University of Bath

The rehabilitation prison: An oxymoron or an opportunity to radically reform imprisonment?

This study examines if a prison can or should embed a rehabilitative culture. Its focus is the 'flagship' HMP Berwyn, the largest prison in England and Wales.

Berwyn prison building with blue skies in the background
Berwyn is the first custodial facility in England and Wales to be designated a 'rehabilitation prison' and embed a rehabilitative culture from the outset

Project background

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

  • 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 Her Majesty's Prison (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.

Project aims

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), this project seeks to unpack and critically examine what 'rehabilitation' actually means in the context of a new prison with an explicit mission to pursue rehabilitation as a goal. The study’s aims are:

  • to critically interrogate and empirically test the extent to which a rehabilitative culture can and should be embedded within a prison, considering both positive and negative impacts

  • to understand the specific roles of senior leaders, staff and prisoners in instigating, shaping and embedding a rehabilitative culture from the top down and from the bottom up

  • to explore the ways in which a rehabilitative culture communicates, reinforces or counters traditional aims and techniques of penal authority, shapes the lived experience of imprisonment, and impacts on the working environment of prison staff and additional stakeholders, including prisoners' families and visitors

  • to determine the architectural, design and technological (ADT) dimensions of a rehabilitative culture and to understand the extent to which size, physical design and spatial qualities of the prison embody or contradict rehabilitative ideals and ambitions

  • to facilitate research training and co-production of data with prisoners to create meaningful bottom-up knowledge exchange about the efficacy of a 'rehabilitation prison', and to disseminate findings to the senior management team at Berwyn, to key stakeholders within the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service and more widely to global interested parties

Research questions

1. Rehabilitative aims

What are the predominant aims, aspirations and penal philosophies underpinning ‘rehabilitation’ at HMP Berwyn and how are they manifested (e.g. are they anthropocentric or authoritarian?; concerned only with personal transformation in attitudes and behaviour, or future-oriented and geared towards building social capital?)

2. Rehabilitative spaces

To what extent does the architecture, design and spatial layout of HMP Berwyn, and its location and local community links, enable a rehabilitative culture to flourish and to what degree do these physical properties inhibit rehabilitation?

3. Rehabilitative leaders and staff

To what extent can and do managers and staff become the intended ‘rehabilitative leaders’ and ‘rehabilitative staff’, and how do such expectations shape their roles and relationships with each other and with prisoners?

4. Rehabilitative living

To what degree must a rehabilitative culture come from prisoners themselves (including independently, without any third party involvement) and how does the desire to create a rehabilitative culture from the top down shape, structure or impact both the lived experience of prisoners and the work culture for prison officers?

5. Rehabilitative journeys

What are the factors that contribute most to the capacity of prisoners for hope, future orientation and long-term rehabilitation? What can a ‘Rehabilitation Prison’ like Berwyn do to mitigate against, or at least prepare prisoners for the deficits they may encounter in social, judicial, moral and political aspects of rehabilitation as they progress through and out of the penal system?

Research team