LONDON — For two years, inmates at a prison in Wales have been allowed to lock their cells from the inside — for privacy. Guards have been expected to follow a “knock first” policy before entering. The detainees have had access to laptops, through which they can order meals.
And please, don’t call them “prisoners.”
The unusual accommodations, publicized by the British newspaper The Telegraph and other news outlets this past week, were put in place at Berwyn, the largest prison in England and Wales, which opened in February 2017. The policies are part of a government overhaul of prison practices in England and Wales intended to improve conditions and bolster rehabilitation.
Six new jails are planned in the United Kingdom, The Telegraph noted. And despite opposition from some prison workers, the government regards Berwyn as “a model for a modern prison,” according to a continuing study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council seeking “to unlock an age-old question of whether prisons can really rehabilitate offenders.”
But the approach has been a failure, an official from a trade union for prison workers said on Sunday.
“It’s a social experiment that has been a complete disaster,” the official, Mark Fairhurst, the chairman of the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers said in a phone interview.
“Berwyn has the highest assault rates on officers — they lost control because they were too soft; they listened to psychologists who don’t do our jobs,” he added.
Berwyn, about 170 miles northwest of London, has capacity for 2,106 male inmates. The prison follows guidelines set out in a 2017 research project, “Well-Being in Prison Design,” that was funded by the Royal Institute of British Architects in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice.
As part of the measures, privacy locks were installed to allow inmates to lock their cells (though they can be overridden by guards); prison officers were required to knock on cell doors before entering; prisoners were provided with laptops that could gain access to an internal network; and different terms were used to refer to the men inside and to their cells.
“These physical measures are matched with the operational philosophy and terminology: Those in custody are referred to simply as ‘men’ and the cells are ‘rooms,’” according to the project’s guidelines.
“The guiding principle is that officers and staff are enablers of rehabilitation first and foremost,” the report added.
But the approach has not been effective, Mr. Fairhurst, the trade union chairman, said. He also pushed back on the idea that staff members at Berwyn would knock on cell doors.
“They’re prison officers, why would they knock?” he said. “They are still prisoners; there’s still violence.”
About 100 prison officers demonstrated outside Berwyn in September to protest “unprecedented violence” at the prison, after reports of widespread drug use and assaults against staff members, which allegedly included employees being pushed down the stairs and spat on, the BBC reported.
Mr. Fairhurst also stressed that inmates at Berwyn could not lock and unlock their cells at will. “They can lock their cell door when it’s unlocked, so that other prisoners cannot go in and steal their belongings; they can’t unlock their cells,” he said.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said in an email on Sunday that staff members at the prison “can override the locks that prisoners use when they want privacy in their cells.”
The spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said of the 2017 report, “While we welcome views on how the design of new prisons could reduce reoffending by improving prisoners’ mental health and rehabilitation, this document is not a blueprint for future prisons.”
In January, academics from the Universities of Bath and Leicester announced a three-year research project into whether prisons can rehabilitate offenders — and Berwyn is being studied, according to the project’s official announcement.
“Some of these changes at Berwyn are relatively simple, but they might be having an important effect when it comes to making prisoners feel that they are treated with respect and decency,” Yvonne Jewkes, a professor of criminology at the University of Bath who is one of two academics leading the research, said at the time.
A report published in July by an independent monitoring board for Berwyn, a body of volunteers who monitor prisoners’ welfare, found that inmates there were “treated fairly and with decency,” and said, “Berwyn will provide a practical illustration of what works well, what works less well and what can or should be discontinued.” The report covered the period from March 2017 to February 2018.
The Ministry of Justice has said that as part of the wider overhaul of British prisons, the windows of new prisons in England and Wales will have toughened glass and air vents, because a government-funded study had warned that having bars was punitive. The measure was also intended to make it harder to smuggle contraband into prisons.
The ministry has also said in December that more inmates would be allowed phones in their cells to help maintain family ties in an effort to improve rehabilitation and cut reoffending rates.
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