Why north Wales needs a prison

David Hanson argues that forcing criminals across the border to serve time makes them more likely to re-offend and undermines rehabilitation

Every year in Wales around 5,000 people are given a custodial sentence. Wales is currently serviced by a number of prisons in south Wales – in Cardiff, Swansea and Bridgend with open prisons in Monmouthshire – but we have no prison serving north Wales. People from north Wales serve their time across the border in places like Liverpool and Manchester.

There are a number of key reasons why a north Wales prison is important and why the last Labour Government recognised the need for one. The evidence shows us that prisoners who serve their sentences closer to their families are more likely to have in place an accessible support network. With this support offenders are less likely to re-offend and more likely to integrate and contribute to their community on release.

In addition, there are serious issues associated with the language. Welsh speakers can find themselves isolated within the prison system and this can have a knock on effect when it comes to effective rehabilitation. The Cross-party Welsh Affairs Committee completed an inquiry on Welsh Prisoners in the Prison Estate in 2007 and welcomed Labour’s decision to build a new prison in north Wales. The inquiry concluded that:

“…the creation of a north Wales prison would enable prisoners to maintain better contact with their families and communities, and assist their resettlement on release. It would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of those agencies working with prisoners, in particular the probation service, by reducing the resources they devote to travelling to prisons outside Wales, and it would create a more cohesive and effective criminal justice system for Wales.”

Whilst I was Prisons Minister we shortlisted four sites in north Wales for the possible location of the new prison. The decision was made that the site in Caernarfon was the most suitable and arrangements were made to move the programme forward. However, because of protracted difficulties, the deal fell through and the search for a suitable site was restarted.

When Labour left office in May we still had a strong commitment to a prison in north Wales as part of our wider prisons programme.

Whilst the new Conservative Lib Dem coalition have indicated that they support the idea of a prison in north Wales, any programme moving forward is dependant on the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review in October.

Prison has to be about punishment, the protection of the public and rehabilitation. We know that prison is not for everyone and when in Government Labour worked to ensure that there was a wide range of sentencing options available to the courts. This enabled them to deal robustly and effectively with each individual offender, taking into account the circumstances of the offence and the offender.

Whilst decisions in individual cases must always be made by the courts, prison should be reserved for serious, dangerous and seriously persistent offenders. As a Government we changed the sentencing framework to distinguish more clearly between those who are dangerous and those who are not.

According to the Sentencing Statistics for 2008 the average custodial sentence length for indictable offences at the Crown Court increased by 13 per cent between 1998 and 2008 – from 22.2 months to 25.1 months. In terms of Labour’s record on criminal justice, there were 75 per cent more serious and violent offenders in prison in June 2009 than in June 1997. Overall crime fell by 36 per cent between 1997 and 2009, while violent crime fell by 41 per cent.

Others are better punished in the community. Far from being a soft touch, community punishment means that offenders often do tough physical work to benefit their communities: clearing up canal banks, removing graffiti, renovating old people’s homes, and a host of other projects that can now be nominated by local people through the community payback scheme. In 2008 190,200 offenders were given community sentences, up from 149,400 in 1998, an increase of 27 per cent.

In opposition we will continue to make the case for investing in crime reduction as the costs of crime in purely financial terms are huge – this is of course not taking into account the personal trauma that is felt by any victim of crime. According to the most recent Home Office estimate, in 2003-04 crimes committed against individuals and households were estimated to have resulted in criminal justice system costs of £7,096 million and health service costs of £2,356 million. It was also estimated to have cost £4,253 million in lost output due to time off work – and this estimate did not include the wider costs to the public purse of crime and anti social behaviour.

The new Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has already spoken about his desire to see fewer people go to prison. However, I am unsure how this chimes with the present government’s desire to provide north Wales with adequate prison facilities. If there are to be cuts in prison spending, and if there is not the corresponding investment in community sentencing and probation, there is the real prospect of a rise in re-offending and ultimately a rise in crime.

David Hanson is Labour MP for Delyn.

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