If you need an argument for independence, then look no further than the criminal justice system, and how badly it operates here.

Wales has the highest incarceration rate in western Europe. Our prisons have never been more crowded. Prison sentences are getting longer and recidivism rates are stubbornly high.

If you’re Black, you’re six times more likely to go to prison in Wales than if you’re white.

We can make laws, but we can’t enforce them. So, isn’t it about time to devolve criminal justice? 

Of course it is, and it’s long overdue - except the government doesn’t want the responsibility.  That could be because Cardiff Bay can conveniently pass the buck to Westminster when things go wrong.

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Or, more worryingly, it may be because Labour wouldn’t do anything differently. 

Remember when plans were announced for a ‘super-prison’ in Wrecsam?  Former local Labour MP Ian Lucas and Wrecsam council leader Neil Rogers gushed with enthusiasm over the future HMP Berwyn, so-named after a bizarre competition among local schools and community groups. 

The National Wales: So-called "super prison", HMP Berwyn.So-called "super prison", HMP Berwyn.

Five years after the prison opened in 2014, the Wales Governance Centre published a damning report into inhumane conditions there. Findings included growing rates of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, a high prevalence of weapons and drugs, and "use of force" incidents by staff.

When it was built, HMP Berwyn was lauded as good economic value, costing us £14,000 per prisoner per year. Those figures were never going to add up, and instead the cost has risen to £36,000. Apart from the moral argument, it makes no economic sense to lock more and more people up.

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Other Welsh prisons are no better. HMP Swansea, built to hold a maximum of 250 inmates, now has 450 prisoners within its walls, making it the most overcrowded prison across England and Wales.

Within its first eighteen months, HMP Parc in Bridgend had registered four suicides and a high number of violent incidents. In January 2020, Public Health Wales launched an investigation following the discovery of a ‘cluster’ of tuberculosis cases at the prison.

Another disturbing trend is the way that prisons exploit inmates. The three prisons mentioned above all have call centres where inmates work for a pittance and are expected to cold call members of the public on behalf of wealthy clients, such as Sky and the Daily Mail. The US model, where prisons are run for profit, is on its way.

The National Wales: An outbreak of TB was discovered at HMP Parc in 2020. (Picture: Alan Hughes)An outbreak of TB was discovered at HMP Parc in 2020. (Picture: Alan Hughes)

Do we want this?

Do we want to live in a country where we punish those who are often the poorest and most vulnerable?

Or do we aim towards a more civilised way of life, by closing prisons as they're doing in the Netherlands? Imagine what could be done differently with the £5 billion the UK spends every year locking people up.

The only thing I know is that we don’t have any choice in the matter while powers over criminal justice remain reserved to Westminster.

Diolch yn fawr to Polly Manning for her excellent chapter "The Prison System in Wales", published in "The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution". 

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