Wrexham's new £212m prison 'can be force for good' as first inmates arrive

Reporter:

Jonathan Grieve

There are laptops and phones in every cell, a detail that will no doubt add fuel to the fire of those against the new super prison, HMP Berwyn, in Wrexham.

But as governor Russ Trent explains, it’s about rehabilitation and re-educating, the punishment is in being taken away from your family and your home. Jonathan Grieve reports...

Men have begun to fill Wrexham’s new £212m prison.

The first inmates were transferred to HMP Berwyn yesterday – with the first prisoner being a Wrexham man who had been serving in a prison in Dorset.

Governor Russ Trent spoke to the Leader about his hopes for the category C prison, which has been built on the site of the former Firestone factory on Wrexham Industrial Estate.

He hit back at claims from some quarters that the facility was not punitive enough and spoke passionately about how he believes HMP Berwyn can be a force for good in the community.

Video and pictures by Craig Colville / NWN Media

Mr Trent said: “I think Berwyn can be a truly rehabilitative prison where the men will be kept in decent conditions and given every opportunity to live law-adbiding lives when they return to their community.

“It’s important that when people have committed a crime and have been sent to a custodial setting, when they are released back into the community they have a chance of living a law-abiding life and can support their family.

“People are being taken away from their families and their homes – that is the punishment. While they’re here, it’s our job to give them every chance  to better themselves and become better educated, with better work opportunities and being someone that the community can be proud of.

“The opportunity we have got at Berwyn is we have got staff that understand the principles of rehabilitation and the desire to give men in custody the hope that they can have a better life in the future.

“When people have that, they are less likely to take their own lives and they are less likely to cause harm to the staff.

“When they are living in an environment where they have engagements all day, they are less likely to get themselves into trouble.”

The facility is split into three blocks, with each being able to hold up to 702 men, which are named after bodies of water in North Wales – Alwen, Bala and Ceiriog.

At the moment, only one block is operational. The blocks are broken up into 24 communities, which can hold up to 88 people. There are even specific communities for armed forces veterans.

Staff say the smaller communities make the men easier to manage and will help foster a better atmosphere.

The other blocks are scheduled to open in May and late July.

The site also has a small 21-man block which can hold those who need to be separated from the main prison community, called Ogwen.

Deputy project director Nick Dann said men would be drip-fed into the prison in the hopes of having a smooth transition into becoming fully operational.

He said: “If you get too many in too quickly, it can get a bit bubbly so it’s a slow-paced ramp up. They are not prisoners, they are men. If you keep calling someone an offender or ex-offender, that’s how they will act.

“We’ve already been out to see the men – they know what we expect of them and they know what to expect of us. 

“I can assure you, it is not cushy.

“We had a family day and staff were going into the rooms and being locked in – they found it really uncomfortable. We have to start a change in their mindset and give them opportunities.”

Each room will have a laptop as well as a phone, shower and toilet.

The laptops will not have access to the internet but will instead be used to arrange visits, order meals for the week and do their weekly shopping, as well as complete any work related to their studies.

Mr Dann added: “The first 1,000 men were all sentenced to at least four years with at least two years to serve – so  when they arrive, we have got time to work with them and we can identify their educational and vocational needs.

“The hope is when they leave, they are not going out and looking for a job, they are going out to a job they have already found.”

Mr Dann said prison would act as a settlement facility for people from North Wales and men from outside the area would be sent to facilities nearer their homes to serve the final three months of their sentence.

He added: “If they start off with the mindset that this does not feel like a prison, we are hoping they will act like it is not a prison as well.

“When Nelson Mandela was in custody, he wrote about the importance of normality. The more normal you make it on the inside, the easier it is to transition when they get out.

“We expect them to be ready to go to work at 8.30am when we unlock the doors. The older prisons don’t have showers in the rooms so the regime is delayed but we are getting them straight out and straight to work.”

Staff will use biometric technology to access equipment including keys, radios and batons.

The prison also has its own drug dogs which can detect illegal drugs as well as psychoactive substances.

It has a full-sized 3G football pitch which can be used by the community, as well as several smaller pitches which can be used by the men.

Facilities such as the gyms and football pitches will only be available to the men outside their work hours and before the rooms are locked down for the evening.

Education at the prison is provided by Novus Cambria, a partnership between Novus, a large scale social enterprise delivering learning and skills in more than 80 sites, and Coleg Cambria.

Louise Gibbons, head of learning and skills, said: “I’ve worked in a number of prisons in the North West and it’s a huge privilege to work in a purpose-built facility where rehabilitation is the most important part of our work. 

“It means we can focus on working to help men get they skills they need not to return to jail once they are out.

“This facility will allow us to make sure the men’s needs are met. The curriculum is matched to labour market information for the local area. We take data from the area and arrange the curriculum around those needs so what we provide is what is needed in the community.

“All of this is intended to stop them returning to prison and the investment will be a benefit to society as a whole.”

The public face of the category C prison, a support building housing the visitor centre, training rooms, administration offices, facilities management and staff changing rooms and lockers, was completed by contractors Lendlease in July last year.

With its capacity for 2,106 men, HMP Berwyn will be the largest single new-build prison in the United Kingdom when it is completed, and focus on rehabilitation and education.

Services will be delivered in both English and Welsh languages.

 Facilities will include an education block, workshops, sports hall, multi-use games areas, a health and wellbeing centre, and multi-faith centre.

Work on the project – which attracted some opposition from Wrexham residents – began in 2014.

Once fully operational, it is estimated the prison will create about 1,000 jobs and boost the local economy by about £23m per year.

The jail will be the biggest in the UK HMPS, which will take overall ownership.

Running of the prison is to involve an innovative new approach that will see the public, voluntary and private sectors working together.

More than a third of service provision, including a large industrial workshop complex, will be outsourced to the private and voluntary sectors. 

See full story in the Leader

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