On 12 January 2022, the Community Action of Prison Expansion (CAPE) celebrated the news that abolitionists had successfully prevented the construction of a ‘mega prison’ (also known as a ‘super prison’) in Chorley, Lancashire. This was just one of a large number of the government’s prison expansion plans. In 2016, the Tory government stated its commitment to creating 10,000 new prison cells by building six mega prisons across the UK. SCREENSHOT spoke to CAPE to get a better understanding as to why it is crucial that these plans be stopped.
As you can assume from its name, the term ‘mega prison’ is used to describe penitentiary facilities that are of a larger size than the average prison. Most UK prisons range in capacity from 100 to 1,000 cell spaces, with a few larger than this, while the first mega prison—HMP Five Wells, the country’s biggest one ever, opened in Wellingborough on 8 January of this year—is capable of holding 1,680 people within its walls. But it is not only the prisons’ immense size that differentiates them from others across the country, these new prisons are privately contracted.
According to CAPE, these proposals are justified as a matter of public safety, but this is based on a “nonsensical circular argument” whereby the more police are on the street, the more prisons are needed and vice versa. The reality is that in post-Brexit, ongoing pandemic Britain, there is “more unemployment as well as higher rates of homelessness,” which in turn could mean higher rates of social unrest. This resistance is fought by the government with “more state control and punishment,” which we have already witnessed with attempts to push through laws against our rights to protest.
We are living in an era of mass incarceration as the UK prison population has risen 69 per cent in the last 30 years, and is predicted to rise another 23.7 per cent by March 2026. “If they build it, they will fill it,” was a phrase born out of the abolition movement fighting against mass incarceration, which is in line with government plans to “fill these prisons and increase the overall prison population.” Through investigations into the new prison plans, CAPE stated that there is no intention to “move people from current overcrowded prisons with horrendous conditions.”
The Tory government’s plan to hand new prisons over to private contractors is a continuation of its chipping away at nationalised institutions. Much like privatised universities, for-profit prisons will be run like a business. The party’s motivation will be to cut costs and corners ensuring the greatest profit, with little regard for the well-being of those inside. For any business to profit, it must create returning customers. CAPE argued that companies such as G4S, Kier Group and Sodexo have no interest in rehabilitation, planning instead to profit off the “increase in exploited labour by incarcerated people.” It is therefore in the interest of private prisons to have repeat offenders.
G4S, the world’s largest security contractor, has been contracted for prisons and immigrant detention centres. In the government’s announcement to award G4S with the contract for the HMP Five Wells mega prison, it claimed the company is praised by inspectors. But G4S is often surrounded with controversy, as the subject of a Panorama investigation, the company’s abusive behaviours in its immigration removal centre at Gatwick airport was uncovered as well as previous reports for its deteriorating standards when running HMP Birmingham. Knowing all this, the government continues to offer G4S prison contracts, highlighting its lack of empathy for incarcerated people.
CAPE spend its time advocating for the living standards and welfare of prisoners, while also fighting for the abolition of the entire prison system. It argued that “the prison population has no link to crime rate, and only increases state control,” deeming prisons as “inherently violent [places that] create further violence.” The Wellingborough compound cost £253 million and the plans to build another mega prison by 2025 in Glasgow are set to cost £100 million. CAPE believes that the only way to “reduce harm in our communities” is through “resources in housing, education and youth services and support for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.” Those millions could be better spent elsewhere.
Although local campaigners successfully derailed construction plans for Chorley, there is still much work to be done. Resistance against prison constructions in East Yorkshire, Market Harborough, Sutton, Buckinghamshire and two Essex locations are ongoing. One simple way to help is by submitting planning objections, containing points as to why the constructions should not go ahead. CAPE offers detailed arguments and information on how to submit one on its website.
CAPE needs widespread support across the country to raise voices against prison expansion. If you are part of environmental or community groups, I ask that you raise the subject and support these campaigns. For further information please follow CAPE on Instagram @no_more_prisons, boost its actions and find out what consultations and community campaigns you can get involved with. We need to start conversations in and among ourselves about the harm prisons do to our society, with the understanding that we are all connected to prison expansion.
The first time Uzoma Orchingwa wrote a letter to a prison, he was in college, trying to reach an incarcerated childhood friend. The letter never arrived.
Communicating with inmates in America is notoriously difficult—physical addresses are different from mailing addresses, phone calls are exorbitantly expensive, and visiting a state facility requires a 100-mile trek, on average.
Orchingwa has successfully sent many letters since, and while writing his masters dissertation on criminology at Cambridge, he waded deep into research on prison reform—and concluded reforms alone won’t quickly solve the system’s many problems. Now he’s at Yale Law School building Ameelio, a digital platform that has already printed and shipped 22,000 letters to inmates and is preparing to launch a free video call system for jails and prisons. The Kickstarter campaign will help make it happen.
Ameelio is taking on a $1.2 billion communication service industry—mostly a duopoly between Securus and Global Tel Link. In all but 11 states, it’s legal for these companies to charge inmates punishingly high rates for phone calls, pocket margins of 50 per cent or more, and pay jails and prisons millions of dollars in kickbacks. Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the industry “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.”
America’s most vulnerable populations are paying for it. Families report spending up to $500 a month to stay connected, and one in three of these families is forced into debt paying for phone calls and visits alone. Family members who are not able to talk or visit regularly are much more likely to report experiencing negative health impacts related to a family member’s incarceration, and isolated inmates face increased challenges readjusting upon their release.
There has been new scrutiny on the issue in recent years, but with uneven progress. A phone call in a city-run Illinois jail, for example, costs 52 times more than a call from a state-run Illinois prison. “We don’t have one justice system,” Orchingwa explains, “we have 51 separate systems. Then underneath that we have counties that have their own stakeholders and incentives.” He hopes that his free communication platform will stop the cycle of overwhelmed administrators letting exploitative businesses into their facilities. “Basically our theory of change is establishing ourselves as a free alternative to the for-profit companies.”
To take on big businesses—and big technical requirements—Orchingwa started with a more straightforward product: a web and mobile app that lets users type letters and upload photos. Ameelio then prints, adds postage, and mails them at no cost. (The bootstrapped non-profit has gathered grants from Robin Hood, Mozilla Builders, and Fast Forward to cover expenses.)
“It made sense to start with letters because there’s very little barrier to entry and the vast majority of people who are incarcerated communicate through letters,” Orchingwa says. “We could bring it online, digitise it, and boost contact.”
As the team rolled out the initial app, interest spread quickly. Close to 50 per cent of Ameelio’s users come directly from referrals of people who are incarcerated—they’ll see letters others are receiving and call home to tell their community about the platform.
Criminal justice organisations soon learned about Ameelio as well. “We were building out this nationwide database because we want to make it easier for our users to find their loved ones and communicate with them. It hadn’t occurred to us that reentry organisations didn’t actually have much visibility either,” Orchingwa says. Even preeminent institutions like PEN America and Harvard’s legal clinics had very limited data and cumbersome mailing processes. The Ameelio team added new product features aimed at these types of users doing outreach and re-entry work.
Now, the fast-growing team is nearing their ultimate goal: a service for free video calls. Inmates will sign on with tablets that are either fixed in a supervised phone bank or available for checkout during visiting hours. The software will allow for scheduling, identity verification, and screenshots or video playback for security compliance. Orchingwa is finalising a pilot program with a mid-sized county jail and looking forward to future iterations that could add education programs and telehealth to the tablets and generate data supporting prison reform.
“We’re going to be able to provide metrics and be able to work with legislators to say, ‘Look, in Connecticut, we find that incarcerated people who have weekly access to their loved one fare much better.’ We should think a little more creatively about recidivism and sentencing,” Orchingwa says. “And we hope to be a technology service that can also do advocacy and accelerate legislative change.”
Ameelio is live on Kickstarter through 31 July, 2020.