A raft of fresh prison closures will see some 2,600 inmate places cut in Britain as part of a widescale overhaul which also include plans for Britain’s biggest jail.
Six prisons will shut by the end of March and three jails will be partially closed as part of the programme that could put more than 1,000 jobs at risk.
The drop in inmate places will be offset by four new mini-prisons, with room for 1,260 offenders, while a feasibility study for a 2,000-capacity super-prison has been launched.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the plans will save the country £63m a year as the cost per prisoner in new facilities is much lower than older sites.
But the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union said the closures were “irresponsible” and campaigners dubbed plans for a super-prison a “gigantic mistake.”
The proposals for the super-prison appear to contrast with the views of Mr Grayling’s predecessor Kenneth Clarke who claimed jails were expensive.
Mr Grayling said: “We have to bring down the cost of our prison system, much of which is old and expensive. But I never want the courts to be in a position where they cannot send a criminal to prison because there is no place available. So we have to move as fast as we can to replace the older parts of our prison system.”
Among the prisons to be closed is Britain’s oldest jail, HMP Shepton Mallet, Somerset, which traces its roots back to 1610.
Other prisons marked for closure include Bullwood Hall in Essex, Canterbury in Kent, Gloucester, Kingston in Portsmouth and Shrewsbury in Shropshire, while Hull, Chelmsford and the Isle of Wight will see some accommodation partly cut.
The Victorian prison in Hedon Road, Hull, opened in 1870 and now houses remand, sentenced and convicted adult males, except category A, and young offenders.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “These closures are unnecessary, irresponsible and amount to more privatisation by stealth.
“The fact this is happening without any public debate or discussion ought to be a national scandal and we urgently need an independent review to look at the impact of prison privatisation on our communities, staff and prisoners.”
During his two years as Justice Secretary, Mr Clarke closed six prisons including Latchmere House, Brockhill, Ashwell, Lancaster Castle and Wellingborough, while Morton Hall women’s prison was turned into an immigration detention centre.
London, the North West or North Wales are frontrunners for the site of a new super-jail, while the mini-prisons will be built at existing prisons Parc in Bridgend, South Wales; Peterborough, Cambridgeshire; the Mount in Hertfordshire; and Thameside in London.
The young offenders’ institution at HMP Ashfield is to be converted into a full adult prison, while some 200 contractually crowded places at private prisons will be decommissioned.
The super-prison proposal drew comparisons with Labour’s £2.9bn proposal for three 2,500-capacity “Titan” jails, which was scrapped in 2009.
Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon said: “It would be a gigantic mistake if the Justice Secretary were to revive the discredited idea of titans and pour taxpayers’ money down the prison-building drain, when the coalition Government could invest in crime prevention, healthcare and community solutions to crime.”
The announcements follow the opening of the new G4S-run HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton last year, which has a normal capacity of 1,600 prisoners.
The average cost at Oakwood is £13,200 per place, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said, which is less than half the average cost of existing prison places.
Some 83,632 inmates were behind bars last Friday, down from the record high of 88,179 after the summer riots in 2011. The MoJ forecasts show the population could hit 90,900 by 2018.