Thoughts on HMP Berwyn 

I am very much opposed to the building of new “super-prisons” as followers of this blog will know. I don’t believe that everyone who is sentenced needs to be incarcerated and I cannot stand to see people with social and individual problems being exploited for the purposes of capitalism. The privatisation of prisons in the UK, I believe, is one of the most damaging, destructive, moves in criminal justice history. But, of course, what I think doesn’t really matter because the super prison has arrived. Most people will by now have heard of and possibly seen footage of the new swanky HMP Berwyn (if not, then check it out here http://www.wrexham.com/news/wrexhams-new-prison-hmp-berwyn-opens-127529.html). I haven’t visited (and am unlikely to) so my thoughts on it are based on the media coverage and promotion videos circulatig the web at present. I wanted to blog about it because despite a lot of positive press coverage I have my own reservations and, being the cynic I am, will refrain from being optimistic until it has been in full operation for at least 2 years.

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Let me start with the positives. HMP Berwyn is taking a new approach to imprisonment based on an ethos of rehabilitation. The whole prison is set up to educate, skill and train men due to be released after serving long term sentences. The establishment aims to provide all men with jobs and access to educational and training resources. This includes digital training with access to IT facilities in all rooms. The language used in and around the prison is also unique in that they refer to the inmates as men, not prisoners, they refer to the accommodation as houses and rooms, not cells. The rationale behind all this is provide men with a smoother transition upon release, preparing them with what life is likely to be like on the outside.

All of this is welcomed, and I truly mean that. It is refreshing to see some positive attempts being made to alter the culture of imprisonment and ensure men are better equipped for their transition after long term sentences. If these measures can prevent recidivism and enhance the future off all these men, then it will be a fantastic achievement. Nevertheless, we ought to prepare ourselves of some of the problems that may arise and consider whether these can be overcome.

  1. My first concern is that this prison is to house 2000 men and I wonder whether such all encompassing provision can really be offered equally to that many men. For any of us involved in teaching or training, we all know too well that best outcomes stem from working with smaller groups, groups you can spend quality time with. 
  2. My second concern is the process they will use to ‘pick’ men suitable for a place at HMP Berwyn, what will the selection process look like? At present there are around 100 men, carefully chosen for their existing skills, which is understandable. But how will other men get the opportunity to transfer to Berwyn and undertake such needed training and education?
  3. The third concern I have is that this prison will not benefit the men who live a life cycle of crime. Those who have the highest recidivism rates are often those who spend repeatedly small bouts of time in prison on very short sentences. These men will not qualify for Berwyn, so questions need to be raised about how best to help these men (my suggestion of course is to stop sending them to prison, but I won’t go there just now!).
  4. My fourth thought was around the notion of institutionalisation. Those who have served long prison sentences have always been at risk of this notion of institutionalisation and HMP Berwyn is designed specifically to help men transition to the outside world. However, if men are working and living in a prison environment, being given jobs and access to amazing resources for education, then this is not a representation of life on the outside. I would support HMP Berwyn to offer work placements outside the prison walls, this would give more reassurance that the men know what to expect and what it will be like for them. If you are handed jobs, training, education and rehabilitation on a plate on the inside, then what happens to these men on the outside when such things are more difficult to access? Will HMP Berwyn encourage a distorted reality of work?
  5. My fifth and actually my most worrying concern is the use of prisons to resolve social problems. This is where things start to get tricky for me. If HMP Berwyn is successful at rehabilitating men, training them, skilling them and educating them to live a life of no crime on the outside, then that speaks volumes about the type of society we have become, that this only becomes possible in prison. What sort of society do we live in if we see the best place to offer employment and education opportunities is prison and not our communities. If successful, will this mean that we use prisons as a way to provide opportunities, will prisons become the schools of tomorrow ? What I would much rather see is an evaluation of what works in HMP Berwyn and how that can be embedded in communities on the outside to prevent men going to prison in the first place. We should not use prisons to solve social problems, prisons are there to protect the public from dangerous people, they are not and should never be the answer to society’s problems resulting from failed government policies and capitalistic greed. 

So there you have it, my 5 main concerns about HMP Berwyn, and of course let us not forget that the whole ethos behind this new prison is economical. The prison has been celebrated for creating jobs and training men to work when they leave those prison walls. When you strip everything away this prison is about profit, not people. So while the cynical half of me believes that this prison is not one to be celebrated, the optimistic half of me hopes that whatever successes come out of it, the broader social implications are considered more thoroughly to stop men going to prison in the first place.

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