Calls to retain heritage of Reading Prison

by James Renoux-Wood Thu 12th September 2013, 12:37 pm

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling revealed last week that Reading Prison is one of four UK jails earmarked for closure.

This has sparked widespread debate about plans for the Victorian institution, which is a listed building operated by Her Majesty’s Prison Service and widely considered to be an important part of the town’s heritage. 

One idea mooted by a non-political consortium in the town is to turn the site into a theatre or arts centre, to replace the town’s existing venue, The Hexagon, though it is yet to be revealed how widespread support is for the venture.

Oscar Wilde’s infamous incarceration in the prison, where he penned the poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", gives strength to the proposal, as an arts hub could be considered to link to the site’s heritage – something the council is adamant about.

The council has also raised concerns about the relocation of inmates.

Tony Page, the council’s lead member for strategic environment, planning and transport, said: "We will be pressing for urgent details about alternative provision for prisoners."

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says it is addressing these concerns through plans to build two "super-prisons" – one in London and an institution for 2,000 inmates in north Wales, where construction is due to start next year. 

It also says it is planning four "mini prisons", known as house blocks, at HMP Peterborough, plans first published in a MoJ report in June – "Future Prisons" – which called for the government to shut more than 30 run-down and poorly located jails and replaced by state-of-the-art prisons.

This move has been supported by the renowned UK thinktank, Policy Exchange, whose head of crime and justice reportedly said the government was right to be shutting down prisons that are "grossly inefficient, poorly-located and ill-equipped to reduce reoffending”, according to the Daily Mail. 

Reading Borough Council has called for any future development to enhance the prison’s setting around the Abbey Ruins.

Tony Page, the council’s lead member for strategic environment, planning and transport, said: "The council would support a suitable alternative use that respects the site’s contribution to Reading’s past.

"We must absolutely ensure that all appropriate channels are used when discussing future uses for the site and the local planning authority must weigh up the different proposals.

"At this stage it is very early to say what should be done with the site, but the proposed 20 December closing date seems to be an incredible tight deadline."

Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East, said he would work hard to resolve the issue of job losses in the town.

"I will be demanding a meeting with the minister to ensure staff have every opportunity to be redeployed or are supported to find suitable alternative employment.”

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