31/10/2013 13:57 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Titan Prisons Creeping by Stealth Across England and Wales

Even those who support rehabilitation and reform are beginning to ask questions about the scale and pace of change in the justice system. The latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust's Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile warns that the impact of the changes and pressure of budget cuts are placing prisons under unprecedented strain and could undermine government plans to transform rehabilitation.

A rapid round of prison closures and re-roles, re-designation of up to 70 establishments across England and Wales as resettlement prisons, a risky review of the incentives scheme and a punishing benchmarking process, plus outsourcing most probation and resettlement services to the private and voluntary sector are all happening at a time when the National Offender Management Service has to make overall resource savings of almost 25% in real terms by 2014-15. The spending review saw a further 10% reduction in the Ministry of Justice's budget. And, on government estimates, a looming Offender Rehabilitation Bill threatens to add hundreds, if not thousands, to the prison population.

Meanwhile challenges remain to bring down overcrowding levels and to tackle unacceptably high reconviction rates. The Prisons Inspectorate has raised concerns about whether there are sufficient resources available to provide a safe and secure service and do anything useful with people whilst they are in custody. "Resources are now stretched very thinly...there is a pretty clear choice for politicians and policy makers - reduce prison populations or increase prison budgets," the Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick has said.

Under pressure of budget cuts and economies of scale, prisons are getting fewer and larger, with a drive to close small community and open prisons, build larger jails and add additional capacity to existing establishments. Since 2010 there have been 13 prison closures and a further six still to come. To boost economic regeneration, the Government plans to build a 2,000 place prison in Wrexham and is conducting a feasibility study for a second giant institution.

Titan prisons are not so much marching as creeping by stealth across England and Wales. There are now 28 prisons holding more than 1,000 men each: that's 40% of the prison population already warehoused in grossly large establishments. Ten years ago fewer than one in five prisoners were held in jumbo jails. This is despite evidence indicating that smaller prisons tend to be safer and more effective than larger establishments, holding people closer to home and with a higher ratio of prison staff to prisoners.

The recent disastrous HM Inspectorate report into G4S run Oakwood prison, housing 1,600 people at one third of the average cost per prisoner place, ought to give pause for thought in the rush to build ever larger establishments with ever lower staffing levels.

Lord Woolf, now Chair of the Prison Reform Trust, in his seminal report on the prison system following the disturbances at Strangeways prison, recommended prisons "should not normally hold more than 400 prisoners ... the evidence suggests that if these figures are exceeded, there can be a marked fall off in all aspects of the performance of a prison." In 2009 David Cameron made it clear that "the idea that big is beautiful with prisons is wrong."

And who are the people swept up into this brave new justice system? The line between victim and offender isn't as clear cut as many would like to believe. Many of the people who end up in custody are themselves victims. If you consider women in custody - most have committed petty, albeit persistent, offences and most are victims of violent crimes: domestic violence, sexual abuse or rape. Largely due to family breakdown and neglect, almost a third of the women and one quarter of the men in prison were taken into care as children compared with 2% of the general population. Far more likely to have no qualifications, be homeless and unemployed, to have lived in poverty, to have used class A drugs and to suffer from a psychotic illness, none of these are excuses for offending but this is not a group of happy, healthy people who suddenly turn to crime.

Rehabilitation is a worthwhile objective and complex problems require complex solutions. The needs of vulnerable people should concern every department of national and local government, not be monopolised by Justice. Prisons cannot, and should not, continue to pick up the tab for a range of social and health needs. Minds could be concentrated by severely limited resources. A more effective and far-sighted use of public monies would see addicts receiving treatment in the community, or in residential centres, and people who are mentally ill, or those with learning disabilities, getting the health and social care they need to lead responsible lives in their communities. Our current overuse of custody is a social and economic disaster.

Click here to download the latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust's Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile.

A shorter summary version is also available for iPad and iPhone on the App Store. To download Prison: The Facts click here.