Locked in ... to the wrong sort of prison

As things stood until a month ago, the Ministry of Justice had made a commitment to build a new prison near Caernarfon. Those plans were then suddenly scrapped. There was an interesting exchange about it at First Minister's Questions yesterday:

     

Several things that were said in the debate should give us cause for serious concern. The first is that any dispute over the value of the site because of the extent of ground remediation is probably a red herring. The site was big enough for a prison of around 750, maybe 800 at a pinch. But it is becoming clear that the Ministry of Justice are now not particularly interested in building prisons of that size. Even if the site had been completely clean, it would not have been big enough for one of the bigger prisons they now want to build.

Their primary concern is to increase prison capacity in England and Wales as a whole. It is of course cheaper and easier to build three big prisons of 1,500 than six smaller prisons of 750. Fair enough. 1,500 is a good size for England because England is a more densely populated country; it is also a reasonable size for a prison in more densely populated south Wales. Parc Prison near Bridgend has a capacity of some 1,200 and it might well be extended by a few hundred. But this sort of size would be completely wrong for north, or indeed mid Wales.

At present there are some 700 prisoners from north Wales, who are in the main accommodated in prisons in England such as Altcourse. The argument for a prison in north Wales, as was made clear in the debate, is centred on the need for prisoners to be located close to their families, and close to the probation and other services they will need when released, because this helps reduce reoffending. Nobody questions that.

However a 1,500 place prison in north Wales will mean that some 800 English prisoners will be based further from their own families and local services instead. Building it would simply replace one intolerable situation for us with an equally intolerable situation for some English prisoners.

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It is right that we had a broad, all-party consensus on the need for a new prison in north Wales. When the previously chosen site was deemed "unsuitable" each party then wanted the prison to go ahead on an alternative site. Quite understandable. But we should be looking for an alternative for the same sort of prison ... not one that is more than twice as big as it needs to be. I don't think that people such as Brynle Williams and our own Janet Ryder have fully realized that we're now being made to dance to a very different tune.

The goalposts have been shifted so far that I think it would be better not to build one of these 1,500 place prisons in north Wales at all.

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Look at it from this perspective. Labour are treating the needs of Wales with disdain. How else is it possible to explain why a Labour minister in Cardiff still can't arrange a meeting with another Labour minister in Westminster after more than four weeks?

But Labour will be out of office in a few months, and although the Tories are just as much of a nightmare alternative, they do seem to have better ideas about prisons than we are now being restricted to by Labour. This is what the Tory think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, recommended in March this year:

Control prisons from Wales call

Former MP Jonathan Aitken has called for the Welsh assembly government to take over responsibility for prisons and rehabilitating offenders in Wales. Ex-prisoner Mr Aitken led the prison reform study for the Conservative think tank, the Centre for Social Justice.

He said the assembly government was "absolutely ready and capable" of running the services "much better". The report also recommends the building of new, small community jails, rather than so called 'Titan prisons'.

Mr Aitken told BBC Radio Wales the UK-wide National Offender Management Service was "trying to run this by remote control" and should be abolished with its functions decentralised.

"Wales should be one of the first areas to have its own CPRT - Community Prison and Rehabilitation Trust," he said.

"We'd like to see the Welsh Assembly Government in control of the prisons and the rehabilitation - joined up rehabilitation in communities. We think they'll do a better job and cut re-offending."

BBC, 23 March 2009

Executive Summary
Full Report

I know a few influential Tories read this blog, so can any of them give us some clarification about how they see the situation in Wales? I would dearly love to see the Tories make a firm commitment to devolve responsibility for prisons to Wales. But even if they couldn't go quite that far, agreeing to build one of those "new, small community jails" mentioned in that report in north Wales is exactly what we need.

I would urge my colleagues in Plaid, as well as the LibDems and Tories, not to play along with Labour's plans for such an unnecessarily large prison. I think it is better to hold out for what Wales needs, rather than accept a solution that will do more harm than good. It's not particularly pleasant for me to say that the Tories have got the right ideas ... but on this occasion they have got it right, and we need to applaud them for it. If, that is, their leadership decides to implement their own think tank's recommendations.

If Labour now refuse to think in terms of the smaller prison they previously committed themselves to build in north Wales, the other three parties should work together to come up with a better plan.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

From what I hear, it appears that the options facing N Wales are a 2,500-person "regional" prison (i.e. for N Wales and N W England) or a 700-person "local" prison. Whether either will be built seems up in the air.
There is a clear argument for a local prison to service Welsh prisoners. There is no justification for anything larger.

More importantly, it shows that the needs of Welsh communities are being ignored by London.

MH said...

What you say is true of the way things were at the beginning of the year. However the MoJ abandoned their plans for Titans in April. That still left open the possiblility of local prisons for 700 (or so) and the Caernarfon prison was intended to be one of those (it had to be, the site couldn't take anything bigger).

However the news yesterday, if you watch the video, is that the MoJ are NOW looking to build a 1,500 place prison somewhere in Wales. Peter Hain was angling for it to be on Ynys Môn a few weeks ago.

My concern is that Brynle Williams and others are anxious to get a prison in north Wales THINKING it will be a 700 place local prison. My post was a warning that it won't be.

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