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Howard League blog · 11 Jul 2019

Berwyn prison: are we tolerating the intolerable?

I am still very angry about Berwyn prison. I was furious when it was proposed, furious when it was built and now it’s two years since it opened and I’m furious because I have been proved right.

Berwyn prison is built on a former industrial estate in Wrexham, an area that desperately needs infrastructure and employment investment. Instead, it got a prison costing some £250 million that has been beset with problems and has drained local health and police resources.

Berwyn was intended to hold over 2,000 adult men on remand and on short sentences. This was obviously a nonsense as Wrexham is not near to the courts it would have served. So instead its purpose was changed and now it is ostensibly a Category C training prison and holds men serving longer sentences, mostly two to ten years.

Immediately there is a problem. The design did not include sufficient activity spaces for all the men as it was envisaged they would only be in the prison for short periods. Now that men are living in the prison for years, a third of them are locked up almost all day because there are not enough facilities for them to work or do education.

The prison is shoddy. Prisons tend to be used for decades, sometimes centuries. So as well as wasting all that capital money, the taxpayer is ploughing tens of millions into the prison for generations, and the cost of maintenance will increase as the building was simply not built to a standard to last that long.

Berwyn contravenes international standards. The United Nations Mandela Rules, Rule 12 says “Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself or herself.” And the rules go on to stipulate that there should be natural light and proper ventilation. None of this applies in Berwyn. Men are forced to share cells and the toilet is inside the cell. So in modern prison, men have to defecate in front of a cell mate, with little ventilation. Revolting.

The bar is set so low that any prison not totally awash with drugs and violence is apparently making a “good start”

HM Inspectorate of Prisons has now published Berwyn’s first inspection report, which is disappointing because it seems we now tolerate the intolerable. The tenor of the report is that it made “a good start” whilst acknowledging that there are some important weaknesses. I disagree. The prison should never have been built, the design is flawed, and it is failing to get men busy or to protect the public. As many prisons are now in a deplorable state, the bar is set so low that any prison not totally awash with drugs and violence is apparently making a “good start”, despite a high use of violence by staff to control prisoners, nearly a third of men locked up all day (that’s nearly 400 men) and a quarter saying they feel unsafe.

There is reluctant recognition that Berwyn is not fit for purpose as two years since it opened it is still only half full. If it ever holds 2,000 men it will be a disaster. It is failing today – failing victims, failing prisoners, failing the local community in North Wales and failing the taxpayer. Yet the government plans to build even more Berwyns.


  • Claire Durtnall says:

    I am appalled to learn what is happening at Berwyn Prison. What does this say about our society that such conditions can be tolerated? What does this say about the inspectors who inspect our prisons? Totally wrong, inhumane and unacceptable.

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