HMP BERWYN – A good start for a new prison but some important weaknesses

HMP Berwyn, a large, two-year-old prison near Wrexham, was found in its first inspection to be generally ordered, with good living conditions, but with some key weaknesses.

Notable features from this inspection

  • Only a quarter of the population were Welsh.
  • The prison’s capacity was 2,106 prisoners but it held 1,273.
  • Just over three-quarters of the population were serving four years or more.
  • Almost half of prisoners said drugs were easily available.
  • Three-quarters of officers had been in service for less than two years and about a third for less than a year.
  • All cells had a shower, telephone and laptop computer.
  • Levels of self-harm were low for the type of prison.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that opening a new prison was a big challenge. “The prison opened with a very clear rehabilitative vision which has faced resistance at times. The leadership team are still working hard to find and maintain the right balance between rehabilitation and security, freedom and control, and sanctions and reward.

“Some mistakes have been made and we identify some important weaknesses, but we also acknowledge the great effort that has been made to give this prison a good start. The prison is generally ordered and settled, and… we found Berwyn to be a reasonably respectful place.” There was more to do, though, in the areas of safety, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning.

Though Berwyn is a Welsh prison, about 75% of those held in March 2019 were from England. Around 23% of prisoners felt unsafe at the time of the inspection, a figure comparable with other training prisons. Assaults on prisoners were lower than in similar prisons, but the rate of assaults on staff was higher. There were signs, though, that both were gradually reducing.

Some work was being done to reduce violence but “delivery often lacked drive and needed to be implemented more effectively.” Inspectors found 25 self-isolating prisoners who were completely unsupported. Use of force by staff was higher than in similar prisons and incidents usually involved the full application of restraints. However, oversight was satisfactory.

Drugs had been too readily available, but actions by the prison to reduce drugs supply seemed to have had some impact, and the positive drug testing rate had reduced to 21.49%. This was, however, still too high and supply reduction initiatives required greater coordination and drive. Nearly half of prisoners said it was easy to get drugs and almost one in four said they had developed a drug problem while at the prison.

There had been no self-inflicted deaths since the prison opened and self-harm was comparatively low, but those at risk who inspectors spoke to did not feel well cared for.

Most staff at Berwyn were inexperienced and, though they were doing their best and contributing to a relaxed and positive atmosphere, many prisoners felt frustrated by staff inconsistency and uncertainty. Some poor behaviour went unchallenged.

The quality of accommodation and the general environment were very good, with in-cell showers, telephones and access to amenities.

Mr Clarke said: “The prison had been successful in its aim to make such a large prison feel small. There was a real sense of community in most of the wings.”

Employed prisoners had reasonable time out of cell, though it was much worse for those without employment, who had about two and a half hours a day. Inspectors found 28% of prisoners locked up during the working day, “which for a new training prison was very disappointing.”

One of the greatest challenges facing the prison was the lack of activity places. Mr Clarke said: “It is difficult to understand how and why the procurement of work and training places for a new prison could be so delayed. Facing a rising population and too few activity places, prison managers had created a range of activities and there were sufficient places for the current population, but some were of inadequate quality and lacked challenge. Even those that were available were not fully used. Many prisoners were unemployed or failed to attend, and staff did too little to support a sound work ethic.” Those attending education or vocational training, however, generally received excellent teaching, made useful progress and achieved well.

The prison was struggling to develop its approach to offender management and resettlement. The make-up of the population was not as had been originally envisaged. Many prisoners were serving long sentences and presented a high risk of harm. Too many prisoners did not have an up-to-date assessment of risk.

Offender management caseloads were too high and case management was inconsistent and reactive. Public protection measures were similarly weak and the prison lacked sufficient offending behaviour interventions to meet the needs of the population. Work to resettle prisoners was, however, better.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“We met many managers and staff who were working hard to make a success of this new prison. Senior managers described themselves as ‘being on a journey’ and we saw lots of work, many policies and numerous plans. What was needed was better oversight, better coordination and more sustained delivery. The staff seemed to us to be a strength of the prison, but they needed support in delivering the basics consistently. We thought the prison had made a good start. We were impressed by the energy and optimism we observed and there was clearly the potential to move on rapidly.”

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales described the report as ‘very positive’.

Mr Leech said: “Many people really underestimate what opening a new prison involves, a new establishment, with new processes, new staff, new prisoners – it can so easily go horribly wrong as we have seen in the past.

“This is a very positive report on Berwyn , it has some significant problems ahead, drugs are a major concern like in the majority of prisons, but it has a sound basis from which to move forward and I welcome this report.”


Task of the establishment: A category C training and resettlement establishment holding adult males.

Certified normal accommodation and operational capacity: Prisoners held at the time of inspection: 1,273. Baseline certified normal capacity: 2,106. In-use certified normal capacity: 1,584. Operational capacity: 1,300 (currently capped at this number while awaiting more staffing and provision).

Prison status (public or private) and key providers: Public
Physical health provider: Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
Mental health provider: Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
Substance misuse provider: Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
Learning and skills provider: Novus Cambria
Community rehabilitation company (CRC): Seetec Justice (Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC)
Escort contractor: GEOAmey
Prison group: North Wales

Brief history
In 2014, permission was granted for a prison to be built in Wrexham, and Berwyn opened on 27 February 2017. Built on a former Firestone Tyre site, Berwyn (when full) is the largest prison in England and Wales and the second largest in Europe.

Short description of residential units.
There are three houses. Alwen, Bala and Ceiriog, each divided into eight communities that can accommodate up to 88 general population residents, including the following. Alwen C Uppers life-sentenced/indeterminate sentence for public protection Alwen D Uppers enhanced life-sentenced Bala B Lowers healthy living Bala C Lowers Glyndŵr: progressive unit Bala D Lowers Gobaith: resettlement unit Bala B Uppers Menai: assisted living Bala C Uppers Shaun Stocker: veterans and first-timers Bala D Uppers improving family futures Ceiriog A Lowers Snowdon: mature residents Ceiriog D Lowers induction and first night unit. Ogwen care and support (segregation) unit (up to 21 prisoners)
Name of governor and date in post: Nick Leader (April 2019)
Independent Monitoring Board chair: Eileen Darbyshire
Date of last inspection: This was the prison’s first inspection.

Read the Report