Less than a fortnight ago, on 19 May to be precise, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee at Westminster decided to launch an investigation into prisons in Wales and the treatment of offenders, including the proposed new 2,000 place prison at Wrecsam. This is the Daily Post article about it.
The committee invited interested parties and the public at large to submit evidence to them, and details of how to do it are on this page. Submissions need to be made by 2 July.
When this announcement was made, there seemed to be a slight glimmer of hope that there might be a chance of modifying the proposal to make it more suitable for what north Wales needs. But the news today is that the UK government has announced that a contractor for the project has been appointed.
The contradiction is obvious. Now there is always—how shall we put it?—a "healthy tension" between the actions of government and the actions of the bodies in parliament that scrutinize what government does. But, in this case, it's hard to see today's announcement as anything other than the UK government putting two fingers up at the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and saying, in effect, "To hell with your inquiry, we're going to press ahead anyway irrespective of anything you might decide."
Of course, governments regularly ignore the findings and recommendations of committees; it's just that on this occasion they're showing their contempt for scrutiny in a rather more blatant and obvious way than usual.
At this stage, we probably have to accept a large measure of fait accompli. The site has been acquired, outline planning permission has been granted, and a contractor has now been appointed. So those of us who believe that this is the wrong sort of prison for Wales have to be realistic about what can now be changed.
We have to accept that a prison of some sort is going to be built on this particular site. The question is therefore whether the current proposal can be modified to better meet our needs. I think it can.
The main objection to the current proposal is that a 2,000 place prison is far too big. Therefore I think the first aim should be to reduce its size. Ideally, I'd like to see it house somewhere in the region of 500-700 inmates, but any reduction would help.
Linked with this, I think it might be fruitful to look again at what sort of prison accommodation we need. What is proposed is a Category C prison (one stage more secure than a Category D open prison). Wales, like any other country, will have its share of prisoners that need to be held more securely, so I think it would be a good idea to look at making part of the site into a Category B prison, or at least designing it in a way that would allow part of it to be easily converted into a Category B prison in future.
The second thing that Wales lacks is a women's prison. This topic was in the news recently, with The Wales Report on 21 May asking whether the lack of a women's prison in Wales is directly linked to an increase in repeat offending.
I have no doubt that the lack of a women's prison is a contributory factor in re-offending rates. It therefore strikes me that it would be a very good idea to use part of the Wrecsam site for this. As there are very few women prisoners, it would only need to be small, perhaps housing 25 or so women.
A third factor is the need for a unit to house youth offenders from north Wales. Again, this would only need to be small.
So, in short, I think there would be mileage in the WASC recommending a diversification of secure accommodation on the site that has been chosen. The main part of the site would house a smaller men's prison that would be designed in such a way as to allow for both Category B and Category C prisoners. But other parts of the site would house small units for women and youth offenders.
I'm sure that Lend Lease, the chosen contractor, wouldn't object; for the amount of building work and cost would probably be about the same. And three separate units on the site would probably provide the same amount of local employment as one huge unit, so the community in Wrecsam won't loose out either.