Robert Jones questions whether the super prison being built in Wrexham will bring the claimed economic benefits.
It was in January of this year that the UK government announced its plans to build a ‘super’ prison as part of its attempts to ‘modernise’ the prison estate across England and Wales. Within its announcement, the government named three sites which would be considered in its search to locate and build the new ‘super’ size jail. These areas included sites in London, the north west of England and of course north Wales.
WREXHAM PRISON BLUES
This is the first of a three-part series examining the impact of the Ministry of Justice’s decision to site a major new prison in north Wales.
Tomorrow: Is the new super prison too big? How successful will it be at tackling re-offending?
Sunday: Prison policy and devolution – what are the Ministry of Justice’s objectives in siting a super prison in north Wales?
In June, Wrexham was announced as the site to hold what is set to become the largest prison not only in England and Wales but will replace HMP Oakwood as the second largest prison in Western Europe. The reaction? For those in favour this sparked a regurgitation of a now familiar discourse when it comes to the government’s attempts to justify prison building programmes. In particular, the announcement has been dominated by talk of forthcoming economic benefits to the north Wales area. This includes, according to the Secretary of State for Wales, the creation of jobs and “much needed economic opportunities” for the people of Wrexham.
For those in opposition, local residents have displayed their dissatisfaction at the prospect of reduced house prices as well as the idea of having a prison on their doorstep. For others, including the Prison Reform Trust, the sheer size of the planned prison is a major cause for concern. Saying this, the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) announcement has failed to generate anywhere near the level of opposition that first confronted recommendations for ‘Titan’ prison building in 2007. This included condemnation from the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, the then HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, the Prison Governors Association and the Prison Officers Association. This is not to mention cross-party opposition from within the UK Parliament or condemnation of the plans from groups such as the Criminal Justice Alliance or the Howard League for Penal Reform.
However, whilst many of the arguments previously made against ‘Titan’ prison building still remain, the idea of the ‘super’ prison has returned.
The announcement of a north Wales prison is one which has been accompanied closely by the promise of an ‘economic boost’ to the local north Wales economy. Even as recently as 4th September, the Secretary of State for Wales has reiterated the “considerable economic benefits for local businesses” as well as the creation of “1,000 employment opportunities” as a result of the Wrexham ‘super’ prison. So what evidence is there to suggest that prison building does in fact improve the economic situation of a local area? What evidence is there to suggest that such jobs are in fact just around the corner for the people of Wrexham?
Well, although such evidence is limited when it comes to assessing the economic impact of prison building across England and Wales, the findings produced by researchers in the United States will do little to spark optimism amongst people across north Wales.
To begin with we have what is being described as the ‘creation’ of 1,000 employment opportunities in the area. This promise is not something which is reinforced by prison building developments that have taken place within the United States. For example, within public sector prisons research has shown that prison jobs “do not go to people already living in the community”. Rather, higher paid managerial positions and senior prison staff are often employed from outside the local areas. In such cases, staff are required with specific educational and training skills as well as experience in running a prison institution or being a senior officer on a prison wing. In such cases, staff are likely to be recruited from existing prison establishments.
In the case of a Wrexham ‘super’ prison, this may of course include the secondment of prison staff living in north Wales who currently work in prisons across the north west of England as well as former prison staff once employed at the now closed HMP Shrewsbury. In a further challenge to the idea of ‘local job’ creation, existing research also points towards an often “fierce” level of competition for prison jobs between locals and those from a much wider area. According to a study by Huling in 2002, the distances people regularly travel to work at prisons are often quite large and “in most cases nearly double the average commuter range”. This was confirmed by another study of prison building projects in California which showed that less than 20 per cent of jobs on average go to current residents of a town with a new prison (Gilmore, R., Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, 2002).
The ‘super’ prison in Wrexham may also bring with it a very similar situation. For example, located on Wrexham Industrial Estate only five miles from the English border, the ‘super prison’ will be located “within close reach of the main transport links” including the nearby “motorway network”. Such accessibility is likely to ensure that staff are drawn from across a widespread area to the detriment of ‘local’ people in search of employment opportunities at the prison.
This problem was something that was felt by residents within a small rural town, Malone, in New York State when a prison was opened there in 1999. In spite of local residents being promised 750 jobs as a result of the development most of the jobs created by the prison went to people outside of the area. This point was made clear by Malone’s director of the Office of Community Development, “Did we get seven hundred fifty jobs? We didn’t get a hundred”.
Beyond the promise of future job creation, the extent to which any new prison will bring ‘economic opportunities’ to the area of Wrexham is also one worth considering in a little more detail. Once again studies on prison building in the United States have cast serious doubts over the extent to which prison development can in fact be viewed as a valid driver for economic development.
In particular, studies have shown how prisons may be viewed as insufficient “economic development strategies” on the basis that they generate few linkages to the wider economy. This includes a failure to attract “significant numbers of associated industries” to the local area. So whilst an auto plant may attract the development of electronic companies, radio assemblers and delivery companies – research suggests that prison’s often fail to generate such similar levels of economic development. Likewise, other studies have failed to find any positive relationship between prison building and a growth in retail development.
For example, research in the US observed a “replacement” effect whereby prison development worked to attract “large scale” chains which only work to push out and replace locally owned businesses. According to researchers, in Tehachapi, California, which is home to two state prisons, 741 locally-owned businesses failed in the last decade of the 1990s, while superstore chains went on to absorb most of the local markets (Huling, 2002).
In view of such findings, the UK government’s efforts to promote the Wrexham ‘super’ prison under a veil of economic advantages and increased employment is, at best, misleading.
However, whilst the MoJ’s plans may be discredited by a lack of evidence to suggest that prison building has any positive effect on economic development, the plans may be further undermined by research which suggests that prison building can even have a negative effect on economic development. For example, according to Huling (2002), the reality of becoming a ‘prison town’ can in fact “discourage other kinds of economic development” who are simply put off by the social and economic dominance that the prison has on that area.
Perhaps most importantly for the people of Wrexham, attention should also be drawn to a study conducted by researchers at Iowa State University in 2004. The study looked at 274 new state prisons in 248 small towns. It compared them to nearly 20,000 similar towns that did not have a prison. The researchers found that small towns which acquired a state prison during the 1990s had higher poverty levels, higher unemployment, lower household wages and lower housing values than similar towns without a prison (Besser, T. and Hanson, M., ‘Development of Last Resort: The Impact of New State Prisons on Small Town Economies in the United States’, Journal of the Community Development Society, vol. 35, Issue 2).