Anti-prison campaigners successfully stopped work on a new ‘mega-prison’

CAPE occupying HMP Wellingborough
Glen Black

Anti-prison campaigners are fighting the creation of a new ‘mega-prison’ in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. And yesterday they stepped up their campaign by bringing work to a halt.

Disproportionate harm

On 9 August, members of Community Action on Prison Expansion (CAPE) entered HMP Wellingborough’s building site. They successfully occupied the site and said they shut operations down for six hours. In a press release, CAPE member Caren said the group was protesting the ‘disproportionate harm’ that prisons cause in society:

The construction of a new mega prison will not serve the needs of the Wellingborough community. On the contrary, the project is designed to pad the pockets of private companies like Kier which is contracted to manage construction. And by building 1,600 new spaces to incarcerate people, we know this project will disproportionately harm working-class, BME and disabled people in our already failing prison system.

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The group also pointed at money behind HMP Wellingborough, which is expected to cost £253m. This is taxpayer money that the government is handing over to private companies for the building work. As a result, CAPE estimated that struggling construction company Kier will pocket £143m.

Ending the ‘crisis’

There is an ongoing prison ‘crisis’ caused by a shortage of capacity, lack of staff, and underfunding. The government announced in 2017 that new ‘mega-prisons’, which each hold more than 1,000 people, would be key to solving the problem. Then justice secretary Lizz Truss said at the time that such a “significant building programme will not only help create a modern prison estate where wholescale reform can truly take root”. She also claimed it would provide an economic boost to the prisons’ local areas.

However, prison campaigners criticised the plan from the outset. Director of the Prison Reform Trust Peter Dawson, for example, said:

The prison estate certainly needs an overhaul, but reducing demand would mean closing prisons, not opening them.

During its occupation of the HMP Wellingborough building site, CAPE passed out ‘myth-busting’ flyers that tackled other misconceptions about the prison. The press release said these flyers highlighted:

false government promises that new prisons will bring in jobs and economic development. New mega-prisons, including HMP Wellingborough are being built with large factories which contract prison labour. Local companies are incentivized to transition their workforce into the prison facility where incarcerated people are paid as little as £1 a day. This transition threatens local jobs and wages which are made to compete with this exploitive labour scheme.

CAPE also said it would return to the site on 16 August.

Building the pressure

The prison system is the centre of many horrors, including a racialised criminal justice system and exploitation of labour. Expanding it would only make these problems worse. Moreover, the building process ultimately hands huge amounts of taxpayer money over to private companies that, in some cases, can’t even keep themselves afloat.

Campaigners from Stop Neath Port Talbot Prison successfully convinced the Welsh government to halt a new mega-prison in Port Talbot. And CAPE is now building pressure to end HMP Wellingborough.

Featured image via CAPE

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    1. “The group also pointed at money behind HMP Wellingborough, which is expected to cost £253m. This is taxpayer money that the government is handing over to private companies for the building work.”

      What’s the alternative? It’s like saying that the government is handing over £x to private companies for the supply of paperclips, or £y to the man behind Skwawkbox for printing letters. Unless everything is nationalised contracts will always be made with private companies.

      “..the group was protesting the ‘disproportionate harm’ that prisons cause in society”

      Prisons may well cause harm to those in them, and even to their families. The rest of us breathe sighs of relief that murderers, terrorists, muggers, serial burglars and the like are locked up – whilst they’re in they’re not harming any more innocents.

      1. Of course, you’re right, Graham. You’re nothing like the monsters who infest our prisons, are you? You’ve never done a thing wrong in your entitled life of white, male privilege, have you? Or are there some secrets in your own past that would – if you were poor or black – have led to more than a brush with the law? Before you pass judgement so readily on people you know nothing at all about apart from what you read in the Torygraph or one of Murdoch’s rags, visit this website, come back and tell us honestly that you did nothing wrong.
        https://www.weareallcriminals.org

        1. I’m passing judgement on no one.

          I’m glad that the people who the courts have judged may pose a threat to the life, wellbeing or property of others will pose no threat to anyone outside prison whilst they’re in , and am pleased to confirm that I’ve never done anything that might warrant me being sent to join them.

          You have guessed correctly in two respects – I am white and male, but hardly privileged.

    2. Setting aside whether the new prison is required leaves open the general question of how the government should organise construction work.

      Private contractors have specialist knowledge, a ready workforce, necessary equipment, and ability to source materials easily.

      Within a mixed economy it makes sense to hire reliable private sector companies for particular time-limited tasks. That often is the most cost/efficient means of delivering value to communal projects. Just because neo-liberals falsely assert the private sector always has the most efficient means of providing goods and services it does not follow that it is untrue in specific instances.

      However, the neo-liberal idea does fall down when considering long term delivery of services (e.g. health, utilities, and education) not obviously made more efficient by being subject to market discipline. In fact, pseudo-competition under a profit motive can distort service delivery (e.g. via a plethora of price options and special offers) in a manner differing from priorities set by wholly communally managed services.

      Returning to the specifics of contracting for construction work, the issue of contention ought not be involvement of the private sector but rather the competence and probity of the contracting process. Moreover, tendering, this intended to minimise corruption, may be too rigid as it stands by placing emphasis toward lowest price rather than all around quality of the package being bought including financial stability of the provider.

      Thus, attention is best pointed at increasing the competence with which plans are specified and diminishing opportunity for corruption. The last is an immense problem because inducements need not be immediate but in the form of promises to benefit the corrupt individual and/or family and ‘friends’ sometime in the future (e.g. a directorship upon retirement).

      I posit, individuals holding political office being more prone to temptation than career civil servants. The former have no pre-specified qualifications other than gift of the gab and generally have not been under prior constant scrutiny regarding their ethics. Civil servants (at least prior to Blair) work within an ethos crafted over centuries and their personal ambitions and priorities are not particularly focussed on fame and wealth, else they would be entrepreneurs, politicians, or employed by banks..

      If that assessment is correct it follows that once a minister has approved a project and earmarked money he should have no further personal involvement until the opening ceremony in company with a spare ‘royal’. Detailed work on commissioning and awarding contracts ought take place by a department over which individual ministers have no direct control but receive reports from. The leader of the department should report to a small cross-party, and open to public scrutiny, advisory parliamentary committee. There could be judicial oversight regarding probity with an annual report to parliament. Additionally, a wholly independent auditor should scrutinise accounts and provide to parliament and the public an annual report .

      Some existing means of supervision partially accomplish this but don’t exclude ministerial interference. The sole political role of ministers should rest with starting projects (within context of the ‘big picture’ ministers are assumed to understand) and pulling the plug on failing projects.

      Perhaps a mechanism like that could have avoided public sector involvement in the Carillion débâcle and in botched PPFI schemes, some reeking corruption.

      Labour must think outside the box of how an array of things traditionally are done and look to improvement.

      1. “Setting aside whether the new prison is required” is not possible. Our society must take a long, hard look at what mass imprisonment has supposedly achieved. We don’t need new , better-built or even socialist prisons. We need to stop putting so many people in cells. There are many alternatives and there are many means to help prevent people from offending in the first place. I suggest you place your focus of interest there.

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