Robert Jones says the debate over the Wrexham ‘super’ prison has been hijacked by promises of jobs and economic opportunities
The UK government’s decision to build a ‘super’ prison in January this year marked a return to the idea of ‘Titan’ prison building. These plans were first introduced in 2007 but eventually dropped by the UK government in 2009 after widespread opposition from a range of groups, including MPs.
So, while the most obvious question raised by the Ministry of Justice’s announcement in January might be to query the reasons why the UK government had decided to re-introduce the plans, the most pressing issue facing opponents of ‘super’ prison building is to consider how the proposals have in fact been re-introduced.
WREXHAM PRISON BLUES II
This is the first of a new three-part series examining the impact of the Ministry of Justice’s decision to site a major new prison in north Wales.
For example, how are the UK government managing to justify these plans against the backdrop of so much opposition in 2007? Further, why is it that the plans unveiled in January have not received anywhere near the same level of political opposition to those directed towards ‘Titan’s’ in 2007? What is it that is different about the UK government’s renewed plans to introduce ‘super’ prisons compared with those in 2007?
Where can one find a trace of the opposing views directed towards the idea of ‘Titan’ or ‘super’ prison building in England and Wales? Well besides the ‘usual suspects’ of prison reform groups and academics, the major culprits in trying to bring down the government’s plans in 2007 were in fact the same individuals who now find themselves responsible for propping up the latest plans to roll out ‘super’ sized prisons across England and Wales. I speak, of course, of the Conservative Party. When ‘Titan’ prisons were first announced in 2007 many of its members opposed them.
To begin with we have the Conservatives Prisons with a Purpose Green Paper in 2008. This strategy outlined in detail the Party’s opposition to ‘Titan’ prisons, stating Conservative intentions to construct “smaller local prisons” able to provide what it described as “better rehabilitation outcomes” (page 96). In June the same year, more questions were raised by the shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert. Referring to ‘Titan’ prisons as “monstrous warehouses”, he asked Justice Secretary Jack Straw:
“…In the face of all of the evidence that smaller prisons are more secure and superior for the purposes of rehabilitation. After all the urging by prison reform experts about the importance of local family links to the reduction of reoffending, why are the Government pursuing the policy of titan jails?” (Hansard, 17 Jun 2008: Column 871).
In 2008, the plans were further condemned by Shadow Prisons Minister Edward Garnier. He argued that the use of large prisons would “not allow for local imprisonment” nor would they be able to “assist” in rehabilitating offenders. In 2009, David Cameron himself poured criticism over the Labour government’s plans. Speaking at an event in Manchester, he said ‘Titan’ prisons were a “bad idea” and that “the idea that big is beautiful with prisons is just wrong”.
In addition to the Conservatives, their coalition partners also demonstrated concerns with the plans to build and use ‘Titan’ prisons. For example, in their 2010 election manifesto the Liberal Democrats unveiled plans to “cancel the Government’s billion-pound prison building programme” and replace it with an approach centred upon the use of community based alternatives (page 75).
However, in spite of the level of opposition presented to ‘Titan’ prison building by those who now find themselves in government – the idea is back.
But what is it exactly that is enabling the UK government to re-introduce such unpopular proposals? The key to understanding this question may lie in statement by shadow Justice Secretary, Dominic Grieve, when responding to the UK government’s decision to drop ‘Titan’ prison proposals in 2009:
“I should say at the outset that I welcome the Government’s U-turn on Titan prisons; giant warehouses are no good for reforming prisoners or for protecting the public… Why has it taken almost two years to work out what Opposition parties, the chief inspector of prisons, the voluntary sector and prison officers told him then? Is it because the Government ran out of money, or because the policy ran out of spin?”
Grieve’s reference to the importance of spin is central to our understanding of how the UK government ‘super’ prison plans differ from those made to unveil ‘Titans’ in 2007. In particular, while Grieve made reference to the Labour government’s supposed lack of spin, this is something that cannot be said about the latest plans for ‘super’ prisons.
Put simply, the decision to outline plans for a ‘super’ prison in Wrexham has been laden with spin. In particular, and at a time of economic austerity, the Wrexham ‘super’ prison has been accompanied by the promise of job creation and significant economic opportunities to the local area.
For example, take the Ministry of Justice’s announcement in June of the decision to select Wrexham as the site to hold the prison. Rather than focusing upon the supposed benefits to prisoners from Wales, it ran the story under a headline centred upon the prison’s economic potential: “New prison creates major boost to Welsh economy”.
The announcement claimed the prison will provide “great opportunities” for local businesses, “millions of pounds worth of construction opportunities”, and the creation of “1,000 much-needed jobs”. Interviewed by the BBC the Secretary of State for Wales claimed the prison would bring “huge economic benefit” to north Wales.
However, perhaps the clearest illustration of the role played by the announcement’s positive economic spin is made most clear when we consider the responses that have been made to the decision. In particular, these responses have been characterised by a failure to get beyond what is seen as the prison’s supposed economic potential.
North Wales politicians stressed the economic benefits in their support for the plans. Clwyd South AM Ken Skates welcomed the “much-needed jobs boost” as well as the “huge opportunities for local businesses”. North Wales AM Mark Isherwood also welcomed the injection of “jobs, confidence and investment” into the area following the announcement. First Minister, Carwyn Jones referred to the prison as being a “significant contributor to the Welsh economy”.
The lack of any meaningful opposition to the Wrexham ‘super’ prison is exactly what the UK government’s strategy intended. At a time of economic austerity, the government’s decision to roll out plans for a ‘super’ prison alongside talk of job creation and local economic benefits managed to ward off potential criticism.
Consider this from the viewpoint of politicians in Wales. Even those who do not support ‘super’ prisons, any efforts to oppose the proposals make very little political sense at a time when anything that has economic value also carries a significant amount of political value. What politician in his or her right mind would realistically work to try and publicly oppose something which, in the eyes of local people, is set to bring about ‘1,000 jobs’ and significant economic improvements to the area?
It is here that we can really begin to understand the differences between the response to the UK government’s plans in 2007 and those unveiled in January this year. For example, the plans in 2007 and in 2013 are based upon the same idea – the construction of large prisons. The major difference is that these plans have been sold very differently.
In short debates over the Wrexham ‘super’ prison have been hijacked by issues concerning jobs and economic opportunities. This was demonstrated by the Ministry of Justice’s response to the Wrexham Prison Blues ClickonWales series in early November They simply reiterated that the prison would provide a “huge boost for the local economy”.
Unlike in 2007, any campaign against the Wrexham ‘super’ prison will have to do more than just critique the use of large scale prisons. Before opponents can even get down to discussing the size of the prison, the layers of spin that have been attached to the announcement must be peeled away.
In challenging the hegemony that currently surrounds the positive economic spin surrounding the Wrexham ‘super’ prison, opponents must work to try and forge out a space within which politicians are able to enter into the Wrexham prison debate. In my view, it is only when such potential barriers to entry have been removed that this debate will really begin to engage in the kinds of criticisms that David Cameron and the Conservatives were leading from 2007 onwards.
Only when opponents have managed to break through the spin that currently surrounds the Wrexham ‘super’ prison will any meaningful discussion over the re-introducion of ‘super’ prisons find itself truly alive and kicking.