A new so-called mega-jail could change hundreds of thousands of lives in years to come, an expert in offender behaviour has said.
Annette Greenwood, who has run projects for the Probation Service, said the facility could be a ‘crucial’ step for the UK’s criminal justice system.
However she also warned that HMP Five Wells was an ‘experiment’ that would need to take a ‘holistic’ approach to rehabilitation while not being viewed as a soft option by inmates transferred in from other jails.
Run privately by G4S, the facility in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, will feature 16 classrooms, 24 workshops and cells without bars in the windows.
The majority of inmates – who will be called ‘residents’ – will be transferred to the UK’s first purpose-built ‘resettlement’ prison as they prepare for release.
Described as ‘rooms’, the cells have views over the River Nene, while outside those seeing out their time can make use of four football pitches for exercise, a gardening area and a sloping auditorium.
It has earnt the ‘mega-jail’ tag because its maximum capacity of 1,680 inmates will make it one of the biggest jails in England.
Staff – including a manager of religious affairs – are being recruited, with the final phases expected to be completed by the end of the year.
The project – and another new prison at Glen Parva in Leicestershire – are viewed by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as a ‘step change’ in creating the ‘new prisons of the future’.
Mrs Greenwood said: ‘Within the mega-jail they will have people who will repeat offend as no type of jail is ever going to change that. But if they take the right approach from the start it could change offending behaviour and how the inmates perceive themselves.
‘This is an experiment and with the problems in the prison system over the past 10 years it’s crucial that they get it right this time round.
‘There is a careful balance to be struck as it can’t and should not be a soft option for people who have repeat offending behaviour and have committed serious crimes.
‘It needs to be somewhere where they are helped to think and behave differently but also have the reinforcement in a disciplined way to change those habits that they have had for a very long time.’
Mrs Greenwood’s experience includes working with prisoners at the former Northallerton Jail in North Yorkshire and running projects to help ex-offenders assimilate into society after release.
She said: ‘One woman from a probation drug and alcohol project spotted me in the street and came running over and told me how she had turned her life around. Karen said she had stopped doing drugs and alcohol and got rid of her partner because he was a negative influence, and she had found a job in a local supermarket. People can do it, they just need the right support along the way.
‘The mega-jail will really have its hands full but if it succeeds it will be a crucial step forward for the prison system that will change hundreds of thousands of lives like Karen’s in years to come.’
The Howard League for Penal Reform last week called for an end to the construction of new prisons, arguing that the running costs could be placed in hospitals, schools, homes, mental health care and other public services.
Chief Executive Frances Crook said: ‘The overly optimistic, and naive, puff is that the prisons will not be crowded but will provide purposeful activity.
‘Yet we know that no prison does currently, nor has any prison ever, provide a full day of purpose and activity. The reality is that running costs are often cut back, staffing is reduced and repairs are not done. Nearly 200 years of the history of prisons is hubris and failure.’
Mrs Crook said that new prisons and expansions to existing facilities under a £4 billion Government drive to create thousands of new places will simply ‘encourage inflation of the use of prison’.
G4S, which has a £300 million contract to run the all-male, Category C jail, has said the ‘innovative’ facility will give inmates ‘the best chance to secure employment and turn away from crime’.
Five Wells will have dedicated classrooms and workshops for ‘high-quality academic and vocational learning’.
A central hub will be used for educational and vocational work as well as social activities. The aim is for each resident to have a qualification by the time he walks out of the gates.
The prison has been structurally completed on the site of the former HMP Wellingborough, which closed in 2012, with the first inmates due to begin arriving in January 2022. Kier Group, another private company, was awarded the building contract by the MoJ in 2019.
The Government has a long-term plan to upgrade and expand its prison estate, which includes creating 18,000 places by the mid-2020s.
In the next six years, it’s expected that 10,000 of the additional spaces and four new jails will be provided, with expansion at another four jails.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘HMP Five Wells and a second new prison at Glen Parva will provide modern facilities that will create a safer, more secure and rehabilitative environment. Overall our £4 billion investment will create 18,000 prison places, ensuring the public is protected and we always meet the demand for places.’
Five Wells is aimed at resettling prisoners who are originally from the surrounding area back into the local community.
A G4S spokesperson said: ‘HMP Five Wells will prepare prisoners for their transition back into society as they approach the end of their sentence.
‘Our aim is for each prisoner to gain a meaningful qualification before they leave custody, so they can be successful in reintegrating the local community and turn away from crime.
‘As well as creating training opportunities with local businesses, the 16 classrooms and 24 workshops within the prison will provide high-quality academic and vocational learning opportunities for the men in our care.’