UK Government must address poor living conditions and violence in Welsh prisons

17 May 2019

The Welsh Affairs Committee presses for wide-ranging reforms to Welsh prisons, including improvements to healthcare, living conditions and probation services, and a process for tackling gang related violence, in its report on prison provision in Wales.

Inquiry conclusions

Following an in-depth, 16-month long inquiry into prison provision in Wales, the Committee publishes its final report in which it presses for wide-ranging reforms. Responsibility for prisons in Wales is complex, as the UK Government has overall responsibility for criminal justice but many prison services are delivered by the Welsh Government.

The Committee concludes that poor collaboration between the UK and Welsh Governments has led to significant issues in Welsh prisons, such as high population density, gang violence, inadequate healthcare and insufficient prison provision for Welsh women and Welsh speakers.

Chair's comments

Commenting on the report, Chair of the Committee David T.C. Davies MP said:

“The division of responsibility between the Welsh and UK Governments has resulted in an unusual situation where one government holds overall responsibility for criminal justice, while another provides many services Welsh prisons and offenders need such as healthcare and education.

My Committee’s inquiry has found that a lack of communication and collaboration between the UK and Welsh Governments is allowing important elements of prison management to fall through the cracks. A more cohesive, joined-up approach is essential for addressing the problems Welsh prisons face.”

Key recommendations

The Committee’s report addresses numerous elements of prison provision, and examines the effectiveness of the complicated way in which criminal justice is delivered in Wales. The report recommends a series of actions the UK Government can take in partnership with the Welsh Government to improve prisons in Wales, including the creation of a new framework for closer collaboration and integration in the provision of prison services.

The Committee calls on the UK Government to:

  • Work with the Welsh Government to improve the delivery of healthcare for offenders, including appropriate substance misuse treatment. The report encourages NHS Wales to establish a central unit providing health services for prisons;
  • Provide adequate funding for probation arrangements in Wales, and work with the Welsh Government on services such as housing to avoid offenders becoming homeless upon release;
  • Take steps to improve living conditions in crowded Welsh prisons and provide activity spaces;
  • Devise a strategy to ensure experienced prison staff are retained, and adequate training is provided for new staff to reduce the number of violent incidents and deaths in custody;
  • Install security scanners to reduce illicit activity such as the import of drugs and mobile phones;
  • Tackle gang-related problems by considering the introduction of small custodial units to place young offenders closer to home; 
  • Establish women’s residential centres in North and South Wales to enable Welsh offenders to remain in Wales;
  • Collect data on Welsh speaking prisoners and use this to improve services for Welsh speakers in prisons in both Wales and England;
  • Collaborate with the Welsh Government to ensure Welsh-specific requirements are incorporated into any new prison development;
  • Ensure any new Welsh prison is equipped to service primarily the needs of Welsh prisoners, rather than being an overspill facility for prisoners from England;
  • Call an independent review of the effectiveness of HMP Berwyn before any commitment to a new super-prison is made.

The roles of UK and Welsh Governments

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) in Wales works in partnership with the Welsh Government to deliver offender management services such as the running of prison and probation services, rehabilitation services, support in reducing reoffending and contract management of private sector prisons. The Committee heard concern that the fragmented and complex landscape in which criminal justice is delivered in Wales was not delivering the best services for prisoners. The Committee identified a number of key areas where a more joined-up approach could improve prisons and prison services, such as healthcare, management within prisons and the provision of prisons for all.

Health and wellbeing in prison and beyond

The Committee heard that collaboration is particularly important for delivering healthcare in prisons, which is provided by NHS Wales. During visits to Welsh prisons, the Committee found numerous issues regarding healthcare provision such as a lack of mental health care and long waiting times for services such as chiropody and dentistry. As a lack of coordination between HMPPS and NHS Wales was often cited as the cause of these issues, the Committee recommends the creation of a central NHS Wales unit responsible for prisoners’ healthcare and for managing the relationship with HMPPS by October 2019.

The differing policies on problematic substance use treatment between the UK and Welsh Government are symptomatic of the two governments’ varying approach to prison healthcare provision. In English prisons, prisoners who are dependent on drugs, such as Spice and psychoactive drugs, are offered opiate substitution treatment, whereas in Welsh prisons psychosocial and clinical support is given. The Committee heard that prisoners who are transferred from English to Welsh prisons pose a security threat given the expectation they will be prescribed a substitute and are then faced with withdrawal symptoms. The Committee recommends that HMPPS work with NHS Wales to develop a transition arrangement for prisoners transferring from English prisons.

The Committee found that crowding in Welsh prisons was having an effect on living conditions, for instance in some prisons, cells designed for one inmate were accommodating two. The Committee therefore calls for the UK Government to set out what steps it will take to reduce the population density in Welsh prisons. Additionally, the Committee found that homelessness is an issue for many offenders upon release and is therefore calling for greater collaboration between the UK and Welsh Governments to ensure policy differences do not affect prisoners’ opportunities to secure housing upon release.

Chair of the Committee, David T.C. Davies commented:

“Welsh offenders should not have to suffer delayed care, variations in their substance use treatment, and inadequate living conditions both in prison and beyond.

My Committee is calling for a greater collaboration to ensure Welsh offenders get the services they need.”

Violence, safety and illicit activity

The Committee heard concerns about the performance of Welsh prisons during the inquiry, especially in relation to safety, due to a rise in violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths, partly caused by problems with staff recruitment and retention. The Committee calls on the Government to devise a strategy to ensure experienced staff are retained, and adequate training is provided for new staff to reduce the number of violent incidents and deaths in custody.

A rise in illicit activity within prisons, such as the smuggling of drugs and mobile phones, was also frequently cited as one of the main contributors to the decline in prison safety. The Committee calls on the Government to introduce airport-style scanners into all Welsh prisons.

Additionally, the Committee was concerned to hear that the placement of young offenders from England in Welsh Young Offenders Institutions was leading to gang-related problems, as many English young offenders brought in problems of gang-affiliations. Therefore, the Committee recommends the Government consider the merits of housing young offenders in smaller residential units in their local areas to avoid these issues.

David T.C. Davies said:

“It is essential that Welsh prisons retain experienced staff to ensure they are equipped deal with growing safety threats, such as smuggling of drugs and mobile phones.

The UK Government needs a strategy to ensure experienced staff are retained, and new staff are well-trained.”

Prison provision

The report expresses concern about the provision of prisons in Wales for distinct groups of people such as female offenders, young offenders and Welsh speakers. There are no prisons in Wales for women offenders. The Committee was impressed by the effectiveness of the alternative approach taken by residential centres when it visited the North Wales Women’s Centre at Rhyl. The Committee recommends more residential units for women offenders are established throughout Wales to limit the distance women must travel from their homes.

The Committee found inadequacies and inconsistencies in Welsh-language provision across prisons in Wales, as well as the extent to which prisons in England and Wales are addressing the needs of Welsh-speaking prisoners. The Committee therefore recommends that more accurate data is collected about Welsh-speaking prisoners and that this data is used to inform service planning, including the creation and implementation of a new Welsh-language scheme.

David T.C. Davies said:

“Welsh prisons need to serve Welsh offenders. My Committee is calling for residential units for women offenders to be established throughout Wales, as there are currently no facilities at all for women in Wales.

We are also calling for the creation of an improved Welsh-language scheme to ensure Welsh speakers are provided for.”

The future of Welsh prisons

One potential solution that has been proposed for addressing the problems outlined above would be a new prison development in Wales. However, the Committee heard mixed views about the Government’s previous proposal to build a new prison in Baglan, Port Talbot, with many voicing objections because of the lack of consultation with the community. There was also concern about the creation of any new prison in Wales, particularly super-prisons such as HMP Berwyn, as it might be used primarily as overspill for English prisoners and might attempt to tackle issues that would be better addressed in a non-custodial community facility. The Committee urges the Government to ensure any new Welsh prison development is equipped to service primarily the needs of Welsh prisoners.

David T.C. Davies said:

“The issues my Committee uncovered throughout our inquiry need to be urgently addressed before the Government considers any new prison development in Wales.

Firstly, the lack of coordination between the Welsh and UK Governments in regard to their responsibilities for prisons needs to be clarified and implemented correctly, and secondly the needs of Welsh offenders and the surrounding community must be considered before any new prison development takes place.”

Further information

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