Last weekend’s reannouncement of plans to waste £2.5 billion building four new prisons brings home just how deeply entrenched prisons are as social institutions. This latest announcement is something of a repackaging and enhancement of a pledge made several years ago, during David Cameron’s premiership, though with a difference. Cameron’s government proposed a “new for old” policy. The latest plans, a manifesto pledge from last year’s General Election, are unambiguously expansionist: 10,000 new places, on top of the 3,500 pledged under a previous programme.
To put these latest plans in perspective, alongside its prison plans, the government also announced, plans to spend a mere £1 billion, over a decade, on a “major new investment” in school buildings.
There can be few better examples of misguided priorities than this. Governments in London and Edinburgh are busy expanding prison capacity. Over 25,000 additional places have either been created, or are being planned in the coming years.
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Whilst extolling the benefits of prison construction to local economies is a tried and tested way of selling it to wary local residents, the reiteration of the policy in this way and at this point in time suggests that the Conservative government see deteriorating economic conditions as the perfect opportunity to thrust new prisons onto desperate communities.
But there is another, more malign way in which the building of new prisons will interact with the economic and social consequences of coronavirus. Unemployment is expected to surge this Autumn if the furlough scheme is not extended. There have already been significant increases in out-of-work benefit claims. Social distancing measures and lockdown have interupted other forms of social provision and support, and social isolation is having a heavy toll on mental health.
In short, precarity and vulnerability are being extended to greater numbers of people, and intensified for those who bore the brunt of a decade of austerity. The pool of candidates for prison is increasing.