Prisons are experiencing numerous problems: rising numbers, 'new' populations requiring specialised care (e.g. elderly men, military veterans); an ageing and dilapidated estate that spatially exacerbates effects of overcrowding; a preoccupation with security at the expense of other goals; an influx of new and dangerous drugs and illegal phones; and unprecedented numbers of deaths in custody. In response to these crises, the Government is undertaking an ambitious modernisation programme (the first for 60 years), at the core of which is up to nine new prison builds and the provision of an extra 10,000 prison places. These plans represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity, not only to build modern fit-for-purpose facilities but to reassess what prisons are for and what they can aspire to achieve. In the current era, punishment and rehabilitation are the paradoxical twin drivers of policy, made and implemented within a context of 'effectiveness' and 'efficiency' which, ministers argue, are goals best served by the economies of scale offered by very large prisons. Consequently, despite a wealth of scholarship finding smaller facilities to be better at housing prisoners safely, providing meaningful work, education and training, encouraging purposeful activity, and fostering healthy relationships between prisoners and staff, the Government remains committed to constructing 1000+ bed 'mega-prisons'.
Meanwhile, prisoners are often ill-prepared for release at the end of their sentence, and a return to society can be experienced as a welcome but ultimately catastrophic event. Factors inhibiting successful resettlement include: long-term health problems caused by exposure to overcrowded, brutalising and/or insanitary custodial environments; broken family ties due to remote location of prisons and poor visiting arrangements; unresolved violence and substance misuse issues; limited job prospects due to poor educational attainment and the acquisition of a criminal record; and, for long-term prisoners, lack of experience with the basic, essential technologies that are required to function in modern society. In this context, rehabilitation can seem a forlorn ambition, so the opening of HMP Berwyn in 2017 - described by media as the 'poster child of Britain's super prisons' (BBC, 28 Feb 2017) - is a significant milestone. With capacity for 2,106 inmates, it is (along with Oakwood in England) the second largest prison in Europe, and the largest publicly-run prison in England and Wales. It is also the cheapest to operate, with anticipated costs of just £14,000 per prisoner per year, compared to the national average of £32,500. Yet Berwyn is also the first custodial facility in England and Wales to be designated a 'Rehabilitation Prison' and embed a 'rehabilitative culture' from the outset. If successful in this mission, Berwyn will be a 'flagship' model for the next phase of prisons to be constructed by 2021.
Conducted by a team based at the Universities of Leicester and Kent, and at HMP Berwyn, the study will empirically investigate the extent to which Berwyn can deliver on its promise of rehabilitation, and will employ its findings to inform current and future debates about how prisons might be designed and operated. Following the applicants' existing ESRC-funded research and using the key stakeholder relationships and networks established during those projects, the intent is to innovate in two important ways: i) the research findings will inform knowledge and debates now as well as in future - impact will not come at the end of the study, but will be embedded from the start; ii) it will move beyond traditional 'top-down' research methods, and will fully involve prisoners and staff as co-producers of data. Challenging conventional wisdom and taken-for-granted assumptions, the proposed project is imaginative, significant and timely.