Gloucester Prison has recently been selected as one of the prisons to close under a “reform” by Chris Grayling, the Tory Justice Minister. While I have concerns about where the staff will go, as well as how those Adult Men will be housed if there is not suitable cell space found, I do think that the closure of Gloucester Prison is long overdue.
Gloucester Prison is a category B local Prison and Youth Remand Prison. What this means in english is that its primary purpose isn’t to hold “Criminals”, its main purpose is to hold people who are remanded to prison awaiting a court appearance (IE someone who the court feels a risk to the public, but until proven guilty, are still innocent). It holds 323 prisoners and while it is a remand prison, there will be a number of these that are criminal prisoners (IE convicted ones). For some, it’s a stop-gap before moving to a proper prison, but some do stay for longer periods.
The prison has a very long history, built in 1782, and has gone through development and additions through to the present day. It saw a number of executions there (by Hanging) and has had notable residents including of course Fred West. Having been a Magistrate in Gloucester, I came to know the workings of the prison, and the prison system in general, as well as influencing its population somewhat.
It is much down to this history that I think the problem lies. The prison in more recent times has come under heavy and sustained criticism. The cells are very small, and has been very overcrowded. In 2003 it was in the top 20 overcrowded prisons, and because of the location, and issues around the listed nature of some of the buildings, there is limited scope to make it any better. This was recognised again in 2007, where over crowding was still an issue, but also the floods highlighted the precarious position it held on the banks of the Severn, and emergency moving of prisoners was required. Even as recently as last November, it was assessed as Poor, having poor infrastructure and badly cramped accommodation. No matter how much money is poured into it, it is the physical building that is the problem and little that can be done about it.
We also have to recognise how it fits in with the local justice system. Historically, having the prison there did make some sense because of the location of the crown, and more notably the Magistrates court. I say the Magistrates court because they do see much more “business” than the Crown Court, we just hear more of the crown court proceedings. It made sense that if you were remanded to prison, or jailed to transport them down the 500 metres and job done. However for a number of years now, Gloucester Magistrates Court has not had functioning cells of their own and the police would not let them use theirs, so any cases that were likely to end in a prison outcome, are now sent to Stroud or Cheltenham as they have the facilities. So that location advantage has also gone.
What should not be lost though, is the initiatives that Gloucester Prison has employed and made a success, such as the bike repair centre which looks at meaningful employment. The GDAS (as it was called when I last visited) worked really hard to combat the ever-present drugs problem (again an issue not helped by the location).
I have fielded criticism around where I have said that I am pleased that Gloucester Prison is closing. This has been twisted to mean that I am glad to see 200 jobs under threat and I can emphatically say that this is definatly not the case, and I believe the MoJ really needs to ensure that as much expertise is retained as possible. We are now at the stage (you could argue we have been there for at least 10 years) where Gloucester Prison has not fulfilled its remit (humanitarian or otherwise) properly. Most of this is down to the physical nature of the building and not being able to do much with it. This is bad enough when you consider that it is the living conditions of prisoners that we are talking about, but you could say it is even worse when we are talking about people who have not actually been found guilty of a crime. That is why I think it is right that it should be closed and more appropriate solutions sought.