ASHWELL Prison will close by the end of March because it would be too expensive to rebuild following a riot in 2009.
The Ministry of Justice announced yesterday that three prisons, including Ashwell, would be shut down to reduce the number of surplus places.
Ashwell will close by the end of March. Lancaster Castle in Lancashire and Morton Hall women’s jail near Lincoln are also shutting. They have a combined prison population of 850.
The closures will save the prison service £25m in the next financial year.
The Ministry said Ashwell was closing because the 2009 riots left 75 per cent of the building damaged by fire and it would not be financially viable to rebuild it.
Rutland MP Alan Duncan (Con) says the county needs to look to the future and work should begin as soon as possible to ensure the site is redeveloped into a business estate.
He said: “We are sorry to lose the prison but it was inevitable after the fire. I fully understand that, but there was no local wish to see immigration removal there. I would rather have jobs than houses.”
Mr Duncan said he had spoken with Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke and a senior officer would be appointed to work with Rutland County Council throughout the land’s development.
He added: “To have this and RAF Cottesmore closing is a blow and the key issue now is jobs. I want to see employment coming out of this.”
It is the second big blow to hit Rutland in just a few months. In October the Government confirmed the scrapping of the Harriers, accelerating the demise of RAF Cottesmore which was scheduled to close in 2013. The base has more than 1,500 air force and Royal Navy personnel who are being redeployed.
Council leader Roger Begy (Con) said: “Ashwell’s closure on its own would be a serious issue. When you add this to RAF Cottesmore and the cuts in the public sector, this can have a major impact upon our local economy.
“It is to be hoped that the Ministry of Justice will work constructively with us to reach a speedy decision upon the use of this asset. As with Cottesmore, the worst outcome is indecision and inactivity.”
Ward member for Ashwell Terry King (Con) said: “The loss of highly skilled jobs in the county is unfortunate so close to the Cottesmore closure.
“The council will of course be on hand to offer advice and support to those who find their jobs at risk following this announcement and our small economic development team will start work on a plan to compensate for the effect on our economy.”
Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke said: “The decision to close any prison is a difficult one but one that we have had to make. Closing outdated and expensive prisons is an important step in our strategy to provide a secure and modern, fit for purpose prison estate, while improving efficiency and value for the taxpayer.
“The changes will reduce our current capacity by 849 places and I am confident that they can be safely managed within existing headroom, whilst maintaining our ability to cope with any increase in population. Security remains our highest priority and we will ensure that this, along with efficiency and current performance levels, is maintained across the estate.
“Decisions on the future size of the prison estate will be driven by population demand and prisons will only close when capacity allows. We will always ensure that there are sufficient places for those offenders sentenced to custody by the courts, including a margin to manage fluctuations in the prison population. Decisions to close future capacity will only be taken if they do not put this ability at risk.”
The Ministry of Justice said it was continuing to expand the prison estate and new prison places were being created. In a statement it said the prison population had not grown as fast as previously projected. The prison population stands at 82,991 with a capacity of 87,936.
HMP Ashwell has 214 inmates and 212 staff, some of whom were moved to other prisons after the riot. The staff will be transferred to other prisons or given the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy.
The future of the prison has been subject to speculation since the riot in 2009.
The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents prison officers and civil servants, has welcomed the decision even though some people will be made redundant.
East Midlands branch manager of the Public and Commercial Services Union Adam Wissen, who is based in Stamford, said: “HMP Ashwell staff have had this uncertainty hanging over their heads for around a year and a half and will be worried about whether the jobs in the service will be there for them to transfer into.
“Public and Commercial Services supports reducing the prison population but whilst there is overcrowding in the system and proposed changes to sentencing have yet to come into effect, it is difficult to see how the closing of prisons is going to be of any benefit to prisoners, staff or the public.”
The UK Border Agency and the Young Offenders’ Estate had both expressed an interest in taking over Ashwell, but the Ministry pressed ahead with closure.
Dave Vickers is vice chairman of the national offender management service at the East Midlands Public and Commercial Services Union.
He said: “Before Christmas I went to London and handed in a petition of signatures from the people of Oakham asking that the prison be kept open. I explained that it was one of the biggest employers in the county and came away feeling hopeful.
“I wasn’t expecting this. Money has already been spent on upgrading the prison and we didn’t want to see it wasted.
“Since the disturbance a recently published Chief Inspector of Prisons report congratulates the staff at Ashwell for their work on providing a fit for purpose establishment that is commended for its work on reducing reoffending.
“This closure has nothing to do with the performance of the establishment or its staff it is all to do with cutting budgets, in an effort to reduce the country’s deficit.”
HMP Lancaster Castle is housed in a medieval castle and the Ministry says the building places severe limitations and restrictions on their ability to deliver the requirements of a modern prison service. It will also close in March.
Morton Hall will change its role to become an immigration removal centre, holding detainees on behalf of the UK Border Agency.