The expanding industry
If you want to understand modern Wales – how it is governed, its political culture, the level of respect for basic human rights – begin with the facts about imprisonment.
By every measure, the Welsh prison complex is expanding. There are now five prisons in Wales: Usk (and Prescoed), Cardiff, Parc, Swansea, and, since 2017, Berwyn – the largest prison in Britain and the second largest in western Europe. Over the last decade, the prison population in Wales has nearly doubled from around 2,800 to over 5,000, earlier this year.
Much of the growth lies with Berwyn, yet even before Berwyn was opened the prison population in Wales grew by a quarter between 2010 and 2016, contrary to the wider UK trend. A further ‘mega’ prison was planned for Port Talbot until local resistance put a stop to it in 2019, yet continued expansion of the Welsh prison estate remains UK government policy.
Between privately-run HMP Parc, to the local supply of inmates as practically unwaged labour, imprisonment in Wales has, for many interests, provided lucrative opportunities. Government at virtually every level welcomed Berwyn due to the prospect of local economic dividends. Wrexham Council was quick to note ‘much reduced or no labour cost’ for local businesses, and the long-term economic advantages of a new prison compared favourably to ‘typical market conditions and the ‘boom and bust’ cycles present in the business world’.
This mentality reflects a deeper trend over recent decades in which successive British governments have married neoliberalism with increasingly punitive policies. Since 1990, the England and Wales prison population has doubled, much to the benefit of private jailers such as G4S, Serco and Sodexo, along with construction companies like Lendlease and Kier. After spending the last decade emaciating public services, the Conservatives now pledge a further 18,000 prison places across Wales and England, longer prison sentences and fewer automatic early releases. The state’s prison population is expected to breach 100,000 in the coming years.
And yet, while the prison complex is expanded remorselessly, political responsibility for prison conditions in Wales is fractured and convoluted – more so than anywhere else in the UK. Wales as a polity is in a state of interregnum. Contradictory strands of unionism within the Labour Party and wider British state have produced an elected national parliament unlike most, restricted from legislating on a baffling range of issues. Responsibility for prisoner health, education and housing, among others, lie with the Senedd, but the bulk of the criminal justice machinery – the courts, the prison estate and most of the criminal law – is operated from Westminster. Accountability splinters; blame cannot be directed at any one place.
To make matters worse, many of the facts about imprisonment in Wales would normally be unknown. We are therefore indebted to Dr. Robert Jones, the academic whose colossal efforts in recent years have unearthed information which the Ministry of Justice would prefer not to disclose. His reports on the operation of the justice system in Wales are essential reading. They reveal a system in crisis, where the scale of harm and injustice unfolding is matched only by the sheer indifference from much of the governing class in Westminster to alleviating it.
As the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines signals a gradual return to ‘normality’, we ought to reflect on what that normality means for those in the grip of this system.
Failure with impunity
Many living within the Welsh sub-state, through sheer accident of birth, are far more likely to end up imprisoned at some point in their lives. Wales frequently records the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe. With well-documented links between deprivation and crime, perhaps this is unsurprising in a place where around one in five adults live in poverty.
The class and racial disproportionalities of imprisonment, however, are glaring. If you are from the most deprived areas of Wales, you are around three times more likely to be imprisoned than those from the wealthiest places. Meanwhile, people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are grossly overrepresented in the prison population. Black people are six times as likely to be imprisoned, while white ethnic groups are both underrepresented and serve shorter sentences on average. Adverse childhood experiences are common; many prisoners are also likely to have been in care as children, unemployed and suffering with drug addiction and mental health problems at the time of sentencing.
Exacerbating all of this, the system is marked by a disregard for family, place, language and identity. Prisoners are flung far and wide: more than a third of the 4,700 Welsh prisoners held across the prison estate in 2019 were located in England, scattered across more than 100 prisons, while English prisoners accounted for more than a quarter of the prison population in Wales. Women from Wales, meanwhile, are held exclusively in England. Welsh language provision is often inadequate; worse, reports of interference with family correspondence and punishment for speaking Welsh are widespread across the prison estate.
Then there is the matter of safety, or rather its absence. Recent years have been marked by soaring levels of drug use, self-harm, assaults and suicides. Initially hailed as a beacon of more progressive incarceration, Berwyn has seen the worst levels of violence of any prison in Wales, while in those parts of the English prison estate where Welsh women are held, pregnant women have been left in labour without medical attention, with horrific consequences. Even after a death in custody, recommendations for improving prison safety are often ignored.
With the outbreak of Covid-19, conditions have worsened still. Welsh jails have faced some of the highest levels of exposure to the virus: in June, one fifth of confirmed cases across Wales and England were reported in Welsh prisons, despite Wales holding just 6% of the prison population.
Despite the acute risks to overcrowded prisons presented by the virus, the UK government has released but a fraction of the ‘low-risk’ prison population. Welsh prisons remain overcrowded and many prisoners are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day – potentially in violation of the state’s human rights obligations. All the while, family visits have been suspended. As a result, violence and self-harm are increasing further, and there are strident warnings of ‘irreparable damage’ to prisoners’ mental health. Donna Wall, whose son is imprisoned on an indeterminate sentence in Leicestershire, has spoken out:
I haven’t been able to see him since the coronavirus lockdown and the last time I saw him was eight months ago. He’s in his cell for the majority of the day and sometimes he doesn’t even go out on exercise so what can that be doing to him? And he’s still in his cell. They’re not doing any education or anything so it must be torture for him.
The system also works in step with a severe housing crisis in Wales, churning people out on a conveyor belt from prison to the streets and often back into prison. Dr Jones’ research has revealed how hundreds of people are being released with no fixed address: in Cardiff, as many as six people a week. This follows the Welsh Government’s decision to remove priority status for prison leavers under the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. As one former prisoner has said, leavers are, in effect, ‘chucked out of the door’. Most remain unemployed upon release, and in any case must contend with the permanent stigma and prejudice associated with their status.
The apparent mundaneness of what is inflicted upon prisoners while in the custody of the state reflects their abject marginalisation as a class within both Welsh and British society. It also underlines the dire absence of accountability cultivated by a system in which the division of political responsibilities makes no sense, prisoners are disenfranchised, and dominant political parties pander to the retributive and individualistic sentiments of a billionaire-owned media – each helping to sustain and expand the prison estate as we know it.
There is nothing inevitable about what is happening. As Loic Wacquant argues:
Recourse to the prison apparatus in advanced societies is not destiny but a matter of political choices, and these choices must be made in full knowledge of the facts and of their consequences.
While successive UK governments have opted for penal populism, indifference, cost-cutting and profiteering – deliberately promoting incarceration as a permanent feature of the social and economic system – other places around the world have successfully driven down their incarceration rates with a range of alternatives. Finland in particular has gone from having one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe to one of the lowest by aligning an evidence-based approach with a broader social policy focused on reducing inequality and strengthening public services.
For Wales, with few of the necessary tools available, the immediate task is defensive: halting further expansion of this destructive industry. The Welsh government is not powerless here. It should be held to its commitment not to facilitate more prisons. It should reinstate housing priority for those leaving prison to halt the cycle of imprisonment and homelessness. It could go further and enfranchise prisoners for Welsh elections, providing them with a much-needed voice, and make housing a fundamental right.
If Wales is to move beyond incarceration, however, as Undod rightfully advocates, current state structures will need to change – dramatically. The devolution of justice functions, or a new Welsh state, would provide the necessary opportunities to dispense with the failures of the current system.
A newly acquired Welshness, however, will not necessarily render the prison estate any less tolerated. Indeed, the risk is that more political control in Wales within the current state will help to legitimise the prison-industrial complex while little is done to challenge it. We should also question just how differently such a system would operate to the present one, particularly if the major economic levers are withheld and Wales continues under the hegemony of a political party which oversaw an exponential rise in recourse to imprisonment, detention without trial, IPP, and, more recently, facilitated Berwyn.
Constitutional change, in short, is not enough. As Gareth Leaman recently argued in a powerful essay, if a worthwhile cultural shift is to emerge from the pandemic it ‘… must take a form that goes beyond a mere negation of Britishness to build a ‘Welshness’ that is politically meaningful’. To that end, the fundamental normalisation of incarceration should be challenged squarely alongside the neoliberal orthodoxy in which it thrives. As Angela Davis wrote, the task is ‘to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society’.
The ambition should be to ensure that Berwyn is the last of its kind in Wales. If not repurposed for better social ends or eradicated completely, we should hope that any remaining physical edifice of such institutions will one day serve as little more than a spectacle of the cruelty of a bygone age.