])

    My point is probation and social work, has been down this road before, though I suspect such ideas are unfamiliar with most current practitioners, the politicians led us away with focus on punishment in the Community and the “Just Deserts/Desserts” era which began when John Patten was Minister responsible for probation having been appointed by Margaret Thatcher.

    ” I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) for explaining the reasons behind amendment No. 86. It has been said many times during the passage of the Bill that a custodial sentence should be imposed only when it is the just desserts of the offender. We agree on that. However, I do not think that the amendment is helpful in that respect.”

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