Prison policy and Welsh devolution

Robert Jones questions the Ministry of Justice’s objectives in siting a super prison in north Wales

There is no doubt that 2013 will mark one of the most significant years in the history of debates around criminal justice in Wales. This process began in February when, in its evidence to the Silk Commission the Welsh Government said it wanted criminal justice powers devolved to Wales. A month later, in its evidence, the UK Government firmly opposed the devolution of criminal justice.

In June the Justice Ministry announced that north Wales has been chosen ahead of London and the north west of England as the site for what will be the largest prison in England and Wales. How does this decision relate to London’s determination to hold on to criminal justice powers?



This is the third of a three-part series examining the impact of the Ministry of Justice’s decision to site a major new prison in north Wales.


Before we can consider the politics behind the announcement it is essential to disqualify any assumptions that the UK government’s decision might be seen as a sincere and credible attempt to respond to the need for additional custodial spaces across north Wales.

The grounds upon which the ‘sincerity’ of the MoJ’s plans can be dismissed lies within the UK government’s failure to adhere to the recommendations made by the Welsh Affairs Committee in 2007 following their inquiry into Welsh prisoners experiences. Quite simply, the Wrexham ‘super’ prison is not what the doctor ordered. The MoJ have not only ignored the Committee’s recommendation for a “medium-sized” (500 places) prison, but the decision to build a prison in north east Wales largely goes against the feeling that the problems presented to Welsh prisoners and their families are felt most strongly by those from north west Wales.

The Wrexham super prison, with a capacity of 2,000 prisoners is not only four times this recommended size, but is being located in the least convenient place for north Wales as a whole. This outcome is all the more bizarre when the key role in the decision of David Jones, the Secretary of State for Wales, is taken into account – for he was a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee when it drew together its evidence and published its recommendations in 2007.

Six years after the Welsh Affairs Committee’s report was published the only thing to have changed considerably during is the political context in which debates on criminal justice in Wales are currently being played out. In particular, since 2007 devolution in Wales has progressed significantly as a result of the referendum in 2011.

The result is that the debate on criminal justice in Wales is taking place against the backdrop of potential changes to the devolution dispensation that are likely to be recommended by the Silk Commission. It is arguably as a result of this emerging narrative, and potential challenge to the England and Wales justice system, that we may begin to really make sense of the Ministry of Justice’s decision to select north Wales.

In announcing north Wales as the location for its ‘super’ prison, the UK Government have moved to safeguard the future maintenance of the England and Wales justice system, against the Welsh Government’s wish to have it devolved.

Arguably, therefore, the UK government’s £250 million investment in the ‘super’ prison can be interpreted as a £250 million investment in the maintenance of the single England and Wales jurisdiction.

In this light the Wrexham ‘super’ prison represents significant political value to the UK government.

When considered in closer detail, the Wrexham ‘super’ prison represents significant political value to the UK government. In particular, on the basis of plans submitted for planning earlier this month, the prison has been designed with ‘England and Wales’ at its very core. Situated in Wales and yet only five miles from the English border, the fact that the prison population will be dominated by English prisoners will only work to strengthen the UK government’s attempts to downplay the realities of transferring justice powers to Wales in future.

For example, when attempting to envisage the role of the prison in a devolved system of justice it becomes almost too complex to imagine how such a prison would be able to operate. For example, how could a future Welsh government justify having to fund a ‘super’ sized prison when almost three quarters of its population are being held from an outside jurisdiction?

From the point of view of the UK government and those concerned with the political interests of England (as it increasingly becoming the case), is it possible to envisage a scenario in future whereby the UK government simply devolve responsibility for a prison that they have only recently spent £250 million pound building as part of their own attempts to modernise the prison estate in England and Wales?

To think of this within an area of policy which is already devolved, a north Wales ‘super’ prison would be like the current Welsh government having to manage and run a large hospital in Wales only for 75 per cent of its patients to come from England.

At an event held in Cardiff University last year, the Counsel General, Theodore Huckle QC, argued that the devolution of criminal justice powers would in fact represent the “single largest addition” to the Welsh government’s responsibilities since devolution began. If plans to build a ‘super’ prison in north Wales are to go ahead then these responsibilities will become even more difficult to bear.

Despite the obvious difficulties that the proposed ‘super’ prison will offer the Welsh government and their attempts to envisage a future devolved system of criminal justice, the UK government’s plans have, somewhat surprisingly, been welcomed by the First Minister.

As recently as the 4th September, the First Minister described the MoJ’s announcement as a “big boost for Wrexham and all of north Wales”. When considered alongside the Welsh government’s support for the future transfer of criminal justice powers to Wales, the First Minister’ support of a north Wales ‘super’ prison has, at best, been misplaced.

In doing so, it may be argued that the Welsh government, and indeed the First Minister, has missed a valuable opportunity to outline to the people of Wales, and on-looking members of the Silk Commission, just what their vision for the “longer-term” future of criminal justice in Wales may actually look like.

In fact, in welcoming the MoJ’s announcement, one could be forgiven for thinking that in doing so the Welsh government actually foresee ‘super’ prisons as part of their very own vision for criminal justice in Wales. Though I very much doubt that this is the case, the Welsh government’s actual vision for criminal justice in Wales is something which must become a lot clearer going forward.

As we head towards the conclusion of the second part of the Silk Commission’s inquiry, debates and discussion on the future of criminal justice powers in Wales look set to become the subject of widespread debate. This includes the IWA’s own efforts to kick-start conversations on the future of policing and justice.

As debates develop in and around the north Wales ‘super’ prison, it is essential that such discussions are used to steer attention towards what role the devolved government in Wales has to play within existing and future debates on criminal justice. In doing so, opponents of the MoJ’s plans may wish to encourage the Welsh government to reconsider its current stance on the north Wales ‘super’ prison against the backdrop of the arguments that have been set out in all three of these articles.

The fate of the north Wales ‘super’ prison is by no means decided. The fact that the site upon which the prison is planned for is owned by the Welsh government, as well as the UK government’s continuing reluctance to act upon or respond to Part I of the Silk Commission’s recommendations, all add yet more substance to a debate that has yet to truly get started.


Robert Jones is a PhD student at Cardiff Law School. His research is on imprisonment and devolution in Wales.

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