RAAC found at five prisons, minister reveals

Edward Argar also admits government is only on target to provide 10,000 new prison places by 2025, falling short of 20,000 target
HMP Portland, one of the prisons where RAAC has been found. Photo: Steve Taylor ARPS/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

05 Apr 2024

The crumbling concrete that has caused a crisis in schools has been found at five prisons, a minister has revealed.

Prisons minister Edward Argar gave an update on the levels of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) on the HM Prisons and Probation Service estate in a letter to the House of Commons Justice Committee.

He said an estate-wide programme of “visual and intrusive” RAAC surveys, which is “nearing completion”, has identified RAAC in “ancillary buildings” at five prisons – HMP Onley, HMP Portland, HMP Leyhill, HMP Parkhurst and HMP Northumberland, as well as at a probation site in Westgate Street, Cardiff.

“We are considering necessary remediation works at these sites,” Argar said.

Commenting on the situation, Mick Pimblett, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, told CSW: “Thankfully, in the majority of cases, after a through survey, RAAC was not present. However, RAAC has been discovered in five prison establishments which have required mitigations to be put in place. HMP Northumberland, a private prison run by Sodexo, has had to decant many residential areas. Any loss of accommodation only adds to the current crisis that we are witnessing in our prisons in relation to crowding.”

In the letter, Argar also gave an update on the government’s pledge in 2020 to create 20,000 new prison places by the mid-2020s. Reports last year suggested the target would not now be reached until 2030. Argar confirmed to the committee that the government now only expects to create 10,000 places by the end of 2025.

So far, HM Prison Service has delivered around 5,900 new places through its two new prisons, HMP Five Wells, in Northamptonshire, and HMP Fosse Way, Leicestershire. Argar said the department is “on track” to reach around 10,000 places by the end of next year, including new prison HMP Millsike, Yorkshire, which is due to open next year and will provide roughly 1,500 places.

Argar said a further three new prisons – two of which have outline planning permission and the other which is still being examined by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – will bring around 5,000 extra prison places, with the remaining 5,000 to be provided through a range of projects, including adding more places at existing prisons by building new houseblocks.

The letter from the minister also included statistics which show that crowding in prisons is worsening, with 22.9% of prisoners in crowded conditions in 2023 compared to 20.2% in 2021. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, the prison population stood at 87,699 as of 22 March, with useable operational capacity at 88,935. The MoJ has predicted that the prison population could exceed 100,000 by September 2025. In the autumn, crown court judges were told to delay the sentencing of convicted criminals who were on bail and living in the community because the nation’s prisons were almost at capacity.

Pimblett said the government has introduced measures “to try and alleviate these problems” , such as Operation Safeguard, which allows prisoners to be held in police cells when there isn’t space in a local prison, and the End of Custody Supervised Licence scheme, which allows for some prisoners to be released 35-to-60 days before the end of their sentence to reduce an "acute and exceptional demand" on prison places.

Other measures introduced by the Prison Service have included doubling up on the number of offenders in a cell "where it is appropriate to do so", which the service says has created an extra 900 spaces , and delaying non-urgent maintenance work "where it is safe to do so", to bring hundreds of cells back into use. It has also moved lower risk, well-behaved offenders from the Category C estate (prisons designed for those who cannot be trusted in open conditions but are considered to be unlikely to make a determined escape attempt) to open prisons where there is more capacity.

But Pimblett said the government needs to “get its act together and decide what it is they want from prisons and the criminal justice system” if it wants “the public to have confidence in the judicial system”.

For this reason, Pimblett said the POA is calling for a royal commission into the criminal justice system “so that an honest conversation can take place regarding sentencing, prison capacity, the purpose of prisons and rehabilitation”.

The Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto pledged to set up a royal commission on the criminal justice process, but the plans were paused when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK in 2020 and have remained on hold ever since.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “As part of our ongoing survey of the prison estate, RAAC has been identified in a small number of prisons with necessary works already under way.

“We will always ensure there are enough spaces to serve the outcome of the courts and keep dangerous offenders behind bars. We’re delivering the largest prison expansion scheme since the Victorian era and adding thousands more places by doubling-up cells and delaying non-urgent maintenance work.”

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