Chris Grayling has announced plans to close six public jails in the biggest prison closure programme in decades. So where does that leave overcrowding? We answer a few key questions.
Are prisons opening or closing?
Both. The government wants to open one big prison, and it wants to close seven others. The programme is driven by the need to cut costs and made possible because prisoner numbers have stabilised.
The six it wants to close are Bullwood Hall, Canterbury, Gloucester, Kingston, Shepton Mallet in Somerset and Shrewsbury. It also plans to close parts of three others - HMP Chelmsford, Hull and the Isle of Wight, with the shutdown of the latter's Camp Hill prison taking the total number of closures to seven.
The new prison hasn't been built yet - the government is going to start a feasibility project, but it hopes it will hold 2,000 prisoners. According to latest figures, there were 90,451 spaces in adult prisons in England and Wales, with 83,632 of them full to capacity.
It also wants to build four new "mini-prisons", which they're calling houseblocks, at HMP Parc in South Wales, Peterborough, The Mount in Hertfordshire and Thameside, London. The government expects these to hold up to 1,260 prisoners.
The justice secretary has also said 200 places at private prisons which dealt with the fallout from the rise in the prison population after the London riots were to be taken out of use. All of this comes a day after the Government revealed proposals for an overhaul of probation services in the UK, which will see around 265,000 offenders a year dealt with by private firms.
Well, the justice secretary says that much of the prison system is "old and expensive", and he wants to bring costs down. He hopes that by building the superprison, and closing the others, £63m a year will be saved.
At the same time, he doesn't want the system to be in a position where they can't send a criminal to jail because there isn't enough space. Projections from the Ministry of Justice show the population could rise as high as 90,900 in the next five years.
He said: "So we have to move as fast as we can to replace the older parts of our prison system. That's why we are moving ahead with immediate plans for new prison capacity, as well as closing older and more expensive facilities."
The Ministry of Justice are still working their plans out, and it's very early days, but the expectation is that money will be saved through economies of scale. More than 1,000 jobs are likely to go in a move that is likely to see services - such as catering, cleaning and upkeep - centralised.
Aren't prisons already overcrowded? How is closing prisons going to help?
Prisons are overcrowded - yet the figures are stabilising. The Prison Reform Trust said that at the end of October 2012, 78 of the 131 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. Last year, 24 per cent of the total prison population were being held in overcrowded accommodation - an average of 21,027 prisoners.
According to latest figures, there were 90,451 spaces in adult prisons in England and Wales, and 83,632 of them were full. Mr Grayling says that there is spare capacity in the new 1,600 Oakwood Prison, near Wolverhampton.
What is the net loss of prison places?
Under the plans to come into effect this year - which include the new "mini-prisons" on four existing sites - there will be a net loss of about 1,600 prison places.
Where will this super-prison be located?
A "feasibility study" starting imminently will consider different spaces, but it's likely to be either in London, north-west England or north Wales.
What effect does all this have on the rehabilitation of prisoners?
Penal reform groups believe large prisons are hard to control and result in inmates being "warehoused". It also distances prisoners from their families and local community, a factor that, some argue, slows rehabilitation.
Roma Hooper, director of campaign group Make Justice Work, says the move "flies in the face of the localism agenda" and is designed merely to "appease" hardline Tories. "It makes families visits more difficult and infrequent; creating deeper emotional distances and impacts rehabilitation," she says.
The Prison Reform Trust believes small community prisons are "safer and better at reducing reoffending than huge anonymous establishments".
Doesn't this plan sound familiar?
Yes. The project evokes memories of Labour's £2.9 billion proposal for three Titan prisons; by Lord Carter of Coles when he reviewed prison accommodation in 2008. Three giant jails, each holding 2,500 people, were due to be built in England and Wales by 2013.
However, the proposals were fiercely opposed before Britain tipped into recession and the project was scrapped in 2009. Some critics have since labelled them "Titanic" prisons.
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