HMP Berwyn: The coming super-jail in North Wales by Yasmin Begum
The UK government has recently unveiled plans for the opening of a new prison in Wrexham, North Wales. It is following in the footsteps of American prison policy with the creation of a supermax jail costing £250 million. The plan is for the new development to hold 2000 inmates. Perhaps significantly, the prison is proving to be unpopular for a range of good reasons, including privatisation and structural discrimination.
According to a fact file produced by the Prison Reform Trust, inmate numbers in the UK grew hugely from 1993 to 2014, indicating an overall growth of 91%. The prison population increased by around 40,000 people. Consequently, the prison system has been overcrowded since 1994 in the United Kingdom and this is only getting worse. For example by the end of 2015, 70 of 117 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. Generally speaking, prisons are getting bigger and prison sentences are getting longer. Interestingly, it also has a negative effect on reducing reoffending in the prison population as a whole. In short, prisons are growing, overcrowding is a huge issue and our prison population is the highest across all of Western Europe.
It isn’t just the numbers that people are discussing it is other things too. According to the Young Report published by Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG), there is a greater disproportionality of black people in prison in the United Kingdom than in the USA. Black people in prison represent 12.1% of the overall prison population despite making up only 2.9% of people in the country overall. This is just a snapshot of the racialised elements of the prison system. Despite making up only 10% of the UK’s population, people of black and minority ethnic descent make up one quarter of all people in prison.
The War on Terror marked a sharp rise in the incarceration of Muslims, which has increased four-fold since 2002. This marks a new and dangerous period. Terrorism is a constantly expanding narrative that’s highly racialised and oppressive against various types of axis. The War on Terror has actively put higher numbers of people in prison in the United Kingdom.
There has been a general move towards the privatisation of institutions, and prisons are not exempt from this. Neither are other formerly state run institutions, such as detention centres.
Angela Davis in ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’ writes that the term prison industrial complex was “introduced by activists and scholars” in order to address the widely-held belief that “increased levels of crime” were causing mounting prison populations. She writes that the increase in the prison population is driven by systematic discrimination and the pursuit of profit. The term was actually first coined by social historian Mike Davis in the early 1990s in his explanation of the Californian penal system.
Since then, the USA has observed a similar sharp spike in the over representation of people of colour. Private companies have been increasingly buying up and investing in private prisons as a complete industry. Therefore, there’s a veritable vested interest in the continuation of the growth of the prisons overall.
A key component of the PIC is that crime and punishment are closely linked as concepts. Instead of rehabilitation, the focus in prisons is punishment for having committed a crime. The prison industrial complex focuses on the economic background of prisons and the political structure. It largely seeks to exacerbate them in various manners in order to keep a steady prison population. The complex plays heavily so much so into other factors that little focus is on prisoners and effects to lessen reoffending in common society. Economics and politics become irrevocably tied up with each other.
The vast majority of literature and books about the prison industrial complex have focused on the USA. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom is working towards an American-style private prison complex. This has seen a move towards huge super-jail prisons; the same type that David Cameron is looking to build in North Wales.
A number of formerly run state institutions in the United Kingdom have been bought up by private companies such as G4S and Serco. G4S has run the England-based Yarl’s Wood detention centre for a number of years, proudly boasting of being “the first private company to run a prison in the United Kingdom”. However, they have been accused of an “endemic culture of sexual abuse”.
In 2014, HMP Oakwood, run by G4S, was home to full-scale prison riots. It was originally described in the media as “concerted indiscipline”. G4S didn’t have the same duty of care in reporting what was going on. Equally, a woman in a privately-run jail (also G4S) in Peterborough had a miscarriage while being held there. She was repeatedly denied medical treatment and “forced to clean up”. Whether or not this was one particular horrific instance or an example of an endemic lack of training around health, G4S has systematically failed prisoners and detainees on a number of occasions.
There are huge implications for the building of a super-jail style prison in North Wales. The prison industrial complex is growing at a faster rate than ever before in the United Kingdom. The complex is reliant on the over-representation of vulnerable people such as people of colour, Muslims, women, and people from working class backgrounds.
In 2015, Michael Gove personally announced that there is a move to close prisons in London such as Wandsworth and Royal Holloway. This is of course for a number of different reasons, including the lucrative potential development of the land the prison sits on and as another move towards private prisons. London is 40% BME, resulting in a situation where a highly racialised prison population and working class prison population will undoubtedly be moved out of the city. This has huge implications for working class families not only from London, but from Wrexham too. It will displace pre-existing support networks and make it harder for people to visit their families.
It is undoubtable that these prisoners will largely end up in super-jail prisons such as Wrexham. The wave of gentrification is too strong for London councils to ignore prime and premium property that can be sold at an extortionate rate to the detriment of working class families and communities from the city.
There’s talk of the “prison economy” as corporations such as G4S and Serco are receiving subsidies from the government which also profits from lowly-paid labour. Not only this, prisoners are forced to commit to this labour in order to further reimburse the said corporations. Due to this, private prisons have a vested interest in the non-successful rehabilitation of prisoners in order to keep a young and working prison population. The influx of a never-ending stream of workers being paid less than minimum wage will no doubt force local businesses in the area to close. This also means that there will be less of a focus on other forms of justice, such as transformative justice.
From an anarchist perspective, this means less of a vested interest in forms of transformative justice that work to empower communities affected by crime. The growth of private prisons has affected already vulnerable communities which are then expected to put faith in these racist and classist systems. This works across ability, faith, race, class and many other aspects. The state works actively to incarcerate people from working class backgrounds and reorganise prisons further around state mechanisms. It is therefore important to work towards a British anti-prison strategy that is anti-oppressive and anarchist in nature.
Another angle on the prison economy is that a new prison will bring jobs, prosperity, job security and business to the area. Various politicians have articulated that all jobs are good jobs, and that in fact the area should probably be grateful for this opportunity. Jobs in the prison industrial complex are not good for our communities; they force participation in an inherently oppressive structure; they make the community reliant on businesses with reputations like that of G4S; and these businesses have largely operated with impunity.
The mental health rate of prison guards declines early on in their careers. This is made worse by cuts to prison services and severe overpopulation in prisons. And none of the money made in this prison will be reinvested in the local area.
Wales is not immune to the effects of the prison industrial complex. The endless stream of money poured into private prisons and detention centres comes at a huge detriment to everybody involved. Perhaps most importantly, this includes the money that will never be spent on transformative justice, education or healthcare.
Author: Yasmin Begum is a Welsh-Pakistani writer and a graduate of SOAS, University of London