How do you build an extension inside a prison where scaffolding, skips and site vehicles are all viewed as potential escape routes?



In this week’s issue, we analyse the proposal put forward by a think tank to build 10 ‘super prisons’ capable of holding 3,000 inmates each.

Building a new prison may involve many different considerations to any other job, but the proposal made us think back five years when we examined just how hard it is to extend a prison that’s already in existence. In 2008 we sent our technical editor, Thomas Lane, inside HMP Highdown in Surrey to find out how it’s done, and here’s what he has to say about it:

“There is one positive aspect to building super prisons - this should be a relatively straightforward job.

How do you do scaffolding? You clad it in corrugated iron, top it with razor wire and secure the base set in concrete

“Back in 2008, when the proposal to build three ‘titan’ prisons was on the table, I visited Highdown Prison in Surrey to see how Kier was getting on with constructing two new accommodation blocks.

“Extending an existing prison is extremely difficult because security is so tight. I had to meet the head of capital projects at the Ministry of Justice to satisfy them we weren’t going to print a prison escape route map in the magazine before we were allowed on site.

“Getting to the work site involved airport style security checks, an escort and corridor after corridor of locked doors - a process that took at least half an hour. Site workers had to go through the same checks towards the end of the job and Kier made extensive use of prefabrication to speed the job up.

“Building a super prison on a green field site should be a breeze by comparison - if these ever get built.”

In the article Tom wrote in 2008, he explained some of the security issues in more detail:

“Building “inside” is difficult. Bill Heyes, Kier’s prison framework manager, says it takes 30-50% longer. Think about scaffolding for a minute. To you, it’s just scaffolding, but to 742 other pairs of eyes it’s the most inviting climbing frame since primary school. How do you do scaffolding? You clad it in corrugated iron, top it with razor wire and secure the base set in concrete.

“And skips. What about skips? To you they’re big rubbish bins, but to some of the incarcerated they’re the handiest teleportation devices since Star Trek. Skips must be kept locked and you need a permit to take them offsite.

“And you have to be invisible. Prisoners move around for education and exercise at set times and at these times contractors must vanish. At lunchtime everything effectively shuts down.”

There was also another problem. “Because the site was so far from the entrance, it was cheaper to build a road around the edge of the prison and knock a hole in the wall. So they did, and built another wall inside to make a kind of enclave. Security was still very tight, though. All vehicles had to enter through a secure compound and be checked by prison officers. Site workers also had to be vetted for any criminal convictions.”

To the relief of the prison officers the hole in the perimeter wall was eventually blocked up.

Read the the full article on the challenges of building inside here.