The British government plans to spend £250 million ($390 million) to construct a new “super-prison” in north Wales, following approval by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Wales Online reported that the facility, to be located in the town of Wrexham, just south of Chester, England, will house 2,000 inmates and reportedly provide 1,000 jobs for the local economy -- mostly construction laborers and prison staff.
Construction of the prison, which will be the largest in the United Kingdom, will commence next year, with officials expecting the jail to open by 2017.
The Daily Post newspaper of North Wales estimated that the prison will inject £23 million boost to the economy annually.
In tandem with the new super-prison, UK officials will shut down four other correctional facilities by next spring: Blundeston in Suffolk, Dorchester in West Dorset, Northallerton in North Yorkshire and one in Reading, according to the Conservative Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. These four facilities held about 1,400 inmates and employed 650 in staff. The government expects these four closures to reduce the prison budget by some £30 million annually.
Conservative MP David Jones, the Welsh Secretary, praised the Wrexham project as a welcome addition to the north Wales economy. (The prison will occupy a space formerly occupied by a Firestone tire plant that closed in the 1970s).
“There will be jobs provided [by the prison],” he said. “Full-time jobs. Well-paid jobs, that of course will be going ultimately to people living in the area.”
Some local Labour officials also hailed the proposal. First Minister Carwyn Jones called the maxi-prison a “big boost” for Wrexham and all of North Wales that will bring “far reaching benefits to the region.”
“The new prison will … become a significant contributor to the Welsh economy,” Carwyn Jones declared.
“The current arrangements whereby prisoners from North Wales have to serve their sentences in England are far from ideal.”
Carwyn Jones also noted that the prison will accommodate prisoners for whom Welsh is their first language.
But not everyone is happy with this proposed new Alcatra. Critics claim that large prisons are difficult to control and the price tag is simply too high.
“The idea that ‘big is beautiful’ with prisons is wrong,” complained Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a London-based charity.
“All evidence shows that larger jails find prisoners more difficult to control, drug abuse and violence are more prevalent, and opportunities for education and training are limited in such crowded environments. If the Government wants to spend [£250 million] on boosting employment opportunities in North Wales, there are much better ways of doing that than building a huge jail.”
Moreover, some national Labour figures criticized the government’s overall plan to close more prisons (which will of course lead to job cuts in their localities).
“The Tory-led Government [has] already closed 12 prisons since 2010 with the loss of over 4,000 prison places,” fumed Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan. “We’ve been reminded of the growing scale of overcrowding in our prisons, showing how all the promises of rehabilitation … by the Government have come to nothing.”
Indeed, since May 2010, the government has also closed prisons in Ashwell, Brockhill, Bullwood Hall, Camp Hill, Canterbury, Gloucester, Kingston, Lancaster Castle, Latchmere House, Shepton Mallet, Shrewsbury and Wellingborough. Westminster is also expected to close the prison in Dartmoor in Devon. This means that sixteen prisons have been shut down in a little over three years with at least one more on the chopping block.
Since the spring of 2010, the government has only opened two other prisons: Oakwood in the west Midlands (which can hold 1,600 inmates and is current the facility with the largest such capacity in Britain); and Thameside, in south-east London (900 inmates).
On the whole, the British government appears to be committed to closing smaller, local jails and replacing them with modern, massive prison complexes, based on the premise that smaller prisons are too costly and inefficient to operate.
“Across the country I am reducing the cost of prison by replacing old, inefficient buildings with newer accommodation that is cheaper to run,” Grayling boasted earlier this summer.
“This new prison [Wrexham] allows us to continue this work while providing a significant and rapid investment in the Welsh economy.”
The government also estimates that one prison place currently costs the taxpayer about £40,000 annually -- but the cost in a maxi-jail would be half that.
Kevin Lockyer, a former senior official at MoJ and an ex-prison governor, claimed in the report for the Policy Exchange think-tank that replacing aging prisons with new facilities would lead to savings equal to 20 percent of the annual prison budget in England and Wales, or 9 percent of the MoJ’s entire budget. (Like every other department of government, the MoJ has to find significant spending cuts by 2015-2016.)
But Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, lamented that closing small local prisons and replacing them with super-size jails “will not reduce crime or make communities safer."
The Prison Officers Association also criticized the government’s prison policy, citing the violence and other dangers inherent in overcrowded institutions. The closure of prisons are "cuts-driven and [do] nothing for the rehabilitation revolution," POA Chairman Peter McParlin said.
But Welsh MP David Jones countered that critics of the prison complex miss the point.
“We’re not talking about a Lubyanka,” he said, referring to the notorious KGB prison complex in Moscow.
“We’re talking about a prison that will be comprised of separate blocks and … will [provide] decent facilities to prisoners who will be housed in proper accommodation, not in antiquated Victorian or earlier accommodation. I think it should provide very good opportunities for prisoners to be properly accommodated and to be rehabilitated.”
Another Labour MP praised the prison as a new job creator, but he cautioned that for the project to be successful, new infrastructure will need to accompany it.
“Wrexham has suffered the effects of low growth in recent years as the direct result of Government policies, so a boost to local employment will be welcomed in the town,” Wrexham’s Labour MP Ian Lucas said. “However, for this development to be truly sustainable, we need to help equip Wrexham with new roads [and] better rail links.”
According to the Ministry of Justice, jails in England and Wales currently hold about 85,000 prisoners.
Once Wrexham jail is up and running it will not come close to being the largest prison in Europe -- that distinction presently belongs to the Fleury-Merogis Prison just outside of Paris, which can hold 3,800 inmates. The biggest maximum security prison in the U.S. is believed to be the notorious Angola facility in Louisiana, which holds 5,000 prisoners and employs about 1,800 staff.
In a broader vein, debate continues to rage over the economic value of prisons to their local community versus the overall cost of warehousing inmates, sometimes for decades.
Last month, the Independent Budget Office reported that in New York City, the annual cost of keeping a person locked up (and fed, housed, and guarded) amounted to almost $168,000.
“It is troubling in both human terms and financial terms,” said Doug Turetsky, the chief of staff for the budget office, according to the New York Times.
Moreover, the Vera Institute of Justice released a study last year that found the aggregate cost of prisons in 2010 (in the 40 U.S. states that participated in its study) was $39 billion (or the same as the annual GDP of the nation of Ghana).