In the hours before the first inmates arrived at Britain’s newest and biggest prison, governor Russ Trent said he was feeling proud. Nick Dann, the project’s deputy, confessed he had butterflies. 

They sat in the room that would soon be used for family visits: brightly coloured seats were grouped around low tables, overlooked by giant motivational posters. “Big journeys begin with the small steps”, read one. 

It was February 2017 and reporters were being shown around the empty site under a leaden sky. A group of boxy buildings jazzed up with stripes of red, blue, green and yellow, HMP Berwyn could almost be mistaken for a school from the outside, were it not for the bars on the windows and its location on a windswept industrial estate in North Wales.

The two men knew that a lot was riding on HMP Berwyn. The rest of the prison system in England and Wales was spiralling into crisis. Prisoner numbers had almost doubled since the 1990s as a result of tougher sentencing, but prison places had not kept pace, leaving the government to stuff about 85,000 people into buildings originally designed to hold about 65,000. 

It had become common to cram two people into cells designed for one, sometimes in Victorian jails that were beginning to fall apart.

A communal area outside HMP Berwyn's library. When the prison opened, the Daily Mail called it “the cushiest jail in Britain”
A communal area outside HMP Berwyn's library. When the prison opened, the Daily Mail called it “the cushiest jail in Britain” © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Between 2010 and 2017, the government cut the number of prison officers by a quarter as part of its post-recession austerity drive. The result of the crowded conditions and low staffing was a surge of violence and despair among inmates. 

Self-harm rates among prisoners had gone up by two-thirds since 2010; serious assault rates had more than doubled. Almost half of adults leaving custody were reoffending within a year of their release.

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If those were the problems, the government hoped HMP Berwyn would be the blueprint for the solution. The £220m Category C prison (prisons are ranked from A to D, with A the most secure) would hold 2,100 men, making it one of the biggest in Europe. Its size would bring economies of scale, but it wouldn’t just be a vast warehouse in which to store criminals cheaply. 

Trent, a charismatic former Royal Marine, promised a rehabilitative culture that would turn lives around. Prisoners would be referred to as men, cells as rooms, and wings as communities. Men would have phones, laptops (offering internal services, not the internet) and showers in their rooms. 

The prison would be run by the public sector, but outsourcing company Interserve would manage workshops to prepare inmates for jobs on release, and education provider Novus Cambria would offer a range of courses. 

Sarah Payne, then head of the prison service in Wales, told an event in 2015 that the goal was for HMP Berwyn to be “the flagship for the rest of the country [and] England to emulate”. 

In a letter to MPs, one inmate called HMP Berwyn “the Rolls-Royce of prisons with a Ford Cortina engine under the bonnet”.
In a letter to MPs, one inmate called HMP Berwyn “the Rolls-Royce of prisons with a Ford Cortina engine under the bonnet”. © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Two years after it opened, mystery surrounds the government’s prison of the future. As inmates continue to be crowded into older, dilapidated prisons, HMP Berwyn remains 40 per cent empty. Without the planned economies of scale, the prison that was forecast to be one of the cheapest Category C jails to run in England and Wales (at £14,000 per year per place) is currently one of the most expensive, at £36,000 per year per place. 

The Prison Service says HMP Berwyn is going through a “deliberate phased population increase” and running costs will reduce over time, but its own annual business plans show the original schedule was for it to be “fully populated” nine months ago. 

Julian Le Vay, a former finance director of the Prison Service, now retired, told the FT it was normal to build up a new prison population slowly, “but never this slowly”, particularly when “lives are being put at risk” due to overcrowding elsewhere. “There’s something going on there that they’re not being quite open about.”

The Ministry of Justice declined to let the FT visit the prison and refused a request to interview any managers or officials. But information from prisoners’ families, prison officers, contractors and lawyers, together with reports and statistics gathered through Freedom of Information requests and MPs’ written questions to ministers, suggest HMP Berwyn remains half empty because key elements of the project have veered off track. 

When the prison opened, some buildings were either unfinished or unusable. The Interserve workshops, which were meant to provide prison jobs for 520 inmates, are delivering a fraction of what was promised, according to data the FT obtained through an FOI request.

Assaults on staff and “use of force” incidents by staff against prisoners are higher at HMP Berwyn than other Category C prisons, according to government data. Since the prison opened, 338 ambulances have been sent there, the police have been called 135 times and the fire service 27 times, the FT’s FOIs show.

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Injuries reported to the Health and Safety Executive, also obtained through FOIs, include broken bones, excrement flung in prison officers’ faces, and nurses intoxicated after inhaling second-hand fumes from synthetic drugs such as spice, said to turn people into “zombies”. 

Reports from the prison’s health team show prisoners have been taken off prescription anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and painkillers without their consent, which some inmates say has driven them to self-medicate with illegal drugs. And Trent was suspended last year in mysterious circumstances. In a letter to MPs, one inmate called HMP Berwyn “the Rolls-Royce of prisons with a Ford Cortina engine under the bonnet”.

It is not unusual for new prisons to have rocky starts: HMP Oakwood, a vast prison that opened seven years ago, began badly but is now running relatively well. And HMP Berwyn is still functioning far better than many of the UK’s jails. 

But as the government prepares to build more new prisons, it is worth learning the lessons from this project’s early years. It is a story of good intentions undermined by bad decisions and bungled procurement — and a reminder of how hard it is to do something different when the wider system is on its knees.

When HMP Berwyn opened, the Daily Mail newspaper called it “the cushiest jail in Britain”. The Sun plumped for “Pampered Porridge”. But while the tabloids sneered, prison experts praised ideas such as putting phones in cells to help prisoners maintain relationships with their families, which is linked to lower reoffending. They worried, though, that a series of early decisions would undercut the prison’s rehabilitative intent.

HM Prison Berwyn on Wrexham Industrial Estate, North Wales. Pictured: A two person cell known as a room
One of the double rooms, with a toilet and shower in the corner; the word 'cell' is deliberately not used © Daily Post Wales

Only 30 per cent of the cells were designed for one person; the rest were doubles. Many prisons were already putting two men in a cell out of desperation, but this was a deliberate choice. There will always be some prisoners who prefer to share a cell — they may benefit from company if they are at risk of suicide, for example. But most people struggle without personal space. 

The decision contravened the recommendation to eliminate enforced cell-sharing by the UK’s official Mubarek Inquiry of 2006, commissioned after a teenager was clubbed to death by his cellmate. “If people consent to it . . . that’s fine,” said Frances Crook of the penal reform charity The Howard League. “But to build a new prison [that] forces people to share cells . . . even the Victorians didn’t do that.”

The double cells at HMP Berwyn have narrow beds on each side, a desk with one chair, and a lidless toilet and shower in the corner with a curtain. Le Vay called it “a major retreat from civilised penal policy”, adding that it had probably been a way to save money. 

A Prison Service spokesman said the double cells were “purpose-built for double occupancy”, that “many” prisoners preferred to share, and that they spent a lot of time out of their cells.

Experts also questioned the prison’s size and location. “The current government seems committed to building warehouse-style ‘mega-prisons’, despite a multitude of academic evidence and Inspectorate [of Prisons] reports showing that small prisons are more operationally effective,” wrote Yvonne Jewkes, a criminology professor at the University of Bath, in a journal article in 2017. 

Local politicians had wanted a smaller prison that could hold men from North Wales fairly close to their homes, which research shows is helpful for rehabilitation. “But it very quickly became evident [the MoJ] wanted to do a Titan, Texas-style prison” that would hold many prisoners from England, Marc Jones, a councillor from the town of Wrexham, told the FT.

HMP Berwyn's gym. When the jail opened, governor Russ Trent said: “If you’ve got trust and respect, it reduces the chance of violence between the men and the people who . . . look after them.”
HMP Berwyn's gym. When the jail opened, governor Russ Trent said: “If you’ve got trust and respect, it reduces the chance of violence between the men and the people who . . . look after them.” © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The chosen site was an industrial park 3.5 miles outside Wrexham (£4.50 return from the city centre by bus, £8 each way by taxi), which itself was a long journey for many prisoners’ families, particularly the 75 per cent or so from England. 

For some, these decisions doomed the project from the start. “There is no way that prison can function effectively ever,” said Crook, citing its size, location and double cells. Others believed HMP Berwyn could surmount the challenges. After all, it would have new facilities, plenty of activities and a totally different culture. 

“Everything we know that works well is [at Berwyn],” Trent told the news site in 2017. He said every inmate could attend work or education, and would be treated with respect. “If you’ve got trust and respect, it reduces the chance of violence between the men and the people who . . . look after them.” But one by one, these promises started to come unstuck.

When the prison health team, supplied by a local health board called the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, gained access to the site in early 2017, it discovered the health facilities “had not been designed or built to the specifications and designs submitted by the Health Board”, according to its own annual report. 

Asked for an explanation, a Prison Service spokesman told the FT that construction company Lendlease had met its obligations and the healthcare facility “was designed to the NHS standard”, but that the health team had “identified amendments that could be made to the specification, to go beyond the NHS standard and deliver an even better quality of service”. 

The health team’s report painted a different picture. It described a “lack of compliance with infection prevention and control standards, unsuitable and insufficient data and electrical configurations and unsuitable design of facilities”, which made treating patients “unsafe” and “required a complete rebuild of some areas”. 

That led to delays in providing healthcare for months after the prison opened. In January 2018, 98 men had been waiting more than 14 weeks to see a dentist.

Those weren’t the only problems. The project, built on the site of an old tyre factory, initially came in £45m under budget thanks in part to “value engineering” decisions such as changing the prison’s layout and mitigating asbestos “on site” rather than paying to remove it. 

A few months after it opened, Roland Karthaus, director of a firm called Matter Architecture, performed tests and surveyed inmates at HMP Berwyn with the MoJ’s permission for a research project. His final report said that while the building was far better than many older prisons, there were too few areas for staff, no proper ventilation in the house blocks (where the cells are) and problematic noise levels.

WREXHAM, WALES - MARCH 15: A prisoner eats a meal in a cell area at HMP Berwyn on March 15, 2017 in Wrexham, Wales. The mainly category C prison is one of the biggest jails in Europe capable of housing around to 2,100 inmates. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
An inmate eating a meal in one of HMP Berwyn's accommodation areas © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

According to Karthaus, the “reverberation time” for sound in the house blocks was 3.5 seconds. “Above a second, speech becomes virtually unintelligible . . . so you have entirely hard surfaces, everyone is shouting all the time and you can’t escape it, it’s your whole life,” he told the FT. 

Maintenance also became a problem. In January 2018, there was a complete failure of the heating and hot water, which took five days to fix. This winter, the heating broke down again. The prison service was “urgently working” with contractors to fix problems with the heating system, a spokesman said.

Then there was the centrepiece of the rehabilitative vision: workshops that were meant to keep 520 prisoners busy, imparting useful skills. Interserve’s winning bid to run them listed five subcontractors including a call centre, a small windmill manufacturer and a recycling company. 

Interserve’s 2017 annual report, published in April 2018, devoted a special box to the project, saying it “provides employment places for 520 men . . . designed to replicate a normal working environment”. But that wasn’t true when the report was published and it’s still not true today.

The workshop buildings were not ready when the prison opened, according to multiple sources and FOI requests. They lacked basics like electrical work, fixtures and fittings. “The lack of work spaces has probably been the greatest challenge for everyone who lives and works at Berwyn,” Trent wrote in his anniversary message to staff a year after the prison opened. “The procurement process has not yet gone as we would have hoped or planned [and], consequently, there are too many men left on the communities during the day.” 

One of the prison's accommodation or "house blocks". According to an architect's report, the “reverberation time” for sound in the blocks was 3.5 seconds
One of the prison's accommodation or "house blocks". According to an architect's report, the “reverberation time” for sound in the blocks was 3.5 seconds © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Today, two full years after the prison opened, the workshop buildings are still not ready. “There were just so many delays, it was ridiculous,” said Mark Gilbert of recycling company Emerald Trading, one of the original subcontractors, who became fed up of waiting and pulled out. 

Interserve has been running a pared-down set of workshops inside one of the house blocks. In January this year, it was providing 200 places, with about 150 to 160 prisoners attending on average. Interserve told the FT that the box in its annual report “was intended as an explanation of the project and our contractual obligations, and not performance of the contract”.

No one admits blame for the workshop mess. Lendlease told the FT: “All of our work was successfully completed to specifications requested by the MoJ.” Interserve told the FT it had been asked by the MoJ in October 2017 (eight months after the prison opened) to provide the mechanical and electrical work required to finish the workshops. That final contract was only signed in October 2018 and the work is not due to be finished until April. 

A prison service spokesman said Lendlease and Interserve “delivered on the specification requested of them”. He added: “The process of deciding who would ‘fit out’ the workshops was carried out once the detailed functionality of the workshops was known, and there were delays during this process, due to the detailed negotiations required.”

The workshop debacle helps explain why there are still only about 1,300 inmates in a prison designed to hold 2,100. Prison deputy Nick Dann told MPs last year that the population “ramp-up plan” was linked to the number of activity places available. “It is primary for us and our stability that we have activities for the new men as we receive them each week.” Crook put it more succinctly: “The devil makes work for idle hands.”

At 4.30 one recent afternoon, prisoners’ ­relatives spilled out of HMP Berwyn into the bitterly cold dusk. Most headed for the car park. Sally Smith, a wriggly baby in her arms, flopped on to a chair in the visitor centre. She had been to see her partner, who was transferred to HMP Berwyn almost a year ago. “They sold him the dream,” Smith (not her real name) sighed. “They said it’s a new prison to help people. But it’s terrible.”

It’s not easy to gather a fair impression of life inside a prison from outside the gate. No official inspection report for the prison has been published yet and prisoners are banned from communicating with journalists without permission from the governor. 

Interviews with prisoners’ relatives, friends, lawyers and other representatives paint a mixed picture. Some of those transferred from other prisons found it a vast improvement. “People want to come here — it’s like they’re ­winning if they’re here,” said one young woman whose partner had arrived a month ago. He had started studying maths. Another called it “really good”, especially the education facilities.

HMP Berwyn’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) — a panel of citizen volunteers — wrote in a report last July that men were “treated fairly and with decency” and the MoJ “should be applauded” for supporting a “new progressive regime”. 

Ian Lucas, the Labour MP for Wrexham, told the FT he had been sceptical initially about the prison’s size, but felt the project had been delivered well overall. It was a good physical environment and everyone he met there was focused on rehabilitation, though he added this had been “undermined to some extent” by the failure to open the workshops.

HMP Berwyn's library. Katie Lomas, national chair of the trade union for probation officers, said HMP Berwyn had a "really positive aim" to focus on rehabilitation
HMP Berwyn's library. Katie Lomas, national chair of the trade union for probation officers, said HMP Berwyn had a "really positive aim" to focus on rehabilitation © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Others described a consistent set of problems, starting with the prison’s failure to live up to its own promises. HMP Berwyn staff had gone on “roadshows” to recruit prisoners from other jails. “They had a list of courses and things they could be doing, which is what he wants, he wants to better himself,” said the partner of one prisoner, who did not want to be named. “Now he’s there, they’re like, ‘Oh no, we don’t have the facilities for that.’” 

Her partner is one of 250 inmates at HMP Berwyn who have asked to be transferred to a different prison, according to data obtained through a ministerial written question. Kelly Coombs, who runs Census Group, a call-centre company that employs inmates in many prisons including HMP Berwyn, said that while the prison’s aspirations were “exactly right”, inmates felt they were “promised this entirely transformative experience, and that hasn’t happened”.

Drugs have also found their way in. By October 2017, it was clear some men had been “abusing the freedoms in visits” to smuggle in drugs, Trent admitted in his anniversary message; the rules were duly tightened. On March 31 last year, a 22-year-old called Luke Jones died in his cell. The preliminary inquest blamed a heart attack probably caused by spice; a full inquest has still not been held. 

The IMB wrote in July 2018 that illegal drugs were “readily available” in the flagship jail. But it also warned that some prisoners had been driven to “self-medicate” with drugs because of the prison’s practice of taking some inmates off their prescription medications.

Smith, sitting with her baby in the visitor centre, said this was one of the first signs of trouble for her partner. He was on mirtazapine for anxiety and depression, but when he was transferred to HMP Berwyn, a prison doctor told him: “We don’t like these here.” Smith added: “They said they’d put him on something else but they never did. He’s basically in withdrawal.” 

A table contained in the health board’s annual pharmacy report for 2017 provides a snapshot of the number of prisoners with prescriptions on arrival, and the number in November 2017. The number of men on a range of different antidepressants such as mirtazapine had been cut between 65 and 78 per cent (depending on the specific drug in question). Anti-psychotics had been cut between 45 and 63 per cent, hypnotics and anxiolytics between 93 and 100 per cent, and most opiates by between 82 and 100 per cent. Only methadone had increased, by 8 per cent. 

A view from one of HMP Berwyn's rooms. Plans for big new prisons continue, but the MoJ says lessons learned from Berwyn will shape their future approach and design
A view from one of HMP Berwyn's rooms. Plans for big new prisons continue, but the MoJ says lessons learned from Berwyn will shape their future approach and design © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Ian Lucas, the local MP, who has visited the pharmacy at HMP Berwyn, called it a “tough love” approach. “Essentially it’s a deliberate policy to not prescribe them the amount of drugs, because apparently they say that some of them come with a Sainsbury’s bag full of . . . prescribed medication,” he said. “You can imagine that one way of coping with being locked up is just being doped up all the time.” 

In his anniversary message to staff, Trent acknowledged “our policy of optimising medication” had proved “very difficult for men to cope with in their early days” but suggested they felt much better “as they come through it”. 

But the IMB warned in its July report that men were living in the Care and Separation unit, sometimes known as a segregation unit, because they couldn’t cope without medication that, in some cases, they had been using for a long time. 

“It would appear to the Board there is a downside to a policy which means that, in effect, a percentage of men are subject to a compulsory detox, which inevitably affects behaviour and adds to the supply and demand issues around illicit drugs in the establishment.”

Pamela Taylor, chair of the forensic faculty for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said such an approach was “not unusual” but that HMP Berwyn was “much more structured and . . . committed in the way they [are] trying to do it”. 

She also said many prisoners and non-prisoners accumulated prescriptions over time that might no longer be appropriate: “[So] many of us would say it is good, but I can also understand why it’s not universally liked by the people on the receiving end.” Ideally, she added, such decisions would be made consensually with patients, drugs would be tapered and patients would be reviewed. 

“The big question is whether they then get, within a reasonable period of time, a further review to check how they’ve been without that medication, and/or an option to go back to the doctor and say, ‘Look, I feel just dreadful.’”

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, which provides healthcare in the prison, told the FT its practice was to give prisoners a “medication review” with a GP on arrival, in accordance with a guideline from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. “Within the prison population, medication is often abused by patients and it therefore may not be appropriate for said medication to be prescribed,” a spokeswoman for the health board said. “At HMP Berwyn we have noted large numbers of patients transferred from other prisons have never had medication reviews that meet the standard of Nice guidelines and therefore their ‘normal medication’ is not deemed as safe and effective to continue.” 

She said an alternative was prescribed where appropriate, and that the objective was always to reach agreement with patients, but that “often, patients do not always agree with prescribing decisions, despite the best efforts of clinicians to explain the reasons.” She also said the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales had not upheld any complaints into the health board’s practices.

Broken promises and drug problems have been compounded by the inexperience of HMP Berwyn’s prison officers. This has been a problem across the prison service: many seasoned officers were lost during the deep cuts between 2010 and 2017. The challenge was magnified at HMP Berwyn because it had to be staffed from scratch. 

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Data obtained through an FOI request shows that, in September 2018, about a fifth of HMP Berwyn’s front-line prison officers had less than a year’s experience, and a further 56 per cent only had between one year and two. More than 40 per cent were still in their twenties. The jobs are advertised at less than £23,000 a year and turnover is high. 

Staff said seasoned prisoners exploited their inexperience. “A lot of them take advantage of the good nature of the system [and] a lot of the staff,” explained one HMP Berwyn prison officer who has now left his job. Another said new staff were “not supporting each other, which makes the wings unsafe. The [prisoners] make the rules and the new staff are too worried to challenge them.” 

Families of prisoners, meanwhile, said the officers dealt with prisoners more aggressively than was typical in other prisons. The latest published statistics for January to September 2018 support both sides of this story. Assault rates at HMP Berwyn are slightly above average for similar establishments, but it is assaults on staff that really stand out: the rates are higher than at any other Category C prison in England and Wales, according to the FT’s analysis. 

One of these attacks happened the day after Luke Jones died. A prisoner, upset about his death, fractured an officer’s cheek and broke his nose with a single punch, then assaulted a second officer. Other prisoners intervened to help the officers. The first was hospitalised for five days; the second told the court he thought he and his colleague were lucky to escape the wing alive. 

Arfon Jones, the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Wales, told the FT the prison had been a drain on resources. “This year, I have made it perfectly clear, I am not putting any extra money into that prison,” he said. 

As for staff violence against prisoners, the government has no recent comparable data on “use of force” at different prisons. But last year, official inspectors criticised HMP Humber, a Category C prison with a similar population size to HMP Berwyn, for 206 “use of force” incidents in the previous six months, “more than at . . . other category C training prisons”. 

In the most recent six months for which data is available for HMP Berwyn (July to December 2018), there were 626 such incidents, which are meant to be used only as a last resort. Injury reports filed to the Health and Safety Executive include several where prison officers fractured bones in their hands during “control and restraint” incidents. The partner of the prisoner seeking a transfer said she thought some young staff had “got a bit of power and it’s gone to their heads”.

Mark Fairhurst, national chair of the POA, the prison officers’ union, told the FT: “Inexperienced staff tend to use force as a first option, whereas experienced staff will use de-escalation techniques. If you don’t have experienced staff . . . then really you need management grip — and by that I mean: why don’t we have managers on residential units who stay there and guide and coach staff and motivate them?”

“Management grip” was meant to be governor Russ Trent’s style. “He’s very command-and-­control . . . and he likes to get stuff done,” said Crook. At HMP Berwyn, Trent was determined to instil a different culture. 

When Faith Spear, a former IMB chair at a different prison, visited the prison last summer at Trent’s invitation, he handed her a pack of cards. Each card represented a different “Berwyn practice”, she explained in a blog post. “Day 1: We recognise achievements and celebrate successes #thankyou.” “Day 2: We actively listen to each other and make eye contact #respect.”

But multiple sources say some staff clashed with Trent’s style, which they felt gave too much power to prisoners and left them unsupported. At most prisons, inmates earn privileges through good behaviour, but at HMP Berwyn they were given privileges on arrival and had them removed for poor behaviour. Fairhurst said: “That really, in my eyes, has been a social experiment that has gone severely wrong . . . You had management in place, many of whom were newly promoted and wanted to embrace this new culture to the detriment of security, control, order and discipline.”

Trent seemed undaunted by any internal resistance. In July last year he tweeted: “‘It’s impossible’ said Pride. ‘It’s risky,’ said Experience. ‘It’s pointless,’ said Reason. ‘Give it a try,’ whispered Heart.” 

A month later, he was abruptly suspended from his job after allegations were made about him; the Prison Service did not specify what they were. Trent did not respond to the FT’s attempt to contact him, but the Prison Service said that, following an investigation, “no formal disciplinary action” had been taken. 

He has now returned to work in the Prison Service (though not at HMP Berwyn). An interim governor was brought in, and a new permanent one will start next month.

In response to the figures on violence, drugs and staff inexperience, the Prison Service spokesman said the government was spending an extra £70m to fight drugs across all prisons, training more than 4,000 new prison officers, and rolling out “Pava” incapacitant spray to officers. 

HMP Berwyn has been given new drug-detection equipment, dogs and a specialist search team. It is also using a new “Challenge, Support and Intervention Plan” to help staff “manage violent prisoners” and a key worker scheme to improve prisoner-staff relationships.

As dusk fell, Smith gathered up her baby and headed to the car park to meet her cousin who had driven her from England. She wouldn’t have to do this journey much longer: her partner was due out fairly soon and she couldn’t wait. But if there was a plan in place to help him get on his feet, she didn’t know about it. 

Most jails in England and Wales don’t have a great record at helping prisoners transition back to normal life. “I left prison with £46 and PTSD,” said Cody Lachey, a former prisoner (not at HMP Berwyn) who now speaks out about prison reform. The public might like the idea of “brutalising prisoners”, Lachey told the FT, but it ultimately costs society when those people are released back into the community: “People are entering broken, and leaving in bits.” 

The team at HMP Berwyn hoped to show there was a better way, but the prison is tied into a wider probation system that is in disarray. In 2013, then justice secretary Chris Grayling began the part-privatisation of the system across England and Wales: a group of mainly private-sector companies took on contracts to manage low-to-medium-risk offenders, while the public sector continued to deal with high-risk ones. 

In a damning report published last week, the National Audit Office concluded the MoJ had “set itself up to fail” with “rushed” reforms that proved “extremely costly for taxpayers” and had seen the number of people on short sentences recalled to prison “skyrocket”.

In Wales, the contract was given to Working Links, a company owned by a German private equity firm. Last month, Working Links collapsed into administration. The government has said that the private probation contracts will end early, but the design of the new system is not yet clear.

Katie Lomas, national chair of Napo, the trade union for probation officers, said HMP Berwyn had a “really positive aim” to focus on rehabilitation. “But if the structure that you are trying to put that inside of doesn’t help, then you’re at war with yourself before you even start.” 

Liz Saville Roberts, a North Wales MP from the Plaid Cymru party who has obtained data about HMP Berwyn through ministerial questions, agreed. “The regime itself was, and is, very worthwhile,” she said, “if it was given the means with which it could actually succeed.” Crook of the Howard League, meanwhile, argued the answer was not to build more prisons at all but to reduce the prison population. 

The government’s stance appears to be in flux. Last month, David Gauke, the justice secretary, made a case for abolishing custodial sentences of less than six months and managing those criminals in the community instead. He called for “a national debate about what justice, including punishment, should look like”. 

But plans for big new prisons continue. In December, the MoJ amended its request for planning permission for a new Category C prison in Yorkshire: having “reviewed the level and distribution of strategic need”, it wanted to up the number of prisoners from 1,017 to 1,440. 

Still, there are signs the MoJ has learnt some lessons. The design for a new prison in Wellingborough states that the majority of cells will be singles, not doubles. The Prison Service spokesman noted that closed floors and bar-less sealed windows there would “help reduce noise levels and create an atmosphere conducive to rehabilitation”. 

He pointed out the IMB for HMP Berwyn had recognised the “considerable achievement” of opening a big and complex prison, and the “excellent work” of staff who ran a regime “with many examples of good and innovative practice”. 

He added: “As with any new prison there have been planning and implementation issues, which we have worked hard to resolve, and we know there will be more to do as we move towards full occupancy. 

Lessons learnt from Berwyn, along with our extensive consultation of stakeholders and prison design experts, will shape our approach as we develop an estate that can improve rehabilitation and create safe and secure environments for staff and offenders.”

Inside the prison fence, not everyone is so optimistic. Shortly after Luke Jones died at HMP Berwyn, an older prisoner wrote a letter to Inside Time, the magazine for people in jail. He wanted to tell Jones’s family how sad and upset everyone was. “An internal investigation . . . will now ensue, and then a message to say ‘Lessons have been learnt’ . . . I’m a middle-aged man now and angered by the sadness I feel at this young man losing his life,” he wrote. “No lessons are ever learnt.” 

Sarah O’Connor and Cynthia O’Murchu are investigations correspondents at the FT. 

Additional reporting by Helen Warrell

All photographs taken on March 15, 2017

FT Solutions Network: How should we deal with people who commit crimes? Is prison always the right solution and if so, how should they be designed and run? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. We are interested to hear from readers around the world, as prison systems differ so dramatically country by country. Sarah O'Connor and Cynthia O'Murchu will be responding periodically through the day.

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