Robert Jones examines the impact of the Wrexham ‘super’ prison on north west England
If we return to the UK government’s efforts to re-introduce ‘super’ prison building in England and Wales as part of a package of promises and ‘benefits’ it is important to try and look beyond the economic aspect of the MoJ’s argument.
For example, in addition to economic benefits the decision to build the Wrexham ‘super’ prison, there has also been the promise that the development will bring benefits to prisoners from Wales. In fact, when looking at the UK government’s announcement you are immediately struck by just how localised the MoJ’s decision has been made to look.
WREXHAM PRISON BLUES II
This is the last of a three-part series examining the impact of the Ministry of Justice’s decision to site a major new prison in north Wales.
While this includes the promise of local jobs and benefits to local businesses, the MoJ have also spoken about the Wrexham ‘super’ prison being “the first prison in north Wales” which will allow for “offenders from the region to be held closer to their homes”. In addition, the Welsh Secretary has also moved to draw attention to the benefits for Welsh speaking prisoners who will now “be able to get Welsh language services” when held in a prison in Wales.
The UK government’s attempts to remain watchful over the views of local people is also highlighted within a Wales Office ‘Briefing Paper’ recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act which makes reference to the fact that the potential decision to build a prison in the area has attracted “local media interest”. In particular, the briefing, which was prepared for the Welsh Secretary in February, reflects upon the fact that coverage of the prison debate within the Wrexham and Flintshire editions of The Leader “has been positive”.
Crucially, as a consequence of the MoJ’s efforts to try and localise their decision to build a prison in Wrexham, much of the critical attention that has been drawn to the announcement has emerged from the perspective of Wales. In fact, in appearing to tailor its decision to build a prison in Wrexham to the local needs of north Wales the MoJ’s decision has simultaneously managed to localise the debate. For example, while the announcement to build ‘Titan’ prisons in 2007 became a national discussion – the MoJ’s individualised or localised strategy to support its ‘super’ prison plans has prevented criticism of the plans coming from further afield.
However, while the prison may have been strategically spun to try and localise the decision, in fact it should be people from outside of Wales who are opposing this development. Those most likely to be affected, and disadvantaged, by the Wrexham ‘super’ prison will be prisoners, visiting relatives, and outside support agencies from north west England. In particular this relates to the effects that a Wrexham ‘super’ prison may have upon the situation of justice in the north west of England and in the regions of Merseyside and Greater Manchester.
Even before a decision to build a prison in Wrexham was taken, the areas of Merseyside and Greater Manchester played a central role in informing the MoJ’s decision making processes. For example, in January it was announced that north Wales alongside London and the north west of England would be considered as potential sites for a prison. However, in a recently obtained MoJ document produced in February which set out to establish the ‘Site Search Boundaries’, a recommendation was made to treat north Wales and the north west as “one site search area”.
At the heart of the MoJ’s efforts to narrow down a potential site in north Wales/ the north west, Liverpool and Manchester were then identified by the MoJ as “key population areas” within the decision to choose a site. The report states that:
For the purposes of the site search exercise the centres of population that feed into these prison locations are identified as Liverpool and Manchester for the North West & North Wales.
While the identification of Liverpool and Manchester as “key population areas” may raise concerns over the MoJ’s failure to consider the needs of people from “key population areas” in Wales, the MoJ’s report also manages to highlight the central position played by the north west within the thought processes that went into the decision to build the prison in Wrexham.
Since the announcement of Wrexham as the chosen site, the MoJ has made no secret of the fact that the prison will hold inmates from right across the north west area. For example, while projections over the number of Welsh prisoners who will be held in the prison vary, the ‘super’ prisons population is likely to be dominated by prisoners from north west England.
This situation was something that was acknowledged within another document recently obtained from the MoJ. This time, within a MoJ ‘Site Search Moderation Panel Report’, attention was not only drawn to the number of prisoners that may be held from the north west in a Wrexham ‘super’ prison, but emphasis was placed upon what affect the prison may have upon the remaining prison estate in the north west.
In particular, the report states that as a consequence of the large number of prisoners from the north west being held in Wrexham, this may well lead to a situation whereby a prison within the north west could be closed to accommodate the new prison. This is outlined from an extract taken from the MoJ report below.
[redacted] said that there was a shortage of around 800 places for prisoners originating from North Wales. This is a strategic need that must be addressed and the Wrexham site does this. The balance of around 1,400 places could be met through the closure of a similar number of places at old or inefficient sites in the NW region.
A closer look at the situation that currently faces prisoners from Merseyside and Greater Manchester manages to highlight a number of problems that may only be made worse by the Wrexham ‘super’ prison.
Take for example, prisoners from Merseyside. On the basis of prison population figures taken from September 2013, prisoners with an address in Merseyside can be found within 98 different prisons outside of the north west region.
In Merseyside itself, while a large number are held at HMP Liverpool (843) and HMP Kennett (144), prisoners from Merseyside represent only a small percentage of the number of prisoners being held at HMP Altcourse which is a ‘local’ prison in the area. For example, alongside HMP Altcourse’s operational capacity of 1,333 places, prisoners from Merseyside represent just 12 per cent of the prisons overall population (157).
Given the fact that HMP Altcourse is a local prison, why are so few prisoners from Merseyside held here when so many prisoners are being sent outside of the north west?
In Greater Manchester, a similar picture exists. In September 2013, prisoners with an address in the area could be found within a total of 101 prisons outside of the north west area.
Within Greater Manchester itself, while both HMP Manchester and HMYOI Forrest Bank are local prisons, the proportion of local people held could be improved. For example, alongside HMP Manchester’s operational capacity of 1286 prisoners from Greater Manchester represent just 68 per cent of the total population (872).
Against the backdrop of the current situation facing prisoners from north west England, the Wrexham ‘super’ prison looks set to exacerbate many of the problems already presented to prisoners from the area who are being held in prisons outside of their home region.
For the purposes of the debate surrounding the Wrexham ‘super’ prison, while the MoJ’s announcement has managed to localise the discussion to the area of Wrexham and north Wales, a closer look at the decision to choose the Wrexham site would suggest that it was in fact the north west of England that played the most prominent role in the MoJ’s decision.
Therefore, while it is the supposed needs of Wales that appears dominant within the MoJ’s announcement, efforts must be made to direct critical attention towards the affects that this prison will have upon prisoners from England.
While the decision to build a prison in Wrexham was made alongside the claim that the prison would allow prisoners from north Wales “to be held closer to their homes”, what does this mean for prisoners from the north west of England?
In fact, while prisoners from Wales may be held closer to home, prisoners from England are increasingly likely to be disadvantaged by being held in an institution which, despite being located in Wales, was actually designed with them in mind.
Too add to this, how will the closure of another prison in north west England help the MoJ within their attempts to hold prisoners “closer to their homes”? In particular, which prison would the MoJ be most likely to close within the north west region?
These questions must be used to try and steer the debate away from the MoJ’s attempt to localise the debate in an attempt to widen the discussions over the UK government’s decision to re-introduce ‘super’ prison building in England and Wales.
Only then will the debate be able to take full account of the true significance of the UK government’s latest prison plans.