New UK Super Prison A Model of Reform Over Punishment

By Christopher Zoukis

An environment of An environment of “normalcy” is part of the guiding principles at HM Prison Berwyn in North Wales.

It’s a slow shift, but the criminal justice system is moving its focus more toward rehabilitation and corrections, and away from a philosophy of punishment and incarceration. Critics of this shift say it’s a soft-on-crime approach, but research backs the effectiveness of the approach in reducing recidivism and the costs of re-incarceration. Government has been re-thinking the purpose of imprisonment — away from the tough-on-crime tack, and putting more thought to addressing the root causes of why crime happens, and finding solutions to those issues for the people doing time. This focal shift is also evident in other societies around the world, evident in the creation of more purpose-built prisons.

The newest and largest prison in the UK just opened in Wrexham, North Wales, with capacity for 2,100 male prisoners, and features a firm focus on rehabilitation in everything from staff core values to prison programming. While offenders are indeed serving time as punishment for crimes they’ve committed, all of the men at HM Prison Berwyn will eventually be released into their communities, and the guiding belief at the “super prison” is that those released should be ready and able to lead productive and sustainable lives, and won’t re-enter an environment that encourages their previous criminal behaviors.

The presiding principle in designing the HM Prison Berwyn is to create an environment that allows as much normalcy as possible, to ensure the transition out of incarceration is easy and swift. Nelson Mandela wrote about the importance of a sense of normality behind bars when he was imprisoned for 27 years. Making the experience in custody similar to that of being in the community is the cornerstone of the rehabilitative goals at HMP Berwyn. It even includes shifts away from old terminology, using “room” versus “cell,” calling inmates by preferred names, establishing real relationships with staff, and having inmates be responsible for their own schedules as much as possible.

This is where one of HMP Berwyn’s more controversial features comes in —a laptop in every twin room. The laptops cannot access the internet, but are seen as important components to establishing normalcy, building IT skills, and reinforcing self-sufficiency. The man use their laptops to schedule visitations, complete educational work, and for administrative tasks such as ordering meals and doing their own shopping. The use of laptops also cuts down on staff work by eliminating paperwork that needs to be physically processed, and allows staff more time to foster relationships and contribute to rehabilitation. Each room also has a phone. Credit is earned, and calls can only be made to approved and verified numbers. All calls are recorded.

The prison also features a library, visiting room with a play area for children, soccer pitches, gyms, and educational and vocational facilities. Programs offered are based on need, as well as by current labor market demands.

Staff is selected with the ethos of rehabilitation in mind, and must adhere to six core values: sustainability, accountability, integrity, collaboration, respect, and realizing potential. This culture ensures that the focus is not solely on punishment, and encourages relationship building. All of this may seem soft on crime to some, but in the end it does a better job rehabilitating offenders, reducing recidivism, and reducing incidences of suicide, violence, and prison riots.  Time incarcerated is used constructively. Men see this prison as offering them a real chance to change their lives.

Similar principles have taken hold in parts of the US prison system, too. Increased focus on changing lives and reintegrating ex-prisoners into communities pushes the country away from mass incarceration and overly harsh punishments for non-violent offenses. It’s too easy to focus only on the crimes committed and to forget that the majority of those committing them will be released. What kind of people do we want coming back into society? We can plan for what kind by providing education, vocational skills, a sense of normalcy, and allowing some personal responsibilities. Looking at innovative prisons such as HM Prison Berwyn as possible models, and gauging their successes with an eye to emulating them is something that should be on the minds of those in charge of our criminal justice system.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.