Today should have been a celebration of Welsh culture, identity and independence in one of Wales’ most iconic towns, Wrexham: home of Welsh football, excellent lager, Gŵyl Twm Sbaen, Saith Seren, and pioneer of Welsh nonconformism, Morgan Llwyd. Instead, we are holed up during a period of self-isolation in a desperate crisis that few would have predicted as little as three months ago. Of course, it transpires that few would have predicted it because of the lack of serious recognition, discussion or preparation of those who are in office to protect us.
In the context of Welsh independence there is little doubt that this crisis has injected even more urgency into the movement, as Westminster has not only failed us but needlessly endangered so many, and is responsible for a mortality rate that far outstrips the majority of other countries. In Wales, we have seen a Welsh Government lacking the confidence, authority and extensive enough powers to forge the response we needed.
The lockdown and wider crisis are changing the face of our society and economy and, in the words of Andreas Kluth for Bloomberg, is creating the grounds for social revolution. As such we must reassess our basic values as a society and make the case explicitly that it is only Welsh independence – outside of the grasp of an elitist British state seeking to reinforce the neoliberal status quo – that provides the opportunity to create the changes we so desperately need.
If we turn to Wrexham, there is perhaps one institution in the town that symbolises this need for change more than any other: Berwyn prison. Opened in February 2017, the UK’s largest prison was established in Wrexham on the basis that there was a dire need for a prison in the north that would benefit prisoners in terms of links, the Welsh language and rehabilitation, while simultaneously providing a boon for the local economy – (including the rather startling claim that local industry would be able “to benefit from the provision of skilled and semi-skilled resources and much reduced or no labour cost”).
Needless to say that the reality of the prison is somewhat different to the premises on which it was built. A report in 2018 showed that fewer than 25% of its then 1100 inmates were from Wales with inmates from 125 different English Local Authorities – while 37% of all Welsh prisoners still found themselves outside of Wales. Problems with regard to the drug culture that has quickly established itself have been reported in the news, while other reports have highlighted problems such as issues with basic facilities. There are also worrying trends with respect to self-harm, with over 2.5 incidents recorded per day in 2019 (up until September), and around 2 assaults per day.
The current crisis can, of course, only increase tensions and anxiety in the prison, with the virus spreading among the inmates and laying low at least 75 members of staff. This is why we have demanded, as part of our policy response we have set out to the crisis that the Welsh Government work closely with prisons to advise and provide additional resources and funding to protect inmates and staff.
More broadly we must work to reverse current trends that see Wales recording a higher rate of imprisonment than any other country in western Europe, an increase in the number of women in prison, record levels of self-harm, drug use, and the disproportionate numbers of BAME people and those with mental health problems or learning disabilities incarcerated.
Incarceration is never safe, and does not work at the best of times. However, it is profoundly cruel and inhumane to continue to keep people in prisons and detention centres during a global pandemic. This is why Undod has added our name to this statement by a range of organisations calling for urgent steps to protect detainees and stop the spread of the virus. All immigration centres should be immediately closed down and detainees released. The prison population also needs to be drastically reduced in the interests of prisoners safety and wider public health. There are examples from around the world – including several US states, Iran and Ireland – of implementing these measures that the UK Government could follow, but has so far shown a callous disinterest in doing so. We are yet to hear a word from the Welsh Government on this issue.
In the wider context of Wales, its economy and its future, the story of HMP Berwyn is a salutary tale for us. A prison notionally established for the benefit of Welsh prisoners and ultimately their rehabilitation as part of our society not only appears to be another Westminster con in practice, it also symbolises the paucity of ambition for our towns and communities. Incarceration apparently represents one of the mainstays of UK regional development in our part of the perfidious Albion, ushered in, of course, by a Welsh governing class that will welcome any industry, no matter how harmful, in the name of ‘jobs’. Witness, for example, the very recent attempts to establish a similar super-prison (has there ever been a more grim misnomer?) in Port Talbot that was gamely fought off by local politicians and residents. We are soon likely to have another fight on our hands, however, as the Justice Secretary recently said he wanted to see another new prison in Wales.
This is why Undod, as part of its founding principles, rejects the prison-industrial complex in calling for an ethical economy for Wales that is not grounded in military and societal violence. Our current tribulations – and most especially the heroism, mutual care and collective nature of the response in our communities – demonstrates that another future is possible, one where Wales and its economy is grounded in compassion and sustainability. Now is the time to start building a better future.
Join us as we begin in earnest on this work.