A steel industry, not steel bars: The case against HMP Port Talbot

Blast Furnace located at the Port Talbot steel plant

Bethan Jenkins AM

The production of steel and film stars has made Port Talbot famous the world over.

However, the Welsh and UK government are intent on making this great town famous for a less sought after reason: it’s about to become the site of a giant super prison.

Imagine you’re a resident of Port Talbot. A proud, industrial town that has been at the heart of Wales’s manufacturing might for over a century.

Over the past year and a half, you have been strapped into the rollercoaster that is the Steel Crisis. Lacklustre responses from governments at both ends of the M4 have left your community, your friends and even possibly your family peering over the precipice of economic collapse.

Then in March, under the patronage of the UK and Welsh governments, you are told that a new 1,600 space super prison is going to be built on your doorstep. And you are told ‘you should be grateful.’

I, and many others in the community, however, will not be grateful for a prison that is neither wanted nor needed.

The Baglan Moor site in Port Talbot is a particularly poor choice. Not only are 11 schools within a mile, it is also a flood plain.

By building on the site they would be endangering hundreds of nearby homes and potentially the staff and inmates of the prison. It would be in contravention of the Welsh Government’s own planning guidance.

Cheap

But this is not just an emotional crusade, peddled by ‘nimbys’. It’s not just Port Talbot that doesn’t need this prison – but Wales as a whole.

If HMP Port Talbot is built, Wales will have 2,400 more prison places than it needs.

Even if Westminster closed our oldest prison, HMP Cardiff, there would still be 1,600 more prison spaces than Wales needs.

In fact, Wales already has a surplus of prison places. The recently completed super prison near Wrexham, HMP Berwyn, is home to ten times more English than Welsh prisoners.

HMP Berwyn is already the largest prison in Europe. The UK government is keen on this model because of economies of scale.

At £14,000 per inmate, per year, it the cheapest prison to run in the UK. And the UK government is keen to replicate this in Port Talbot.

It’s a way of saving an expensive and crisis-ridden English prison system that is bursting at seams, due to years of underinvestment and privatisation.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to follow the clues to one clear conclusion – Wales is England’s affordable penal colony.

These are not just my sentiments, but those of the head of the Howard League – the oldest and most respected prison reform charity in the UK.

In a series of Tweets, Howard League CEO, Frances Crook, stated that “Wales is becoming the Botany Bay of 21st century. England shoving its urban poor onto the hulks and shipping them off to Wales”.

Flimsy

I was proud to lead a Plaid Cymru debate in the Senedd last week in which we were the only party to unanimously make the case against the Port Talbot Super prison.

The rebuttal, in support of the prison, from both the Labour front bench and the Tories was twofold:

  1. Rehabilitation

The first line of argument is that prisons in Swansea and Cardiff are not conducive to the rehabilitation of inmates.

I agree that years of chronic underinvestment in Victorian prisons like Cardiff and Swansea has left prison staff without the facilities they need to properly care for inmates.

However, no independent authority on justice is a proponent of super prisons as a way of rehabilitating inmates.

From the left-leaning Prison Reform Trust to Ian Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, one thing they all agree on is that these prisons are not about rehabilitation.

Super prisons are simply the cheapest way of bundling together society’s ‘left-behinds’. In turn, the prime city centre land on which our Victorian prisons sit can be sold-off to the highest bidder.

  1. Jobs for the local area

The jobs argument is even more flimsy. When announced, we were told that 200 permanent jobs would be created in the prison.

Most will be low-paid and in no way be a replacement for the jobs lost as a result of the UK government’s pathetic response to the steel crisis.

But what is more troubling is that these jobs are an illusion.

If, as is the logic of their argument, HMP Port Talbot will be a new home for inmates currently housed in Cardiff and Swansea, those prisons will be closed and in excess of 600 jobs lost.

This would, therefore, mean a net loss of 400 jobs in the south of Wales – and it is a fair assumption that many who were made redundant in Swansea and Cardiff will be first in line for jobs at HMP Port Talbot.

Not in Wales

It’s a sad indictment of Labour Welsh Government’s pathetic economic record that it is so out of ideas that it’s willing to embrace a plan to make Wales the only net importer of prisoners in the world.

The only resistance to come from Labour has been from Stephen Kinnock, who just wants to shift the prison to Swansea, outside the borders of his own constituency.

Plaid Cymru stands against the building of unnecessary super-prisons anywhere in Wales, and we will do everything in our power to stop them being built.

The Welsh Government have the power to refuse to sell the land – they must not ignore what the local community want in order to make a quick buck.

I will not let Port Talbot, nor Wales be treated in this way. I will do everything in my power to stop this prison and show that Wales is not for sale.

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