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Why does one prison cost £108,000 a place while another costs £26,000?

By Harry Phibbs
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The new paper out this morning from Policy Exchange, entitled Future Prisons, highlighted the staggering amount of money currently wasted due to the current arrangements in our prison estate.

Often, says the report, prisons are too small, in the wrong place, and expensive to maintain. The variation of cost is astonishing:

How can one prison cost £108,000 per place to run, when another establishment, performing exactly the same functions, costs just £26,000 per place? Why do some prisoners serve their sentence in damp Victorian dungeons hundreds of miles from their homes, when others can take advantage of modern facilities properly geared towards reducing reoffending?

By the way it's Kennet Prison that costs £108,000 a year for each inmate. It's Wayland Prison that comes in at £26,000. For the same type of service, same type of prisoner. Amazing.

The authors say their proposals would save £600 million a year – equivalent to around 20% of the prison service’s annual running costs, or around 9% of the Ministry of Justice’s entire budget.

Some would argue that we should cut costs by having fewer prisoners, by sending fewer criminals to prison, or giving shorter sentences for those we do send. That was the approach favoured by the former Justic Secretary Ken Clarke. It was mistaken. Leo McKinstry recently pointed out in The Spectator that  the crime rate has halved since 1995 while the prison population has doubled. That is not mere coincidence. As the former Home Secretary Lord Howard observed: "Prison Works." He was proved right and it was sensible of his Labour successors to follow his policy.

The current Justice Secretary Chris Grayling knows that releasing the criminals from prison early would be the wrong way to save money. Mr Grayling wants to reduce the cost per place rather than reducing prison numbers through the arbitrary device of softer punishment.

Looking at evidence such as reoffending rates, the report says there is now evidence that small prisons perform better. Yet they are much more expensive. So it is proposed that 30 existing prison should close and a 10-12 new "Hub Prisons" open.

In London, for example, this would mean:

...the closure of HMP Brixton, HMP Feltham, HMP Holloway, HMP Pentonville, HMP Wandsworth and HMP Wormwood Scrubs. We then propose the construction of three 2500 place prisons within the M25, on brownfield sites, to provide: 500 places for women, to replace Holloway; 1000 places for young adults to replace the young offender capacity at Feltham; and 6000 places to replace the adult male capacity lost by the proposed closures and provide additional space to reduce movement of prisoners from London to other regions.

When I was waiting for my first daughter to be born in Queen Charlotte's Hospital I spent a lot of time looking out of the window at Wormwood Scrubs Prison - I reflected on its fine architecture but also on the poor asset management of having a prison so close to central London. The report includes the option of "development financing" - selling the sites of the existing prisons to pay for the new ones. Given London property prices I would have thought this would leave quite a surplus.

Large prisons are out of favour due to objections raised to the "Titan Prisons" proposed by the Labour Government. The authors of this paper argue that overcoming such objections is about getting the design right - avoiding ugly, monolithic "penal warehouses." They suggest the new buildings could make use of new technology with great efficiency gains, but offer traditional design.

There are other ways to save money on the penal system. More should be done to require prisoners to work. However a 20% saving certainly helps.


It has been pointed out to me that I understate the case. HMP Oakwood costs £13,200 per prisoner a year...


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