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'A very sad day for town'

By Wells Journal  |  Posted: January 17, 2013

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News that the executioner's axe is to swing finally for Shepton Mallet Prison has been greeted with widespread grief.

John Parham is Shepton Mallet district councillor who has the responsibility for public buildings.

"This is a very sad day for the town and I feel so sorry for those prison staff who today found out that they could be made redundant," he said.

"Not only does it employ a number of staff itself, but it also brings in services from the local area, such as plumbers and electricians.

"The council will be doing all it can to support those who are facing redundancy as a result of this closure."

Mr Parham said that he had been surprised by the announcement that the prison was to close.

"Shepton Mallet prison has been under threat of closure for some time, but the announcement came as a complete shock. The council hadn't received any prior notification that this decision had been made.

"The first priority needs to be supporting the staff at the prison and doing all we can to help them find work. After this, we need to think about what can be done with the site. The prison is a Grade II* listed building and is likely to be a challenging site to develop."

MP Tessa Munt paid tribute to all the hard-working staff – including the governor – who had done so much to reduce costs and keep the prison open this long.

"Shepton Mallet Prison is a brilliant prison, it may sound odd to say this but Shepton Mallet is a happy prison," she said.

"There are some very dangerous people in there yet they are kept in a very safe environment, with zero drugs and very little trouble.

"Frankly, Shepton Mallet Prison is as good as it gets. Now all of that is to disappear.

"I know the governor, I know the work that he and his team have put it to make not insignificant cost-savings. I'm devastated for them.

"And I will be urgently asking questions as to what will happen to the old prison now."

Shepton Mallet Town Council chairman Terry Marsh believes the impact on the town from the closure will be immense.

His wife Jeanette Marsh, also a town councillor, is one of many hundreds from Shepton Mallet and the surrounding area who has worked at the prison.

"The number of people who work or visit there who you would often see in town buying a coffee or getting a sandwich is very high," he said.

"I've lived in Shepton Mallet all my life, growing up in a town where the prison was always there.

"I think there was actually a sense of pride that we had the oldest working prison in the country here, and of its history. It is a sad day for everyone."

Unions are still waiting to find out how their members at Shepton Mallet will be effected.

Public and Commercial Services union spokeswoman Catherine Craig said that at Shepton Mallet Prison many of their members are women.

"Most of them are unable to relocate to work in any other prison due living locally near their workplaces and to family or care commitments," she said.

"The ministerial decision to close Shepton Mallet was purely cost cutting and no opportunity given for alternatives to be suggested or to be looked at because there was no consultation process. Understandably members are devastated by the news."

The Howard League for Penal Reform campaigns for the closure of prisons, but last week were left surprised that some old prisons were left open, while Shepton Mallet had been closed.

Frances Crook is their chief executive and said: "Some of the small prisons in the estate, like Shepton Mallet, have provided a safe and rather specialist service to particular groups of prisoners and have a track record of success in this way.

"It is also right to say that recent inspectorate reports about Shepton Mallet have been positive.

"Nevertheless, these are hard times. The prison population has reduced by more than 3,000 and we need to close prisons."

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