The government's plans for a new generation of 'Titan' prisons capable of holding 2,500 prisoners have been published in a consultation document.
Three of the jails will be constructed, bringing the UK's jail capacity to 96,000 by 2014.
But penal reform groups are objecting to the plans, saying the jails would make it harder for families to visit - one of the most successful factors in rehabilitation.
Some analysts are also warning of possible large-scale riots if the plans are implemented.
But justice secretary Jack Straw says building lots of smaller prisons would be too difficult, due to the amount of planning permission required.
The prisons are expected to be built in London, the West Midlands and the north-west.
Prisons minister David Hanson MP said: "We want Titan prisons to bring the resources we have to reduce re-offending together in one place. Our aim is to provide better value for money for the taxpayer and better opportunities to rehabilitate offenders so that they don't offend again. We have made clear from the outset these prisons will not be giant warehouses.
Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said: "Titan prisons go against the overwhelming consensus in the criminal justice sector that small, local custodial institutions are the most effective at cutting re-offending.
"We accused the government of looking to build massive prison warehouses and today they have attempted to refute that. Whatever ministers think they might achieve by dressing up the Titan option, experiences with giant jails in other countries have proved little short of disastrous."
Sarah Salmon, assistant director of Action for Prisoners' Families, said: "Titan prisons will result in more prisoners being held further from home, making it harder for them to maintain family contact. And that will impact on levels of re-offending."