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Imprisonment in Wales: A Factfile

4 June 2018

Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre has today (Tuesday 5th June) published “Imprisonment in Wales: A Factfile”, a set of Wales-specific data examining the prison system. The report’s author, Dr Robert Jones, outlines the aims of the report and some of the key findings.

In January 2018, the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee announced its second inquiry in four years into imprisonment in Wales. The Committee’s recent interest lies in growing concerns over prison safety as well as the UK Government’s decisions to build new prisons in Wales. In a Welsh context, recent concerns have focused particularly on the rising levels of violence in Welsh prisons[1], and, just 23 days after the opening of HMP Berwyn, the Ministry of Justice’s announcement in March 2017 that it is seeking to build a second ‘super prison’ in Wales at a site in Port Talbot.

These recent controversies over prison safety and capacity highlight the importance of disaggregated ‘Welsh-only’ data in understanding justice policy and practice. ‘Welsh-only’ imprisonment data has shown that the UK Government’s plans for additional prison places will eventually result in Wales becoming a net-importer of prisoners from England[2]. Together with increasing concerns over prison safety[3], this information has fuelled and informed discussions over the development of an alternative Welsh penal policy[4]. Indeed, since the establishment of the Commission on Justice in Wales[5], the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services announced in April 2018 that the Welsh Government had withdrawn its support for a new ‘super’ prison in south Wales as it considers options for a “different and distinct” approach to penal policy in Wales[6].

These concerns are not unique to Welsh policy makers: a recent report by the Ministry of Justice acknowledged the need to improve the way in which ‘Welsh-only’ data is gathered and published. This included a pledge to ensure that ‘Welsh-only’ information is made more easily available to the public on the Ministry’s website[7]. Despite this commitment, access to ‘Welsh-only’ imprisonment data remains poor and, in a number of areas, disaggregated data held by the Ministry of Justice has only become available by means of requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000[8].

Given these longstanding deficiencies in accessible information about the justice system in Wales, Imprisonment in Wales: A Factfile has been produced to make ‘Welsh-only’ imprisonment data more accessible to a wide audience for the first time. With a particular focus upon prison safety, this report provides the most up-to-date information on a range of challenges facing prisons in Wales and Welsh prisoners held across the English and Welsh prison estate. In its six chapters on prisons in Wales, prison safety in Wales, male prisoners, female prisoners, children in prison and the Welsh language, this report aims to contribute to debates over the current and future penal landscape in Wales. As well as the Welsh Affairs Committee’s latest inquiry, this includes the Commission on Justice in Wales’ attempts to explore the problems facing individuals involved or affected by the criminal justice system in Wales[9].

Key findings from the report include:

  • Prisons in Wales are performing less well than prisons in England on a range of safety measures. The number of recorded self-harm incidents and prison assaults in Wales has increased at a higher rate than prisons in England since 2010.
  • There were more prison disturbances at HMP Parc in 2016 and 2017 than at any other prison in England and Wales.
  • Despite an increase in prison capacity in Wales, 39% of all Welsh prisoners were being held in English prisons in 2017. In a large number of cases, Welsh prisoners are placed in establishments far away from home; Welsh prisoners were held in 108 different prisons in 2017.
  • The number of Welsh women handed immediate custodial sentences has increased by almost a fifth since 2011. The majority of Welsh women sentenced to immediate custody have been convicted of non-violent offences. Three quarters of all Welsh women receiving immediate custodial sentences in 2016 were given sentences of less than 6 months; this rate is higher than the England and Wales total.
  • The number of Welsh children in custody has fallen by 72% since 2010. 45% of all Welsh children in custody were being held in establishments in England during 2017. The distances facing children in prison have been shown to reduce the number of family visits, hinder ‘through the gate’ support services, and increase the sense of alienation and isolation that children experience in prison.

The findings presented within this factfile reveal the specific and unique imprisonment problems facing people in and from Wales. From record levels of self-harm and assaults in prison, to above average distances for Welsh adult men, women and children in custody, this report offers a Welsh dimension to the many challenges and problems that are currently subject to fervent debate across England and Wales.

The issues that emerge throughout this report raise a number of important and wide-ranging questions about imprisonment in Wales. First, it remains the case that many sources of ‘Welsh only’ justice data can only be accessed by Freedom of Information requests, a route that, while useful, limits the accessibility of such data to public debate at the broader level. But the stark evidence of specific Welsh challenges presented throughout this report highlight the importance of gathering and analysing up-to-date and accessible ‘Welsh-only’ imprisonment data. This report should, therefore, further convince the Ministry of Justice to fulfil its 2017 commitment to make ‘Welsh-only’ justice data more easily available to a wider audience.

Second, the many problems discussed throughout this report raise important questions about political accountability for imprisonment in post-devolution Wales. While responsibility for tackling many of the issues outlined here undoubtedly lies with UK Government ministers in Whitehall, the influence that Welsh ministers have over offender healthcare, tackling substance misuse, safeguarding children, prison education and promoting the Welsh language mean that remedies can – and should – originate in Wales.

At the very least, a much clearer understanding of the problems that exist within the Welsh justice system and an appreciation of the Welsh Government’s extensive responsibilities in this area should help to kick-start a more critically informed debate over Wales’ current and future penal landscape.

Dr Robert Jones is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of South Wales and Honorary Research Fellow at the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. His research focuses upon devolution and criminal justice in Wales.

[1] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2018a) – Report on an unannounced Inspection of HMP Swansea. 7, 8, 14–17 August 2017.

[2] Jones, R. (2013) – ‘Wrexham’s super jail will be too big’. Institute of Welsh Affairs – Click on Wales. 2nd November 2013.

Wales Governance Centre (2017) – ‘Data shows significant surplus prison places in Wales for Welsh prisoners’. 22nd March 2017.

[3] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2018) – Report on an unannounced Inspection of HMP Swansea. 7, 8, 14–17 August 2017.

[4] The Independent – ‘How a £250m super prison has made a North Wales industrial estate into UK’s ‘centre of incarceration’. 6th February 2018.

Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Criminal Justice, National Assembly for Wales. 7th March 2018.

[5] The Commission on Justice in Wales was established by the Welsh Government’s First Minister, Carwyn Jones AM, in September 2017 to examine the justice arrangements that exist in post-devolution Wales.

[6] National Assembly for Wales Debate, 6 April 2018.

[7] Ministry of Justice (2017) – Report of the Justice in Wales Working Group. London: Ministry of Justice. 15th September 2017.

[8] Rather ironically, the Ministry of Justice’s Report of the Justice in Wales Working Group was only released after a Freedom of Information request had been submitted. The full report can be accessed here –

[9] See Question 3 of the Commission on Justice in Wales’ call for written evidence.