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It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, and I intend to focus on part 1, too. As stated in clause 1, we should aim to
“protect the public…reform and rehabilitate offenders…prepare prisoners for life outside prison, and…maintain an environment that is safe and secure.”
I am pleased to sit on the Joint Committee on Human Rights under the excellent chairmanship of Ms Harman. I have been appointed within the Committee to the role of rapporteur on mental health, and our first inquiry has been into self-inflicted deaths in prisons, based on the Harris report of 2015. In common with others, I have been conscious of previous reports such as the Woolf report of 1991, the Corston report of 2007 on women in prison and, more recently, the Harris report of 2015 on the suicide of young prisoners. There are merits in all those excellent reports, which have been welcomed, yet we still find ourselves in the situation in which more people are taking their own lives in prison—12 women and 107 men in the last year alone.
I have visited many prisons in my role, and the first point to note is that prisons should be and are places of punishment. They do, however, have their challenges and responsibilities when it comes to human rights, so I would like to explore a few of those.
To me, strong leadership is vital, because good practice needs to come from the top and then cascade throughout the system. I welcome, of course, the proposed increase in the number of prison officers, because it is undeniable that the system is stretched. We must therefore make sure that the new officers get proper training, and we should also consider existing officers, who might have become demoralised in their work. We should ensure that they, too, are aware of and adhere to the new standards, while being fully supported and trained in the new expectations. This will necessitate a culture change—a change of attitude and behaviour—which requires investment across the board, not just to increase staff levels.
Let me provide a simple example that has nothing to do with money, just good practice. We heard evidence that in one prison an orange file was used if prisoners were suspected of having a mental health issue. Of course no one wants to be branded as having such issues, so prisoners are reluctant to seek medical help in case others see them with the orange folder. With a little forethought, a simple solution arose relating to good practice. Why not use a file the same colour as all the others? It would be no extra cost, but would deal sensitively with the prisoners’ needs.
On my first visit to a prison, I was struck by the amount of banging on doors in cells. At one point, it became unbearably loud with a prisoner striking the wall and door with his chair and shouting at the top of his voice. What really concerned me, though, was that the cell was shared. Imagine being the person who had to share a cell with someone who was kicking off like that. Imagine the impact that it would have on your own wellbeing.
At the time I asked a prison officer what the problem was, and was told that the yard time had been stopped because of the weather. When I asked how often that happened, I was told that it happened a lot, and that some prisoners would kick off at night, waking the whole floor. As a result, no one would get any sleep, and the next day they would all be irritable. The problem just goes on. We must ensure that enough exercise and association time is provided, and that the time in the cell is not excessive. I welcome the fact that an increase in the number of prison officers will make that possible, but please, please, we must consider time outside the cell even if it is raining, because the frustration and anger are evident if that is not allowed.
A great deal needs to be done. I welcome the Bill’s aim of reforming and rehabilitating offenders, but let us not underestimate the challenge of the culture that exists in prisons. Let us not deny that drugs are available, that there is a workforce that needs to be reinvigorated, that a gang culture exists, and that for some prisoners prison is just a way of life.