The work may not sound as attractive as the 2012 Olympics but the boom in prison building will be almost as lucrative for construction

The crisis in prisons is never far from the headlines. Jack Straw, the justice secretary, has been forced to plead with magistrates to lock up fewer people and the tabloids are happily contrasting that with a string of sensational murder cases and calling for more to be locked up for longer.

The first to be splattered by this moral stampede is the government. Even though it is indeed locking up more for longer – England incarcerates about 24,000 more people than the EU average – it is being forced to use court and police cells to do so.

The silver lining for construction is that all this custodial work is helping to fill the gap left by lower healthcare spending: 15,000 prison places by 2014 do not come cheap. In fact, at £2.3bn the workload is not that much less than the Olympics – and that’s not counting a £1bn repair backlog.

Anther bonus is that the client likes state-of-the-art construction. And as our feature on Highdown prison highlights there are no risky building types, and PFI prisons aren’t dogged by the delays that we’ve seen with schools and hospitals.

That said, there are a great many question marks hanging over the prison procurement process: will we get the 2,500 place Titan prisons? How will they be funded? Is the Ministry of Justice able to be the decisive client the industry needs? The sooner the government sets out its road map, the more chance it has of getting somewhere.