Prisoners are people with real lives (why closing city centre prisons may be a big mistake)

[Disclaimer: I am not a criminologist. But I have worked on and with prison services in several countries, including as an external member of the review commission of HM Prison Service in 1996/7.]

The government has announced it wants to close some old city centre prisons, re-build them in cheaper areas (presumably away for high value city centres) and use the sale of the valuable sites to pay for the rebuild. Sounds like a “no-brainer”? Maybe. There is a very big BUT however……

In my work with prison managers in the UK, Canada and several European countries I was repeatedly told that reducing re-offending required two main things: making sure people had a job to come out to (which included training within prison); and making sure family and personal relationships are maintained whilst prisoners are banged up.

Indeed several countries allow conjugal visits precisely to maintain personal relations, in the hopes that a stable “family” life on release will help prevent reoffending (as well as for humanitarian reasons).

Which brings me to the rebuilding proposals. Most prisoners come from cities – it’s where most of us live. Most of their families and loved ones are in cities. Transport to and from prisons in cities is relatively easy. Prisons built out in cheap, remote areas are going to be, by definition, less accessible.

We already have a problem with much of our prison “estate” (buildings) being in places which are hard to get to. An overflowing prison system also means prisoners are already often located long distances from their homes. But at least a lot of them are in cities, which are slightly easier to get to.

Imagine a prisoner from London located in a rural prison somewhere in Yorkshire – how easy is it going to be for them to get visits and maintain outside relationships? What impact will that have on their likely re-offending? I have no idea, but I suspect neither does the Ministry of Justice. Indeed I seriously doubt this issue has even been considered.

Maybe having modern, purpose built, prisons instead of Victorian hulks will outweigh the downsides of radical relocation. But the rebuilding proposal isn’t quite so obviously a ‘good thing’ as is being widely reported.

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