Nine cheap warehouses

Michael Gove, Justice Secretary, has announced his intention to build nine new prisons. These will be much needed replacements for some of the old, crumbling prison estate. However, there are important questions to ask about financing and outsourcing. Lazy thinking on location must be challenged. Their long-term value will also depend on whether their purpose is seen as warehousing or behavior changing – this will drive their design and delivery.

The fact that slopping out (i.e. the use of buckets as toilets in cells) was only officially abolished in England in 1996 is an indication of the creaking age of much of the prison estate. (One prison was reportedly still using buckets as late as 2011.) The pressure on the estate is exacerbated by one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe, with over 85,000 banged up right now.

In the past, outsourcing was used as a way to raise finance for new prison builds. Outsourcing also meant lower running costs: in new, more efficient buildings; away from the overheads of public bureaucracy and public sector staffing. Costs vary widely, depending on the age of the prisoner and the severity of their crime/sentence. In 2004, public sector prisons cost an average of £38,000 per prisoner per year. Private prisons are about £10,000 per annum cheaper.

The 14 private prisons in England currently hold about 11% of the prison population. Up until 2012, it was the stated aim of the Ministry of Justice to put as many as 40%, or about 55 prisons, into private sector hands. This was scuppered by the meltdown of the relationship between government and the big outsourced providers, notably Serco and G4S. It has also proven very tricky to transfer existing public prisons out to the private sector (though we have blogged before about how Gove’s predecessor Grayling created a precedent for staff transfers in probation outsourcing that bypassed pension transfer problems).

Gove’s latest plan begs more questions than it answers. It will, the official announcement states, save £80 million per annum. It will entail selling off an unspecified number of Victorian, city-based prisons – to be used as real estate for housing. There is no mention of outsourcing. Will the sale of the old buildings and land cover the full new-build costs, or will PFI be used again? How has the saving been calculated? If these new prisons house 10,000 inmates in total, that is a saving of £8,000 per person per year – which looks very like the difference between public and private prison provision.

It is vitally important to be clear right now about whether or not this is an outsourcing ‘solution’ because the implications of running it all as a price competition are huge. Or at least they are huge if cost is measured simplistically.

In the first instance, cost will drive the choice of location. It will obviously be much cheaper to build new prisons in the middle of North Wales than North London. However, in moving away from the cities and into rural areas, we move away from the social network of the prisoner. We move away from transport infrastructure, making visits by outsiders difficult and expensive. Dislocation from the world is possibly part of the desired punishment. However, the link with the outside is going to have a direct bearing on the likelihood of reoffending. One third of ‘petty’ offenders on short-term sentences lose their home while in custody; two-fifths lose contact with their families; two-thirds lose their jobs.

There is one driver of cost that eclipses everything else once a prison is open: staffing ratios. How many staff are required at any one time to keep an eye on how many prisoners?

This isn’t a new problem. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed what he called The Panopticon back in the late 18th century. The Panoptican is so designed that just one unseen guard can watch over all the inmates at any one time. Bentham was stymied by politics, a lack of funding and limited technology. His model was never built but is still echoed in many modern designs.

Of course, the cheapest way to reduce staffing ratios is to increase lock up time. The more time prisoners spend locked in their cells, the less hours of guarding are needed. Doncaster prison, run by Serco and housing 1,145 prisoners, can be managed by just 13 members of staff at night time. The extreme corollary of this business driver can be seen in the private prisons in the USA, where prisoners are warehoused, allowed out for an hour a day, otherwise confined to wire cages with meals provided in paper bags.

Extreme warehouses are avoided in the UK by the central prescription of a prison regime. Even prisons contracted out to the cheapest bidder are required to give a fixed number of hours of out-of-cell activities to all prisoners, and our Ministry has so far resisted cutting too much of this cost. The private contractors instead find savings partly through managing staff more efficiently, and also paying them less, with poorer terms and conditions (e.g. no pensions).

There is, however, a way to square this rather miserable circle of cost and quality in prison management. There is a way to deliver better social outcomes, i.e. reduced reoffending, and to save money. There is a proven model with a strong evidence base, having been running since 2006.

The Lelystad prison in Holland is a technological Panoptican, also emphasizing socialisation and self-control. It houses prisoners in small ‘dormitories’ of six people. Prisoners are tagged at all times so that their movements can be watched. The sound in all parts of the prison is monitored and its quality is constantly analysed for the warning signs of emotional disturbance – cheering a football game would be ignored, a voice raised in anger would elicit an intervention. Prisoners each have an interactive computer screen by their beds, to manage things previously carried out by staff, such as ordering food. Good behavior, including participation in activities, is rewarded with, for example, additional channels made available to their screens or increased visitation rights. The cost per night in Lelystad is €95, in comparison with the Dutch average of €150 (this includes the cost of the building and implementing the technology) – a saving of 36%.

Why are we so unwilling in the UK to allow such innovation in design to deliver better, cheaper prisons here? Is it because our Victorian prison estate reflects our Victorian values, wanting retribution over rehabilitation, however short-term (and actually expensive) that is?

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