Straw abandons super-jail proposals

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A cornerstone plan to build three new super-jails has been abandoned by Jack Straw, the justice secretary, handing a victory to prison reform groups, governors, opposition MPs and the chief inspector of prisons.

The proposals for the 2,500-capacity “titan” prisons met with almost universal opposition because of fears they would create US-style “warehousing” of offenders and fail in the basic aims of rehabilitation.

The Ministry of Justice said on Friday that the plans had been abandoned because of fierce opposition from reform groups, although Whitehall sources denied opposition claims that the £2.3bn ($3.3bn) prison-building programme was changed because of the spending cuts heralded in this week’s Budget.

Mr Straw will announce as early as Monday that he will instead commission five smaller 1,500-capacity prisons, roughly the size of HMP Wandsworth, the country’s biggest jail. But the Home Office insisted it was sticking to capacity targets introduced after Lord Carter of Coles’ 2007 prisons review. “We remain on course to increase the total number to 96,000 by 2014.”

Dominic Grieve, shadow justice secretary, said: “Since the Prison Service faces a black hole of £400m, it is hard to take seriously claims that this decision is nothing to do with the fact the government has run out of money.”

He did, though, welcome the decision. “Warehousing offenders in hulks twice the size of Wembley stadium was never going to address increased levels of re-offending.”

David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman, said it was “disappointing that ministers remain committed to lavishing billions on five more prisons, which will be filled as soon they are built”.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, called for spending to be shifted to treatment for addicts, healthcare for the mentally ill and community service.

Mr Straw is expected to announce immediate plans to build two of the five 1,500 capacity prisons, with the rest following later.

The first titan prison was to be built close to London, with the others planned for the other priority areas of the West Midlands and north-west of England. Instead, the first two 1,500-place prisons will be built in one of the priority areas.

Some £1.2bn has already been set aside for the building programme, although the Ministry of Justice was planning to seek an additional £1.1bn.

The competition to build the prisons remains open to the private sector through a process of “market testing”, including a measure of cost effectiveness.

G4S, Serco and Kalyx, a subsidiary of Sodexo of France, have been involved in building and running British prisons since the 1990s.

John Cridland, the CBI deputy director-general, said on Friday that the private sector’s “experience needs to be brought to bear in any future plans”.

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