by Polly Manning
The university experience is often described as existing within a ‘bubble’, flush with responsibilities and pressures which may well shape our lives for years to come. Our whole world shrinks down to the campus on which we work, the homes in which we rest, and the routine of day-to-day student life. Our University begins to feel like an independent society, with its own unique structure of groups and institutions.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that we belong to the world beyond, a world to which we ought to lend our attention.
It is no secret that Swansea faces huge obstacles. The city is not immune to the poverty which has sunk its claws into much of the rest of Wales. The 2014 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation identified 12% of Swansea’s local areas as falling within the top 10% of those most deprived in Wales. Gross value added (basically a measure of the value of goods and services produced in an area) per person in Swansea is 28.3% below the UK average. At least 1 in 6 children live in extreme poverty and 6,100 adults living in Swansea are unemployed. Just across the waters of Swansea Bay stand the steelworks of Port Talbot – the symbol of an industry so much in crisis that, last year, workers took a cut to their pensions in order to keep it open.
These problems have been ruminated over by citizens, politicians, and council representatives for years. Now, however, awareness of an old injustice is just coming to light.
Swansea prison was built between 1845 and 1861, and today functions as a Category B/C men’s prison located on the side of Oystermouth Road in the Sandfields area. Most of us will have passed it on our way into the city centre: a block of Victorian stone punctuated by a reddish arched door, the respective flags of the UK, Wales, and HM Prison Service flapping proudly behind its railings.
In the August of 2017, the watchdog HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) carried out an unannounced inspection of Swansea prison. Details of its conditions have emerged since the publication of the report in the January of this year.
The findings are shocking. In the past six years, eight inmates have taken their own lives – all within the first week of their arrival at the prison. In the six months prior to the investigation there were 134 reported instances of self-harm amongst prisoners.
It was also noted that violence between inmates had risen since the previous inspection in 2014, and the city-centre location of the prison itself presented a higher risk of contraband – in particular, drugs – being thrown over walls to inmates. The report also noted that 17% of inmates had become addicted to drugs after the start of their sentences in the prison, and the provision of clean bedding and clothing was described as ‘unacceptably poor’. The report added that the prison had a ‘complacent and inexcusable’ attitude towards the safety of the most vulnerable prisoners in its care.
The report further detailed how ‘prisoners usually had to eat their meals next to their toilets, which did not always have seats or lids’, due to overcrowding and a shortage of staff.
Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons called the report ‘very disappointing’.
‘Between our last inspection in 2014 and when we went back in the middle of last year there have been four further self-inflicted deaths – all in similar circumstances, all in the early days of the individual’s imprisonment at Swansea jail,’ Mr Clarke said.
‘Quite simply, not enough has been done to understand the sort of problems they may have been facing and to prevent them inflicting harm and death upon themselves.’
He added that rates of self-harm described in the report were ‘clearly unacceptable’, and pointed out that, of 63 recommendations made to the prison following the 2014 inspection, only eight had been put into action.
‘As it stands at the moment, our conclusion is that it’s not fit for purpose in that its standards are not acceptable.’
It is not the first time that Swansea prison has come under fire for the living conditions which its inmates face. In the November of last year, Alun Davies of the Welsh mental health charity Hafal – who closely works with members of the prison and criminal justice systems – spoke to BBC Wales’ Newyddion 9 of the ‘pressure cooker’ conditions facing inmates.
‘The stories I hear from different sources who have been in [Swansea] prison is that very often on the weekend prisoners are locked up from Friday afternoon to Monday morning through lack of staff.’
Chief executive of the Howard League, Frances Crook, described the situation at the prison as “really disgusting”.
‘It’s smelly, people can’t get showers, they’ve got nothing to do, they get very little food,’ she said.
‘Of course, there’s going to be as a result of that deteriorating mental health, there’s going to be drugs and violence and assaults, and it puts the staff at serious risk.’
Of course, it is worth noting that these issues are not unique to HMP Swansea. Indeed, the Prison Governors Association said that the ‘issues highlighted in the Swansea report are fairly systemic across the prison system.’
In particular, overcrowding and the poor level of mental health and personal safety this enables are symptoms of the prison system throughout the country.
However, the problem has arguably come to a head. Swansea prison was designed to hold a capacity of 268 prisoners – at the time of this report it houses 438. As such, it is the third most overcrowded prison in all of England and Wales.
Why should students care?
Wherever we are from, we have chosen to make Swansea our home for three, four, perhaps many more years. We belong to the city and it belongs to us in the give-and-take relationship of any human being with their environment. The prison nestles itself comfortably between our coffee shops, our takeaways, our streets, and our homes. It is a visible presence right on our doorstep, and yet the degradations within its walls are hidden to us.
Just as this city belongs to us, these degradations do. As University students we have been granted privileges that many will never know, and we have a responsibility to employ these to help those who, for structural reasons, have found themselves relegated to different circumstances.
Let us summon up some of that classic student radicalism, and raise our voices against this product of the prison system which has allowed such human degradation to fester right in the heart of our city.