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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Clarke to close six prisons and send fewer to jail

Clarke to close six prisons and send fewer to jail

Richard Ford and Rachel Sylvester. The Times (£)
Last updated November 6 2010 12:01AM

Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, wants to send fewer criminals to prison. Stefan Rousseau/PA

Six prisons are facing closure under government plans to send thousands fewer criminals to jail, The Times has learnt.

About 5,000 cells and 10,000 jobs will be lost in England and Wales as Kenneth Clarke prepares to enact a huge budget reduction at the Ministry of Justice. Officials are drawing up a Green Paper to overhaul sentencing, aimed at reducing the number of offenders behind bars.

The move, a reversal of the previous Government’s plans to increase spaces from the current 88,000 to 96,000, will fuel unease among Conservatives that Mr Clarke, the Justice Secretary, is leaving the party vulnerable to attack over law and order.

The revelation comes as the new Chief Inspector of Prisons delivers a strong indictment of prison life by declaring some of it “hellish” with “filthy conditions” and “filthy cells”.

In an interview with The Times today, Nick Hardwick complains that inmates in England and Wales are treated like rubbish. “You look at the conditions some people are in and what’s happening to them and the lack of care they are getting and you think, ‘This is just a disgrace’,” says Mr Hardwick, who took up his post in July. He says that too many prisoners are languishing in jail doing nothing and that even when they are in workshops “there’s a lot of sitting around playing cards”. Too little focus is put into trying to stop them returning to a life of crime, he argues.

Controversially, Mr Hardwick sees nothing wrong with prisoners being allowed to hold parties and he supports the plan to lift the ban on prisoners being allowed to vote.

His criticisms will raise tensions in the Prison Service ahead of the Green Paper, due to be published next month.

The Ministry of Justice is preparing a list of jails that face closure because of the overhaul. Although none of the large inner city Victorian jails such as Wandsworth or Pentonville is to shut — they are still seen as vital despite being on prime redevelopment land — smaller jails that are uneconomic to run are vulnerable. Prison governors said there had for a long time been a number of jails threatened with closure, including Shepton Mallet, Shrewsbury and North Sea Camp and Dartmoor.

Colin Moses, chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association, said: “We do not believe at this time that there should be any prison closures until we have had a root and branch review of the prison estate. We believe smaller prisons deliver the things Ken Clarke is talking about — good offender behaviour programmes.

“The previous Government was planning for 96,000 prison places by 2014. Now we are told there will only be 82,000 people in jail by 2014. What has changed? We have seen nothing to suggest numbers will not continue to rise.”

The net reduction in prison places planned by Mr Clarke is based on his hope that he can cut the jail population by 3,000 by 2014 rather than the previous forecast that 96,000 places would be needed. He plans to do this by reforming sentencing, transferring mentally ill offenders to NHS units and sending more foreign national offenders home to serve their sentence.

There is scepticism in the Prison Service over whether there are NHS facilities available to take offenders and whether huge numbers of foreign national prisoners can be sent home.

Last year only 41 of the almost 8,000 convicted foreign prisoners were returned home, a figure described by Crispin Blunt, the Prisons Minister, as “pathetically small”.

Budget cuts at the Justice Ministry will also lead to the loss of 500 to 800 administrative posts in the National Offender Management Service, which runs both prisons and probation, by 2012. Officials are planning for 10,000 fewer staff in prisons and at headquarters over a four-year period.

A Justice Ministry spokesman, said: “We must plan ahead for the major policy changes on sentencing and rehabilitation intended to reduce the requirement for prison places and re-habilitate offenders more effectively.”

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