How Britain’s flagship ‘prison of the future’ descended into our ‘cushiest jail’: Loud music, mobile phones, drugs and no fewer than three sexual flings between female guards and inmates blight reputation of Welsh unit
- Category C HMP Berwyn has seen three prisoner officers jailed in five years
- The women had intimate relationships with inmates at the Wrexham prison
- A report by HM Inspectorate stated that the facility was being ‘competently run’
Before the first inmates arrived at the newly built HMP Berwyn in February 2017, governor Russ Trent spoke of his belief that a focus on rehabilitation and education would prove transformative for the new arrivals.
‘If they start off with the mindset that this does not feel like a prison, we are hoping that they will act like it is not a prison, too,’ he declared.
And certainly, few could argue that Category C HMP Berwyn, in Wrexham, North Wales — the prison system runs from A to D, with A being the toughest — seems a breed apart from other penal facilities.
From the outside, the group of new low-rise buildings, enlivened with cheerful splashes of primary colours and complete with a full-sized football pitch, looks more like a modern housing complex than a place of incarceration.
Last week, it emerged that a third female prison officer has been jailed in the past five years after forming an intimate relationship with an inmate at the Category C HMP Berwyn, in Wrexham, North Wales
Inside are an education block, workshops, a sports hall, multi-use games areas and a ‘health and wellbeing’ centre, while its comfortable rooms — Berwyn policy is not to use the word ‘cell’ — come with a landline, shower and laptop. Prisoners can even lock their own doors from within.
So no, HMP Berwyn certainly does not ‘feel’ like a conventional prison.
Nor, it seems, is the approach of some of the personnel there one you might immediately associate with discipline and reform.
Last week, it emerged that a third female prison officer has been jailed in the past five years after forming an intimate relationship with an inmate.
An officer, Emily Watson, 26, had intercourse with her jailbird lover and performed a sex act on him on two other occasions – one on Christmas day
The details of those relationships are eye-popping. One officer, Emily Watson, then 26, was able to arrange three trysts with her jailbird lover in his cell. She had full intercourse with him during one, and performed a sex act on him on two other occasions — one on Christmas Day.
Another, Ayshea Gunn, 27, exchanged more than 1,200 phone calls — including explicit video calls — and smuggled a pair of her knickers into her lover Khuram Razaq’s cell in her bra lining.
The duo also ‘livestreamed’ themselves performing sex acts on one another.
Both officers were jailed for 12 months in 2019 for misconduct in public office — but, apparently undeterred by the fate of her predecessors, it was not long before another Berwyn prison officer, Jennifer Gavan, was at it, too.
Emily Watson, formed a relationship with a prisoner called John McGee (pictured) just five months after the prison had opened its doors
In April 2020, Gavan, then 25, formed a relationship with offender Alex Coxon, providing him with a phone on which she had made sexually explicit videos and through which they had enjoyed extensive contact.
In December she, too, was jailed, for eight months after pleading guilty to misconduct.
So plenty of sex at Berwyn — and also drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, if a former inmate is to be believed.
In 2019, one ex-prisoner, known only as Christopher, who had been sentenced to 11 months for assault, told a television programme that loud music, drink and drugs were commonplace there, courtesy of inexperienced guards.
‘The jail needs to be run more like a jail,’ he said. ‘At the moment it’s being run like a youth club.’
Was this quite what Governor Trent had in mind when he spoke of those under his jurisdiction behaving ‘as if they were not in a prison’?
Jennifer Gavan, 27, had not only accepted a £200 payment from the family of Alex Coxon, a then 23-year-old inmate with convictions for armed robbery and drug dealing, to provide him with a mobile phone, but had then embarked on a romantic relationship with him during which she had kissed him and sent him sexually explicit pictures
Sadly, he is no longer in a position to comment, after being suspended in August 2018 following allegations that were not made public. He was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing, although he did not return to his role at HMP Berwyn.
Either way, given such dramas, last week it was perhaps little surprise to learn the Ministry of Justice has confirmed that more than 500 members of staff at Berwyn have undergone ‘corruption prevention’ training in the past 18 months.
Furthermore, ‘our enhanced security is protecting the prison against attempts to smuggle illicit items inside’, a Prison Service spokesperson told the Mail this week. ‘The overwhelming majority of Prison Service staff are hardworking and dedicated and we will not hesitate to punish those who break the rules.’
Nonetheless, this is all a very long way from the shiny new future envisaged when HMP Berwyn opened its doors in 2017, against a backdrop of prisons spiralling into crisis across England and Wales.
Prisoner numbers had almost doubled since the Nineties as tough sentencing outstripped the number of prison places, leaving the Government to cram the 85,000-strong prison population into buildings originally designed to hold about 65,000.
Almost half of adults leaving custody were reoffending within a year of their release.
Alex Coxon received sexually explicit pictures from Jennifer Gavan, a prison officer
In this bleak judicial landscape, the £250 million Berwyn was designed to be a blueprint for a new kind of prison. ‘Flagship’ was the word used by Sarah Payne, then head of the prison service in Wales, in 2015.
While vast in size — capable of holding 2,106 men, it is the second largest prison in Europe — Berwyn was trumpeted as ‘truly rehabilitative’ by Governor Trent, a charismatic former Royal Marine.
Prisoners would be referred to as men, cells as rooms, and wings as ‘communities’. Men would have laptops (albeit offering internal services, not the internet) in their rooms, and phones allowing them to wish their children good night.
Cells could be locked from the inside — although guards could override this — and while at most prisons, inmates earn privileges through good behaviour, at HMP Berwyn they would be given privileges on arrival and have them removed for poor behaviour.
Nonetheless, prison officials were keen to emphasise that discipline lay at Berwyn’s heart: ‘I can assure you, it’s not cushy,’ then deputy governor Nick Dann told local reporters. Yet it wasn’t long before data showed that, for all the shiny promises, Berwyn faced the same struggles as other prisons.
In July 2018, The IMB (Independent Monitoring Board) revealed that illegal drugs were ‘readily available’ in the jail — a fact laid bare at the inquest of HMP Berwyn prisoner Luke Morris Jones, 22, who died from heart failure while serving a four-year sentence for burglary after smoking the psychoactive drug Spice.
Ayshea Gunn, 27, exchanged more than 1,200 phone calls — including explicit video calls — and smuggled a pair of her knickers into her lover Khuram Razaq’s cell in her bra lining
Prison officer, Ayshea Gunn with inmate Khuram Razaq in a cell at the prison
The inquest was told the drug was being smuggled in on fake legal letters — as these are subject to legal privilege, they cannot be tampered with by staff — to be burned and smoked by inmates.
A year later, government data showed assaults on staff and ‘use of force’ incidents by staff against prisoners were higher at Berwyn than at other Category C prisons, with 338 ambulances dispatched there and the police called 135 times in the two years since it had first admitted inmates.
By then, at least two of those employed to maintain order and boundaries at Berwyn were engaging in extracurricular activity with those under their supervision.
Like all recruits, they had received training in security awareness and corruption prevention, as well as ‘conditioning’ training to make them aware of the risk of prisoners trying to compliment and later exploit them. The training had clearly not proved effective for Emily Watson, who formed a relationship with a prisoner called John McGee just five months after the prison had opened its doors.
McGee was serving an eight-year sentence for a hit-and-run after causing the death of charity worker Richard Bratin, 51, during a high-speed police car chase.
McGee had been in prison for supplying class A drugs but was out on licence when, in December 2015, he was trying to evade arrest once more, speeding through the streets of Walton, Liverpool, and ploughing into Mr Bratin, who was walking his dog. He then drove off and left him for dead.
Mr Bratin’s devastated family later labelled McGee ‘vermin’.
What version of events McGee had told Watson can only be a matter of speculation.
Khuram Razaq, then 29, had previously been jailed for armed robbery and in 2015 had been given a subsequent 12-year sentence for conspiracy to rob
Either way, by October 2017, Watson and McGee had started to communicate via Instagram on an iPhone McGee kept in his cell, hidden in a Playstation he opened with a screwdriver disguised as a pen. At Watson’s suggestion, he had put her contact details under a false name.
A court was later told that the pair had ‘virtual sex’ over FaceTime, while CCTV footage showed she had visited McGee’s cell alone three times, and engaged in both full and oral intercourse with him.
Little wonder that at Watson’s sentencing in April 2019, Judge Niclas Parry spoke of the devastation the family of Mr Bratin must feel at learning of her ‘reprehensible behaviour’.
Jailing her for 12 months for misconduct in public office, he told her: ‘One can only hope that the sentence of eight years’ imprisonment would have been some comfort to the family of Mr Bratin. Therefore it is difficult to imagine the betrayal they must have felt at finding out that he was able to have free access to an iPhone in prison and conduct a sexual relationship from his prison cell.’
The same month, sentencing McGee to an additional 12 months in custody for possessing an illicit mobile phone and charger, Judge Parry took the opportunity to speak of his sorrow at the state of affairs at Berwyn.
‘Once again the proposed bright new future for prison rehabilitation at Berwyn prison lies in ruins because of prisoner conduct,’ he said. ‘Despite all the facilities there and the opportunities offered to prisoners, once again that has been abused.’
Sombre words — but too late for Watson’s colleague, Berwyn officer Ayshea Gunn. For just six months after Watson and McGee’s affair was exposed, Gunn, then 27, was also forming a romantic attachment with a prisoner.
In one exchange, Razaq had told Gunn: ‘I can’t wait until next week. I am going to throw you on my bed.’
The object of her affection was a career criminal called Khuram Razaq, then 29, who had previously been jailed for armed robbery and in 2015 had been given a subsequent 12-year sentence for conspiracy to rob.
Clearly not put off by this, Gunn, a psychology and criminology graduate and then a probationary officer at Berwyn, began a passionate affair with Razaq during which the duo exchanged more than 1,200 phone calls on a mobile phone smuggled into his cell —among them explicit video calls.
In one exchange, Razaq had told Gunn: ‘I can’t wait until next week. I am going to throw you on my bed.’ In another, Gunn had sent screenshots of prison officers’ WhatsApp chats including discussion about cell search tactics.
The affair was discovered in November 2018, after colleagues clocked the disproportionate amount of time Gunn spent in her lover’s cell.
Gunn subsequently admitted misconduct in public office and in December 2019 was sentenced to 12 months behind bars.
Released at the end of summer the following year, she now lives in Manchester, where photographs on Facebook show she recently celebrated her 30th birthday at a popular local nightspot. Watson, now released from prison, is understood to have returned to her native Huddersfield.
In September, a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons stated that leadership there was ‘strong’ and the facility was being ‘competently run’
Two female officers behind bars of their own is hardly a badge of honour for any prison governor — but by then Trent was long gone. Into the gap stepped current governor Nick Leader, although if he hoped to preside over a regime where the boundaries between officers and inmates were firmer, he was to be disappointed: in April 2020, a year after he took over, another young prison officer had begun a romance with an inmate.
Jennifer Gavan, 27, had not only accepted a £200 payment from the family of Alex Coxon, a then 23-year-old inmate with convictions for armed robbery and drug dealing, to provide him with a mobile phone, but had then embarked on a romantic relationship with him during which she had kissed him and sent him sexually explicit pictures.
Gavan, who now has an eight-month-old baby via a new relationship and was said in court to be ‘genuinely remorseful’ about what had happened, was sentenced to eight months in custody after her affair was exposed in July 2020.
Sobbing as she was taken from the dock, she cut a pitiful sight, although whether this will be deterrent enough for her former colleagues at Berwyn — which currently houses around 1,812 inmates — remains to be seen.
In September, a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons stated that leadership there was ‘strong’ and the facility was being ‘competently run’. The families affected by the transgressions of the criminals there may beg to differ.
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