A group of Welsh-speaking men and staff from HMP Berwyn in Wrexham have contributed to a ground-breaking international data project from inside the prison’s walls.

In a joint initiative between Berwyn operator Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and community organisation Menter Iaith Fflint a Wrecsam, the prison has taken part in the Common Voice project run by the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation.

The global open-source initiative is capturing individual voices in numerous languages, including Welsh, to help teach machines how real people speak, enabling them to respond to voice commands. By building a multilingual dataset of voices that can be used for speech-enabled applications, Common Voice aims to make voice recognition more inclusive. The Welsh language element of the project is a partnership between Mozilla, Bangor University’s Language Technologies Unit and Meddal.com.

Men and staff from Berwyn have donated their voices to the project via Mozilla’s application, which was made available to them for the purposes of participating.

Nigel Jones, one of the men at Berwyn who took part, said he was very pleased to be involved:

“As a Welsh speaker it’s a proud feeling to know that even though I’m in prison, I’ve been able to contribute to something that will help to promote the language and protect it for the future. I really appreciate the staff giving us the opportunity to participate in something like this.”

Danny Khan, governor of HMP Berwyn, said:

“To be able to contribute to a global project like this is fantastic. We have an established Welsh language community at Berwyn, with lots of Welsh language activities available throughout the year delivered jointly with Menter Iaith Fflint a Wrecsam. When they suggested we get involved, we put it out to the men and I’m really pleased that 12 of them volunteered. Plenty of meaningful activity goes on in prison, much of it that the public maybe isn’t that familiar with. This is a good example of how people in custody still have a valid contribution to make despite their sentence. This has been a really positive experience both for the men and the staff.”

Menter Iaith Fflint a Wrecsam’s Chief Officer Gill Stephen said:

“Many Welsh speakers know that some of the well-known voice-enabled applications such as Alexa and Siri can struggle with spoken Welsh. Over time there is a risk that Welsh speakers will switch to using English with these devices if that seems more efficient. This project is helping to shape the technology to ensure that won’t be necessary, and has a big role to play in safeguarding use of the language in our everyday lives in the future. The men at Berwyn told us they felt a sense of pride in contributing to such a worthwhile project. They are part of our community and I’m so pleased they were able to take part despite being in prison.”

Delyth Prys of Bangor University said:

“We are very pleased that HMP Berwyn was able to contribute to this work. A big thank you to the men for donating their voices, and for taking such a positive approach to this project. We would urge any Welsh speakers in the community to please consider lending their voices to the project too.”

The voice recognition project is one of several activities at HMP Berwyn being run through the medium of Welsh, including quizzes, musical events and Welsh lessons for beginners.

Welsh language voice donations for this project are still being sought at https://voice.mozilla.org/cy.