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Wellingborough ‘smart’ prison not a ‘soft touch’, says Raab

Image credit: Elena Mozhvilo | Unsplash

The Justice Secretary has defended a new 'smart' prison designed to drive down crime and better rehabilitate inmates, after being asked if it is a “soft-touch” jail.

On a visit to HMP Five Wells in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said inmates at the category C prison needed to be given “a sense of what life on the outside looks like” because “we are not going to lock everyone up for life”.

The 1,700-capacity prison does not have bars on its windows and will provide prisoners with access to a gym, snooker table, table tennis table and a smart tablet to gain new qualifications.

Prison staff have also said they will describe cells as “rooms” and prisoners as “residents” to assist in their rehabilitation.

Speaking to reporters at the jail on Thursday, ahead of the facility's official opening on Friday, Raab said: “I’m interested in punishment, because that’s what the public expect, but I’m not really interested in stigmatising in a way that’s counter-productive to my aim of driving down re-offending. What you’ve heard about, which I like, is the idea of giving offenders something to lose.

“If you come to a place like this with the gym, the workshops, the ability to do the skills education, you get a glimmer of the future as to how your life could be. Then it’s up to the offender to take that second chance and if they don’t, they lose those entitlements, they lose those perks.”

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said the jail will host 24 workshops and prisoners will be able to get on-the-job training in areas such as computer coding, car maintenance, fork-lift-truck maintenance, plumbing, and engineering.

The new jail, on the site of the old HMP Wellingborough, is the first of six new prisons to be completed, with a similar one in Glen Parva, Leicestershire, already under construction.

Asked if HMP Five Wells was a “soft-touch” prison, Raab responded: “Take the windows, you’re right. You go and look through the window of that cell and you don’t see bars and actually you get some sunlight in. There is definitely something about the hope and the motivation that gives to the state of mind of the offender.

“At the same time, because they’re not bars and because they’re very high-secure windows, we’ve got far less contraband coming in, the risk of stuff coming in via drones is much lower.

“The question is: what is the best way to drive down the offending? It’s a combination of making that cell secure, which those new windows do, and also trying to get an offender, particularly one that might have had a persistent, longstanding set of problems and track record of offending, to think of things a different way.

“There’s no doubt about it, prisons need to be secure, they need to punish, but they also need to try to give – because most offenders are going to be released – a sense of what life on the outside looks like.”

The MoJ said HMP Five Wells is the first prison to be built with “education, training and jobs at its heart” and Raab said he would be answerable for the effectiveness of the “smart” prison.

“The sentencing is going up, but the question you’ve got to ask yourself if you’re a victim or a member of the community, is what happens when they are released, because we are not going to lock everyone up for life,” he said.

“What are the factors, the motivation and the drivers of getting offenders to go straight? The contact with their family, which is the heart and soul of it, the technical skills, the ability to go online and get a new qualification and improve their literacy and numeracy.

“I’ll be answerable for this and we’ve got KPIs [key performance indicators] which will judge this, but judge it on the effect it has on driving down re-offending and crime.

“As I said, my starting point is not theological; it is how do I protect the public, what are the factors that will drive down re-offending? Once they’re on that track, surely we want to motivate it to protect our society?”

During his visit, Raab also spoke to a resident (aka prisoner) who said release on temporary licence (ROTL) is something they want to see more of as part of their rehabilitation work.

Asked by reporters if ROTL was something he would want to see expanded, Raab said: “It’s a very sensitive issue as to who we release into open prisons, who we release into ROTL and of course parole. My number-one priority would be protecting the public.

“But I do think that ROTL is a very good way of getting offenders into work, and actually far from weakening control, what you know is that offenders that go onto ROTL are much more likely, if they’re in work, to comply with their conditions.

“The sentence is the sentence, but using ROTL through work to try and give offenders skills in the game, giving them motivational drive to stay clean, stay straight and stay in work – I think that is powerful.”

Challenged on the dangers of criminals absconding from prisons such as Wellingborough's HMP Five Wells, Raab said he wants to “top slice” the cases where he feels there is a “higher element of risk” and make sure “there’s ministerial, both control and accountability”.

He added: “I think what people are fed up of hearing is that we own the system but we don’t take responsibility for it because it’s delegated to officials.

"I think people expect their ministers and politicians to be held accountable for it – which means we need to change the system accordingly. But it will only be the top slice of high risk because the volume of cases would inundate us.”

Raab insisted that the number of criminals who abscond from prison is “very low”, confirming that moving forward he will personally review requests to move high-risk offenders to open jails.

“I’ve looked at that again, changed the criteria and made sure ministers are being personally consulted and I’m going to talk a bit more in the same vein about parole reform soon.”

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