Labour would scrap coalition plans for a £100m “modern-day borstal” to house young offenders championed by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, the Guardian has learned.
It comes after Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, and prison campaign groups expressed deep concerns about the plans, saying it could harm the emotional and mental health of troubled under-18s.
In January, Clegg and Grayling announced that the new facility, described as a “secure college”, would be built near Leicester by 2017, arguing it would be like a fortified school reserved for young offenders.
They claim the new prison will better rehabilitate young people convicted of crimes, but there are suspicions the plan is also intended to cut costs, as a place at a large institution is about £60,000, while smaller secure children’s homes cost £200,000 per child.
The Guardian has revealed that prison governors have been ordered to cut the cost of holding prisoners in England’s bulging jails by £149m a year, as part of a radical programme designed to slash the costs of incarceration by £2,200 a year per prison place.
Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, was initially sceptical of the plans for the borstal and now believes they are a recipe for disaster, especially if the emergence of the new “super-prison” ends up shutting secure children’s homes.
He said Labour would vote against the legislation when the criminal justice and courts bill came back before parliament and would scrap the entire project if it won the next election.
“Depending on who the justice secretary is talking to, this is either a modern-day borstal or a school with a brick wall around it,” he said.
“Evidence shows that smaller establishments for young people are more effective. It’s easier to maintain control, they are less violent and there’s a much better chance of rehabilitating young people. By opting for one big teenage Titan prison slap-bang in the middle of the country, families will have enormous distances to travel to see their loved ones, putting considerable strain on relationships with parents, all of which we know are crucial in rehabilitation.
“Moreover, by refusing to say what they plan to do about specialist secure children’s homes, I’m very suspicious of their plans. The kinds of children they cater for would be all at sea in a 300-bed teenage Titan prison. It is a recipe for disaster.”
The “secure college” would cost £85m and at least £20m in its first year of operation if each place cost a minimum of £60,000 a year per child. There is no additional money and this will have to come from existing justice budgets.
Many groups have voiced their concern about the plans, including the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Standing Committee on Youth Justice.
Berelowitz, chief executive of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, said the organisation was “concerned that the focus on replacing existing small secure children’s homes and other parts of the secure estate with a 300-bed secure college will result in a large impersonal environment that does not adequately meet the emotional and mental health needs of children in custody”.
The Howard League for Penal Reform has said “constructing vast custodial institutions that do not have welfare at their heart will always fail to reduce outcomes for vulnerable children and will inevitably be centres of violence and self-harm”.
Its criticisms are echoed by the Prison Reform Trust, which has said: “Small, local, intensively staffed units with a focus on taking responsibility, making amends to victims, gaining skills for employment and having a home to go to are safer and more effective than putting hundreds of teenagers together in over-large institutions.”
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