Titan gaol off Welsh richter scale

Robert Jones says plans for a new super prison in north Wales are at odds with the region’s real needs

The idea of ‘Titan’ prisons were first introduced in the UK in 2007 as part of Lord Carter of Coles recommendations for a considerable and expedient expansion of the Government’s prison building programme. It will have been of no surprise to anyone working within criminal justice or those who frequently cast a beady eye over matters relating to justice policy that Lord Carter’s plans were driven by a Government led commitment to produce savings. Rationalised as an attempt to ‘modernise’ an “inefficient and decrepit” prison system, Lord Carter’s recommendations were met with immediate opposition.

Criticised by HM Chief Inspector of Prison’s for ignoring evidence which suggests smaller prisons work better than larger ones, the recommendations made by Lord Carter also stood in stark contrast to those made by Lord Woolf within his report into prison disturbances in 1990, which called for greater use of smaller community prisons.

Compromised in their ability to rehabilitate offenders or tackle the causes of reoffending, the scope of Lord Carter’s review was also subject to criticism. Despite meeting with representatives of 51 organisations and agencies throughout his inquiry, only 17 were consulted on the idea of Titan prisons. Of which, nine were private companies including construction firms and private prison operations with a clear vested interest in prison building ventures. This led the Justice Select Committee to question the validity of Lord Carter’s findings and admit that the review itself was in fact “based on wholly inadequate consultation and a highly selective evidence base”.

In the face of further opposition from the Prison Governors’ Association, the Prison Officers’ Association, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, Independent Monitoring Boards, the Prison Reform Trust and an entire wealth of academic expertise Lord Carter’s proposals for Titan prisons were eventually dropped by the UK Government in 2009. That was until the Titan prison baton was picked up by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling last month.

Whilst the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) recent bout of amnesia will have raised concern for campaigners and prison reformers that opposed such plans the first time round. In Wales last month’s announcement requires even greater consideration given the impact that such plans might just have in store.

Once described by the Welsh Affairs Committee as having an opportunity to introduce and develop an approach to criminal justice that best serve the “needs of Wales” whilst acting as a model for developments throughout the United Kingdom, under current UK Government proposals that approach looks set to lead Wales down an almost irreversible and potentially catastrophic path to penal expansionalism.

This expansionalism will take shape in two forms – the first of which within plans to consider north Wales as a potential site for what the Ministry of Justice described would be “Britain’s biggest prison” capable of holding more than 2,000 prisoners.

Further to this announcement – and somewhat lost in discussions of prison closures and the impending arrival of a ‘super’ prison – were plans to build four new ‘mini-prisons’, also known as houseblocks, within four existing prison establishments to hold up to 1,260 additional places. As part of its ‘mini prison’ plans the MoJ named HMP Parc in Bridgend as one of four sites chosen for a new houseblock. Controlled and run by G4S, HMP Parc already has an existing operational capacity of 1,474 inmates. Under the new plans, HMP Parc will replace HMP Wandsworth by becoming the largest prison in the UK.

Potentially followed by a ‘super’ prison in north Wales if a suitable site can be found, under the UK government’s new proposals Wales finds itself pencilled in to hold two of the largest prisons in western Europe. 

Undoubtedly the MoJ’s announcements, which appear increasingly divorced from policy agendas in Wales, will place increased pressure on the Welsh Government to consider its stance on the future of criminal justice powers. Whilst last year both the National Assembly and the Welsh Government launched separate consultations on the question of a separate legal jurisdiction. To date, debates around criminal justice in Wales continue to be dwarfed by such discussions. However, given the potential impact of plans outlined last month, the topic of conversation in Wales requires a change of direction.

Described by the Counsel General, Theodore Huckle QC, in November last year as potentially representing “the single largest addition” to the National Assembly’s powers since devolution began in 1999, in the coming months the Welsh Government is expected to submit its evidence to Part II of the Silk Commission. In light of recent developments, a case for the devolution of criminal justice responsibility must be developed to ensure that Wales is not swept along with renewed attempts at prison building nor find itself left holding MoJ’s Titan prison baby.

In doing so the Welsh Government could ensure that any future MoJ plans do not include Wales. In moving beyond Westminster for its directives on matters relating to crime and justice, Wales should be encouraged to look towards other constituent parts of Europe for an approach to penal policy centered on tolerance and one that rewards sensible decision making with much lower levels of imprisonment. As outlined by The Esmee Fairburn Foundation in their response to the MoJ’s original plans to construct Titan prisons in 2007:

The government’s plans to spend £2.3 billion on building more than 10,000 new prison places represent a huge waster opportunity to invest in more constructive responses to crime, a once in a lifetime opportunity to invest instead in alternatives to prison, that could bring about better outcomes for offenders, victims and the wider community.

In seeking to promote anti-penal policy and an approach to justice more in tune with the values and principles of the National Assembly, Wales has it’s very own chance to bring initiative and flair into non-custodial sentences” – as was made clear to the Welsh Affairs Committee in 2007 by the then Director of the Prison Governors Association.

Whilst a discussion about the problems that undoubtedly face prisoners and their families across Wales still needs to be had. Politicians, policy makers and academics in Wales must ensure that it takes place outside the parameters of any debate or consideration of titan prison building. Rather such a debate has to come from within Wales where the true complexities and difficulties facing people can be truly understood within the context of its unique values, language, politics, history and culture.

The use of prison in modern democratic societies “is not destiny but a matter of political choices”. The devolution of criminal justice powers to Wales will ensure that such choices are made in Cardiff and not Westminster. Finally, as penal reform groups and anti-prison campaigners prepare themselves for yet another round of opposition with Government prison building plans, the devolution of criminal justice powers could quite literally prove to be Wales’ get out of jail card.

Robert Jones is a final year PhD student at Cardiff Law School.

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