AN Assembly Member's comments that a Wrexham prison is a catastrophic failure does a "tremendous disservice" to its hard working staff according to the Ministry of Justice.

Llyr Gruffydd, Plaid Cymru’s North Wales AM, said the Wales Governance Centre’s latest report on sentencing and imprisonment in Wales reveals that Wrexham's HMP Berwyn is showing signs of institutional failure.

He said: "The prison, which was touted as a model for the future, is still just over half full but it already tops the list in terms of violence between prisoners, weapon finds and alcohol finds in 2018.

"It has become an unsafe prison for many vulnerable people and assaults on staff are also unacceptably high.

"At HMP Berwyn, the population has increased by 116% since 2017 but the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults rose by 338% in 2018.

"Worse still, the number of assaults on staff at HMP Berwyn increased by 405% in 2018 from 40 in 2017 to 202 in 2018. These are appalling statistics."

The report, which was produced at the Cardiff University-based centre, also reveals that the number of weapons discovered in Welsh prisons has increased significantly in recent years, HMP Berwyn having the highest with 11 finds per 100 prisoners in the year ending March 2019.

Mr Gruffydd said the prison, which opened in February 2017, and is eventually meant to house 2,100 male prisoners, currently only has 1,300 inmates, which he says is in part due to staffing problems.

He added: “The report also shows that Wales has the highest level of prison population in Western Europe with one in every 667 citizens under lock and key, significantly higher than England.

"The fact that criminal justice is not devolved to Wales – as it is in Scotland and Northern Ireland – means that we are dependent on a prison policy designed and delivered from London.

"It’s not working and this excellent report makes clear that the new model prison that is Berwyn has so far failed to live up to the claims made about it. Only last month another damning report revealed that a quarter of inmates developed a drug problem while in HMP Berwyn, which suggests it’s part of the problem rather than being part of the solution."

Mr Gruffydd added how his Plaid Cymru colleague, the former Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP Elfyn Llwyd, had warned more than five years ago that the scale of the prison would cause problems, not solve them.

Back in February 2014, Mr Llwyd wrote about his visit to a similar ‘super prison’ in Texas: "The US prison system found that in such institutions, larger numbers of inmates were difficult to manage; that in many instances they were dangerous for staff and inmates; that the prisons are located too far away from communities and hence fragment the inmates’ relationships with families; and that they do not have a positive impact on the inmates themselves, leading to higher rates of reoffending."

Mr Gruffydd said: "Despite these warnings, the UK Government ploughed ahead and has left us with a prison in crisis after just a couple of years.

"It was a problem that could have been avoided. In light of these alarming findings, I want to know whether the Ministry of Justice believes that these huge super prisons such as Berwyn are the future of whether they’ve committed a very expensive mistake."

However, a Prison Service spokesman said there was plenty of hard work going on to stop drugs getting into HMP Berwyn with measures such as body scanners as well as CCTV across the whole of the perimeter, with a total of up to £70million being spent across all prisons in England and Wales to boost prison security.

They said: "Describing HMP Berwyn as failing does a tremendous disservice to the hard-working staff who have rightly been praised by inspectors for creating an effective rehabilitative prison from scratch.

"The new management is building on that progress, working more closely with the police, improving drug searches and introducing new plans to identify risks and reduce violence.

"We are gradually increasing the population and the prison has created 520 more workshop places in the past two months to help prisoners break a cycle of reoffending."

The spokesman went on to say how there have been planning an implementation issues (as with any prison) which the service has worked hard to try and resolve and that the population at the prison was being increased at a measured rate to ensure the safety of both prisoners and staff.

They added: "The Challenge, Support and Intervention programme, rolled out at Berwyn in November 2018, identifies risk factors that may lead to prison violence.

"This combines intervention, investigation and constant monitoring to stop and prevent incidents, and to help keep prisoners and staff safe."