New Wellingborough prison with gym and table tennis table 'no soft-touch', Justice Secretary insists

The new HMP Five Wells prison.
The new HMP Five Wells prison in Wellingborough. Credit: PA

Britain’s first "smart" prison has opened in Wellingborough, in a move the government hopes will help drive down crime.

HMP Five Wells will hold around 1,700 inmates when its at full capacity in December. At the moment, that figure is just over 130.

The jail does not have bars on its windows and prisoners will be given access to a gym, snooker table, table tennis table and a tablet to gain new qualifications.

Staff at the category C jail have also been told to refer to the cells as "rooms" and prisoners will be known as "residents."

Inmates will be able to play table tennis. Credit: PA

That has led to criticism from some that the new prison is a "soft touch", but Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has rejected the accusation.

"I'm interested in punishment, because that's what the public expect, but I'm not really interested in stigmatising in a way that's counter-productive to my aim of driving down re-offending," he told reporters on Thursday.

"What you've heard about, which I like, is the idea of giving offender something to lose.

"If you come to a place like this with the gym, the workshops, the ability to do the skills education, you get a glimmer of the future as to how your life could be.

"Then it's up to the offender to take that second chance and if they don't, they lose those entitlements, they lose those perks."

Dominic Raab was given a tour of the prison. Credit: PA

The Ministry of Justice said the jail would host 24 workshops and prisoners would be able to get on-the-job training in areas such as coding, car maintenance, fork-lift-truck maintenance, plumbing and engineering.

The new jail, on the site of the old HMP Wellingborough, is the first of six new prisons to be completed.

Asked if HMP Five Wells was a "soft-touch" prison, Mr Raab said: "Take the windows, you're right. You go and look through the window of that cell and you don't see bars and actually, you get some sunlight in. There is definitely something about the hope and the motivation that gives to the state of mind of the offender.

"At the same time, because they're not bars and because they're very high-secure windows, we've got far less contraband coming in, the risk of stuff coming in via drones is much lower.

"The question is, what is the best way to drive down the offending - and it's a combination of making that cell secure, which those new windows do, and also trying to get an offender, particularly one that might have had a persistent, longstanding set of problems and track record of offending, to think of things a different way.

"But there's no doubt about it, prisons need to be secure, they need to punish, but they also need to try to give, because most offenders are going to be released, a sense of what life on the outside looks like."