The difficulties of launching a super-prison in North Wales must not be underestimated, according to the UK’s chief inspector of prisons.
Nick Hardwick warned Welsh MPs of the potential impact on local health costs and the challenges of getting a 2,100-inmate prison up and running.
He said: “It is more difficult to run a big prison than a small prison. There is no doubt about that at all.”
Warning that “setting up any new prison is very difficult,” he added: “Setting up a big new prison is even more difficult.”
In his evidence to Westminster’s Welsh Affairs committee, he described the challenge of running a new prison effectively and safely with new staff, stating: “The bigger the prison, the more difficult that challenge becomes.”
Mr Hardwick said he could envisage the £212m prison becoming a well-run facility that meets the needs of the population – and he pointed out that Bridgend’s large Parc Prison was one of the UK’s better facilities – but he underscored the challenge of “getting there”.
He said: “I think it’s very important that isn’t underestimated and that the lessons about the difficulties of setting up Oakwood, Thamesmead, Doncaster in the past are learned… So I would say to them, ‘Don’t underestimate the difficulties and don’t try to do it too quickly.”
Stating that the cost of meeting health and social care needs of prisoners was a “big question that needs to be answered,” he said: “[It] certainly will be the case the prisoners in Wrexham will be typical of the prison population so their health needs will be greater than the equivalent population.”
He added that drug treatment systems in English prisons are different from those in Wales.
Mr Hardwick highlighted the need to find work for prisoners, saying: “There will need to be industry and work available for people within the prison. Where is that going to come from on a sufficient scale?”
However, he said it was not possible to say that “big equals bad and small equals good”.
The chief inspector also said that Welsh prisons had to get ready to be “hit” by the impact of so-called legal highs.
Stating legal highs had a “prison value” 10 times that of the “street value,” he stressed the health dangers and warned: “[They] are a cause of debt and debt is a cause of violence. What we found is that on the whole in Welsh prisons, actually, they don’t have the problem yet to the same extent as English prisons…
“But I think it will [arrive] and therefore those Welsh prisons need to be ready for this to hit them and on the whole I think the system has been too slow to react.”
The lack of a women’s prison in Wales was also flagged up.
Mr Hardwick said: “The female prison for Wales is Eastwood Park near Bristol… A high proportion of the women there are Welsh women.”
He added: “In an ideal world I’d like to see women prisoners in much smaller units that offer levels of support appropriate to what’s a much needier population than the male population.”
Defending the role of Welsh language lessons in prisons, he said: “It is certainly the case as I understand it that if somebody leaving prison can speak Welsh that will improve their employment prospects… There are certainly some prisoners for whom Welsh is their first language and it’s important to be able to communicate with them in that language.
“We also inspect police custody and where that has been an acute issue is in North Wales for instance where, actually, if you’re unable to communicate with some individuals in the language of their choice you won’t have the quality of the communication you need to deal with some sensitive things.”
Dusty Kennedy, head of Youth Justice Board Cymru, also gave evidence and said there was a “strange phenomenon” that “when you get a group of young people from North Wales together they all claim they can’t speak Welsh and they’re not interested”.
However, he added: “When you do one-to-one work with them when they are Welsh-speakers they flourish. There is something about the machismo of being a teenage boy.”
Mr Hardwick also criticised overcrowding and work arrangements in Swansea’s prison, saying: “Punctuality was poor, people would skip work, there wasn’t a very good working ethos.”
He praised the facility as a “real community prison” but said that expectations of prisoners were not always high enough.
He said: “Men were spending too long locked in their cells in the working day watching daytime TV with not enough to do and that was a poor preparation for them going back out into the community wanting and able to get and hold down a job.”
Overall, he praised the performance of Welsh prisons, saying: “I’m pleased to tell the committee that we think that Welsh prisons are performing better than English prisons.”