by Dr David Scott
The general public should know as soon as possible where the planned new prisons in England and Wales are going to be built. On the 7th March an appeal failed challenging the non-disclosure in a recent Freedom of Information [FOI] request, of a number of councils currently in talks with the Ministry of Justice [MoJ] to build a new prison. The appeal supported the original decision that under the public interest test it was important to withhold some of the councils who submitted plans so that there could be “a ‘safe space’ in which the early stages of discussions of this nature can be carried out between the Council and government officials”. If we are going to discover the location of the new prisons then alternative ways of finding out information need to be explored.
There has in recent weeks been some excellent journalism, including that by local BBC radio stations (such as BBC Radio Northampton, BBC Radio Essex and BBC Radio Merseyside), highlighting the problems of building new mega prisons. Journalists in South Wales have also been checking carefully whether Rhondda Cynon Taf council are planning to build a new prison, resulting in firm denials published on WalesOnline. The investigations so far have included engaging in dialogue with local councilors and politicians about the location of the proposed new prisons and also opening up the debate to the general public for rational and considered discussion.
We need other journalists around the UK to check as rigorously whether prisons are planned or not in any of the 20 councils that have been revealed in the FOI response last month. Other local councils need also to be pressed for information because there is, despite the claims of the MoJ, a clear public interest in knowing as soon as possible whether a new prison is going to be built in their locality. Whistle blowers may be prepared to come forward regarding plans and give details of the likely human and environmental costs that the new prisons will bring with them. The harms of a new prison are something that is recognised by the MoJ, which is one reason accurate information is hard to come by.
In short, investigative journalism about the new mega prisons (and indeed the building of smaller prisons) could be well served by:
- Investigating the authorities near to the 20 local councils disclosed by the MoJ. The councils that have been revealed are largely clustered together. This is revealing as the clusters map onto areas with high levels of prison overcrowding. The exception is Rhondda Cynon Taf, which is isolated. Given that a number of councils that submitted details of suitable land have been withheld and the high levels of prison overcrowding in this region, the release of the name of only one council has fueled suspicions that a local authority somewhere in South Wales is planning to build a new prison. What we do know from the “safe space” policy is that the councils which are most likely to be planning to build a new prison probably remain undisclosed. We therefore need people to check if any local councils near to those that have been disclosed are currently in discussions with the MoJ. When pressed recently, Greater Manchester local authority indicated that it is currently in discussions to build a new prison. If carefully questioned other local authorities may also reveal if this is the case.
- Questioning local authorities which have an old prison on expensive land in an inner-city area. The explanatory notes of the Prison and Courts Bill (published February 2017) reiterated the policy to close old prisons (on expensive land) and to use the money from the sale to build a larger and cheaper prison near to this (on much cheaper land) as a replacement and part of the plans for expansion of 10,000 prison places.
- Highlighting the local authorities which have the most overcrowded prisons: as the prison building plans are also about increasing capacity to ease crowding, another indicator of where the prisons could be built would be in areas where a new prison can most effectively reduce pressure on prisons which are most overcrowded.
- Focusing especially on any local authorities which combine all three of the above (i.e. have a prison / prisons which are overcrowded; have an old prison in inner-city area or on potentially expensive land; and reflect the mapping of prisons revealed in the FIO disclosure).
Prisons are profoundly harmful to local people, local environments and local welfare and health services. There is a clear public interest for information on the new prisons to be made widely available as soon as possible.
The general public should be told about the potential negative impact of a new prison on the community, such as in terms of land and house value, concerns around safety, loss of jobs through prison industries, impact on families of prisoners, deterioration in local health care provision, harm to local reputation and workings of democratic accountability alongside the need for residents and business to engage in long term planning (among a number of other economic, social, environment and political considerations).
Given the historic failings of the prison to meet its rehabilitation goals and the current tightening of government budgets, when it comes to dealing with overcrowded prisons the most sensible and rational approach is to reduce the prison population. We should not be spending taxpayers’ money on new mega prisons but rather reinvest the proposed money to help ordinary people in the community and ensure that all people have access to decent health care, welfare provision and education.
Pressure has been mounting on the government since the start of the year to halt the £1.3bn prison building programme. Grass roots organisations, including Reclaim Justice Network, Reclaim Holloway, JENGBA, INQUEST and SMASH IPP are calling for a moratorium on prison building.