Jailhouse rock

When you think about it, there’s something very odd about HMP Cardiff. There is no prison in the UK so near to a city centre. While the rest of the Victorian town has been eliminated mercilessly all about it, the prison has stayed in exactly the same place for 180 years. It occupies a 15 acre (6 hectare) lozenge of prime real estate, yet the usual rapacious greed of developers and speculators somehow switches off when it comes to this site and no Council scheme ever suggests ‘regeneration’ here. Amazingly, the presence of this mighty penitentiary in the heart of a 21st century European capital has never been questioned – until now.

The Black Hole of Cardiff

The high, fat walls of thick, dark, rough-cut Pennant sandstone slabs quarried in the Glamorgan hills bring an air of menace to Adam Street and Sandon Street utterly at odds with the Happy Shopper narrative being acted out in the garish malls barely 200 metres away. In Cardiff we have a word for this: normality. After all, the very first permanent Cardiff structure, the earth and timber fort built by the Romans in the 1st century, featured holding cages where the newly-enslaved were shackled. From this genesis as a compound for crime and punishment, Cardiff grew accustomed to having grim warnings of the consequences of disobedience at its very heart.

From the 12th century the centrepiece of the town was the Norman invaders’ castle with its fearsome torture dungeons in the Black Tower, and when Cardiff’s first Town Hall was built in the middle of High Street in the 14th century pride of place went to the Courtroom with its gaol beneath where confinement was tantamount to a death sentence due to filth and disease. A purpose-built gaol erected in St Mary Street in the 17th century (where the Central Market now stands) further added to Cardiff’s reputation as a place of inhumane incarceration, conditions there being described as “insufficient, inconvenient and unfit for the custody of prisoners” even in the routinely callous 1790s. Then in 1832 the new County Gaol, holding 80 prisoners, was built to the east of the town off Whitmore Lane (today’s Adam Street) on what had been the Spital Field common lands.

In 1854, as the terraced streets of the growing town spread to its southern boundary, the gaol was greatly enlarged and reinforced: today’s glowering main block was constructed and those lofty walls were raised higher, a stern symbol of unbending authority for the huddled masses below. And there it has remained, gradually filling the diamond-shaped plot with extensions and new wings added over time – most recently three seriously ugly brick and concrete blocks in the 1990s. The main entrance, much altered, is where it has always been on Knox Road, which was originally called Toll Lane before being renamed to commemorate the tyrannous, one-armed governor between 1872 and 1885, Major John Knox VC (1828-1897). The removal of the Rhymney Railway, which rattled cell bars through the long nights from an embankment flush against the north-east wall, plus the massive reduction in train numbers on the Taff Vale line running down the west side of the prison, makes for a quieter environment these days – but the sufferings and miseries experienced here over the years have not abated.

It is here, where the doctrines and protocols of the British State are applied without let or hindrance, that Cardiff keeps its horrors: the hanging of David Roberts in 1886, when the drop from the trapdoor was insufficient and he slowly choked to death; the prison’s last execution in 1952 when innocent Somali seaman Mahmoud Mattan was “legally lynched” after a parody of a trial (it took until 1998 for the conviction to be quashed); the gruesome scene that greeted staff in 2000 when they entered the cell of Jason Ricketts to find he had strangled cell-mate Colin Bloomfield and cut out his liver, spleen and left eye; the scandal of terminally ill patients chained to their beds in the hospital wing…these are just a few of the better-known incidents that have helped make HMP Cardiff  a byword for all that is wrong with Britain’s penal system. Chronically overcrowded (capacity 800, population nearly 1,000), rife with bullying and intimidation, the scene of regular desperate suicides and inexplicable deaths in custody, the prison is a standing insult to the city’s progressive and compassionate temperament.

The UK’s prison population keeps on rising to new all-time record levels and is now approaching 100,000, the 11th highest total in the world and the highest in western Europe. And no wonder: in the last decade alone over 700 new laws have been added to the ‘England & Wales’ statute book with which Wales is currently lumbered. Having decided not to regulate the vast criminal conspiracy of the money markets, London governments regulate the people instead. Policing this unequal society to protect the privileges of the few has to be disguised in a crude “populism” to pander to the ignorance and malice of Daily Mail readers, perfectly exemplified by David Cameron’s recent hateful decision to flout international treaties and maintain the UK’s arbitrary and unique blanket ban on voting by those serving prison sentences, the better to dehumanise and demonise 1 in 600 of our fellow citizens.

On Knox Road the prison’s first woman governor, Sian West, is mouthing all the right psychobabble, introducing management strategies and behaviour programmes galore, and even planning a haute-cuisine restaurant called “The Clink” in a former visitor centre – anything but deal with the fact that they’re three to a cell now in Cardiff’s can, and within her walls the pointless brutalising of the poor, the addicted, the illiterate, the mentally ill and the plain unlucky continues. Wales, without powers over criminal law, policing, sentencing and prison policy, can only watch from the sidelines. We, who had codified, civilised, advanced laws by the 10th century, must take lessons in justice from the British State, originator of the star chamber, the convict colony, the concentration camp, the detention centre and the extraordinary rendition.

One day Wales will create its own jurisprudence, one where the principles of forgiveness not revenge, restitution not penance and empathy not castigation will be our guides. When that day comes maybe the whole soiled site can be cleared for the open space Adamsdown was never granted, turned back into the sweet meadows where old Cardiffians once took the air, and made into a memorial to all the lives broken in this cold, cruel corner of hell.

Picture: PFV