Wrexham’s super jail will be too big

Robert Jones assesses how successful the claims being made for the new north Wales prison at tackling re-offending will be.

The recently proposed £250m north Wales ‘super’ prison is being heralded as the new jewel in the crown of the England and Wales prison estate. In particular, according to the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, the new development marks the start of a ‘modernising’ approach whilst providing the UK government with ‘better opportunities’ to work with offenders and reduce levels of re-offending across the prison estate. But how successful will the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) plans actually be? What is the reality of the Welsh Secretary, David Jones’, very own assertion that the Wrexham ‘super’ prison will also provide ‘benefits’ to prisoners from Wales?



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


Tomorrow: Prison policy and devolution – what are the Ministry of Justice’s objectives in siting a super prison in north Wales?


Before we get to the size and scale of the UK government’s proposed prison plans it is essential to ask the following question – just how effective is prison at reducing levels of reoffending? The statistics would tell us not very good. The long list of penal reformers, which date back to John Howard during the eighteenth century, perhaps provides the clearest indication of just how long people have been working to campaign against the destructive capacities of penal institutions. Increasingly, the measure now used to assess the effectiveness of ‘prison performance’ is through levels of re-offending committed by released prisoners.

In England and Wales, prisons currently produce a 58 per cent level of re-offending for those released under a year (35 per cent for those over a year). That is to say that almost six out of ten people sent to prison for less than a year go on to commit a further crime following release. As was put recently by a Professor of Sociology at a recent European Group Conference in Oslo when discussing the alarmingly high rates of re-offending –

“What would you do if you had a motor car that failed to start 58 per cent of the time you got into it? For many, the solution would be straight forward, you would simply get rid of it”.

The problem was outlined only last week within a damming report into HMP Oakwood in Birmingham which will be replaced by HMP Wrexham as the largest prison in England and Wales.

The relationship between the size of a prison and its performance has long been the subject of considerable interest. In 1991, the need to consider the impact of a prison’s size was outlined by Lord Woolf within his report into the Strangeways prison disturbances. Within his report, Woolf recommended the use of smaller prisons as a way to minimise the record of potential future disturbances. Woolf concluded that prisons

“…should not normally hold more than 400 prisoners … the evidence suggests that if these figures are exceeded, there can be a marked fall off in all aspects of the performance of a prison”.

These sentiments have since been reinforced by more up to date studies of imprisonment. This included a study conducted by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2009 who argued that prison size “was the most influential factor” in the performance of prisons. In particular the study found that:

“…prisons holding 400 or fewer prisoners were significantly more likely to perform well in these tests [of performance] than larger prisons holding more than 800 prisoners. Smaller prisons were four times more likely to perform well overall than large prisons holding more than 800 prisoners”.

So, whilst there is evidence to suggest that the size of the new prison in Wrexham will do little to  help to fulfil the Justice Secretary’s efforts to stop offenders “committing more crimes when they leave” prison – what exactly does the ‘super’ prison mean for prisoners from Wales?

Well, if you are to believe the Welsh Secretary the all new north Wales ‘super’ prison will bring with it significant benefits to Welsh prisoners. In particular, according to David Jones the new prison will help to ensure that Welsh prisoners are held much closer to their families and local communities. But exactly how many Welsh prisoners will in fact ‘benefit’ from the new development?

To solve this question it is necessary to consider what the current ‘need’ for prison places across mid and north Wales actually is. This figure, according to Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP, Elfyn Llwyd, can at any given time range between 700 to 750 prison places. However, whilst this figure may be an indication of the current prison place requirements in north Wales – the new development will only be able to cater for a small proportion of that figure.

For example, when you take into account that the new prison will be operating as a “predominantly” Category C adult male prison – it soon becomes clear that a large number of Welsh prisoners will in fact be excluded from the ‘benefits’ of the north Wales prison. This group will include all Welsh adult male prisoners held as Category A and a number of Category B inmates as well as all juvenile prisoners and all female prisoners from Wales

In reality, having eliminated a range of ‘non-eligible’ Welsh prisoners the proposed north Wales ‘super’ prison may in fact result in a situation whereby only 500 Welsh prisoners are in fact held there. This would help to create a situation whereby almost three quarters of the prison’s population are in fact from England!

To compound this problem, recent research would suggest that even when Welsh prisoners may in fact be eligible for the new ‘super’ prison there is little evidence to imply that Welsh prisoners will be sent there anyway. This is best illustrated by the way in which the Prison Service continually fails to maximise the number of north Wales prisoners held in their current local prison, HMP Altcourse, in Liverpool.

At any one time, Welsh prisoners usually make up about a third of HMP Altcourse’s overall population. So well ingrained is the prison’s standing as north Wales local prison that in 2007 the Welsh government invested £100,000 into building a North Wales Resettlement Unit to help accommodate Welsh prisoners and outside support services who enter the prison on a weekly basis (sometimes daily) to provide ‘in-reach’ support to Welsh prisoners. In addition to this, outside support including the ‘North Wales Prison Bus’ has also been set up to provide transport for visiting relatives who regularly make the journey to HMP Altcourse.

In spite of the obvious ‘benefits’ of holding Welsh prisoners at their ‘local’ prison, efforts are seemingly not always made to ensure that Welsh prisoners are actually sent there. Take the figures relating to the Welsh inmate population during May 2012 and June 2013. Within this period the number of Welsh prisoners held at HMP Altcourse actually decreased by 21 per cent. In contrast to HMP Altcourse, some prisons in the area, many of which much further away for both prisoners and relatives, actually saw an increase in the number of Welsh prisoners being held there. As outlined in the table below, the number of Welsh prisoners being sent to prisons beyond HMP Altcourse has increased significantly.

Table 1: Welsh prisoners in north west England


Buckley Hall




Thorn Cross


















































Total +/-








Total %









Beyond north Wales and HMP Altcourse, the situation in south Wales will do little to encourage confidence amongst Welsh prisoners expecting to be moved to ‘HMP Wrexham’ anytime soon. For example, between May 2012 and June 2103, the number of Welsh prisoners actually held in Welsh prisons decreased at a time when the number of Welsh prisoners sent to prisons in England actually increased by 8 per cent. On top of this, at a time when the number of Welsh prisoners held in Wales decreased by 7.4 per cent the actual number of English prisoners being held in Welsh prisons went up by a remarkable 10.8 per cent.

In short, during this period the number of English prisoners held in Wales went up at the expense of Welsh prisoners who were increasingly sent to prisons right across England.

The point I want to make here is a particularly clear one. In view of recent prison data it appears clear that even when a prison has been set up to recognise and respond to the needs of Welsh prisoners, such as HMP Altcourse or even existing prisons in Wales, in all too many cases this does not mean that Welsh prisoners are actually held there.

The realities of this information really calls into question the potential ‘benefits’ of having a ‘super’ prison in north Wales for Welsh prisoners, their families and criminal justice professionals across the area.

When attempting to weigh up what impact the north Wales ‘super’ prison will actually have upon Welsh prisoners some things will be easier to predict than others. Whilst the arguments above have largely surrounded the fact that not enough Welsh prisoners will be held at the new prison to justify its development, perhaps the most potent danger of a new ‘super’ prison lies in the fact that the very presence of a ‘super’ prison in north Wales may work to ensure that too many Welsh people are actually held there.

In making this point, it is important to stress the potential impact that a new ‘super’ prison in north Wales may have upon judges across the local area. In particular, with England and Wales’ largest prison ready and waiting, there is a very real danger that custodial sentences become increasingly favourable amongst judges when passing sentence across courts in the north Wales area. Whilst this is not to suggest that there will be a predetermined will to use custodial sentences – research in this area helps to outline the way in which judges’ decisions are often influenced and informed by wider social factors.

This was something outlined by the former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, in 2007 who found that judges’ decisions were often influenced by outside events. To outline, Owers cited two different examples whereby judges’ sentencing decisions were influenced by political and public sentiment. These included the passing of longer prison terms in response to the ‘ill-fated’ Criminal Justice Act 1991 before the measure could be amended, and additionally a reluctance shown amongst judges to use remand in 2005 in an effort to help avoid a potential crisis in prison overcrowding (Owers, A 2007., ‘Imprisonment in the twenty-first century: a view from the inspectorate’, in Jewkes, Y., (Ed) – Handbook on Prisons, 2007).

When we consider that the ‘super’ prison is being introduced by the UK government to reduce costs and improve efficiencies – the MoJ are constructing a minimum 2,000 capacity prison with the aim to do one thing – fill it. In simple terms, the MoJ will not reap the economic rewards of a brand new ‘super’ prison unless it is run to its full operational capacity. It is arguably this political and economically driven incentive for the prison to be full that should cause most concern.

In view of the UK government’s plans for a ‘super’ prison in north Wales – any talk of potential benefits for Welsh prisoners should be treated with a great deal of scepticism. In cutting through the Secretary of State for Wales’ seemingly misled optimism, the north Wales ‘super’ prison looks increasingly likely to stand as something which might merely come to represent another prison in Wales as opposed to something that was envisaged and designed in order to improve the situation of justice for Wales.

This story is one which is fast becoming all too familiar in Wales. It is also one which will struggle to convince anyone in Wrexham or across Wales of the need for a north Wales ‘super’ prison.

Robert Jones is a PhD student at the Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University. His research is on imprisonment and devolution in Wales.

3 thoughts on “Wrexham’s super jail will be too big

  1. Good article – challenging many lazy assertions made by local politicians. Shame they wnot read it

  2. This article makes an assumption that prolific offenders are guilty of large scale crime – many of the repeat offenders are back in prison as the other support needed to live in society is not available – house, job and health. Your commentators on the blogs have had the opportunity to do something about this issue as they are or have been Councillors in Wrexham. If you are homeless and a prolific shoplifter – yes it is criminal but it is about personal survival rather than a criminal who steals a lorry load of goods because that is his living. Survival and living are at opposite end of the spectrum and your writers need to be aware of the different.

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