Prisons and Probation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:46 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Labour, Great Grimsby 2:46 pm, 14th May 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Simon Hoare, and I echo his remarks about Victoria Prentis, who has an incredibly impressive knowledge of this subject—I suggest that she is a little wasted on the Back Benches.

I want to focus my remarks on the impact of prison on prisoners and their families, and to consider whether prisons are fulfilling the role that we expect of them. I am increasingly receiving communications from constituents who are in prison, or visits from their family members in my surgeries, who are deeply concerned about just how safe prisons are. I have met families with grave concerns about suicide risk, repeated incidents of self-harm, lack of attention to mental health conditions, and issues with education and family support.

Most recently I had a father and partner of a prisoner come to see me about a young man who is in prison. He has given himself the most appalling injuries, having forced into his arm a pen and two metal bars. That happened while he was in HMP Humber. His injuries were left untreated for so long that by the time he was moved to HMP Hull, which then took him to hospital for the rods to be removed, the hospital was completely unwilling to do that, because there was too great a risk in taking them out. He has been left in a physical condition that means he has repeated infections, fevers and risk of sepsis, because the prison failed to take action at the time.

There might be very little public sympathy for that young man, but society has accepted that prison is a remedy for criminal acts. We have also accepted that rehabilitation, as well as punishment and public safety, is the purpose of prison. While people are self-harming, they are in absolutely no position to be rehabilitated.

I have no doubt that prison officers struggle with monitoring appropriately all the individuals under their watch, due to staffing numbers, high turnover and high sickness levels. However, sadly, I have also had brought to my attention situations where, for whatever reason, officers are involved not in the safeguarding and management of prisoners, but either in ignoring their needs altogether, because they are quiet and compliant, or in assaults against inmates. Another constituent contacted me to tell me about the times he was assaulted by prison officers, who are in a position of authority and great trust. He claimed that he was seriously beaten on four separate occasions during the 14 months he was in HMP Humber. After he complained to the governor, he found that the CCTV of the incidents had gone missing. I have no way to prove whether that story is accurate, and I take with a pinch of salt some of the claims that are made, but how sure is the Secretary of State that incidents and complaints such as that are recorded? Prisoners are immediately less likely to be believed than those who are employed and in a position of trust. Are those instances investigated?

My office struggles to get any information out of prisons to fully and properly advise constituents and their families in a timely fashion, so what hope do those who are incarcerated have? It has the feeling of an impenetrable service and while we all might expect the walls of prisons to be suitably impenetrable, surely Members of Parliament should be able to get to the bottom of an issue and ascertain whether something has gone awry. How can CCTV footage simply have disappeared? It is a source of great frustration to this man, who was sentenced to three years and three months for joint enterprise in a robbery, that he has now been in prison for 11 years, because of indeterminate life-licence sentencing. He says that he cannot wait until the end of the year for another parole hearing, and will take his own life if this continues. I can imagine how he can get to that point—expecting to be in prison for three years but being there for 11. It seems that the primary reason for this—I have heard nothing to the contrary from the prison—is his mental health status, not his likelihood of reoffending.

The issue of indeterminate sentences is coming up more often. Of course I want to see the public protected, but I had another case in which mental health again has played a huge role in the prisoner’s circumstances. A 15-year-old boy was charged with an offence, then he was sectioned for a month. He was arrested after he came out of hospital and he sat on remand for a year. In 2013, he was sentenced to 220 days with a life licence. Six years later, he is still in custody. He has repeatedly self-harmed. I wrote to the previous prisons Minister about this case, because of the ping-ponging between Rampton and Humbercare about who would take responsibility for his care. I could get nowhere with those organisations, and it took the prisons Minister’s intervention to achieve a resolution. In all that time, his family have struggled to get any information out of the prison, and even to get access to their son. His withdrawal from any contact or communication led the prison to tell the family, “Well, he doesn’t want to see you.” The family has therefore had very little information, but now, thankfully, there has been some movement. It should not take intervention by Ministers for basic systems to be in place to reassure family members. When people are put in prison, they are not the only ones who suffer: their families do too, and they have done nothing wrong. Families often feel out of the loop and find it difficult to get any information. I do not know what it is like for colleagues, but my office has found it extremely difficult to get a good standard of response in a timely fashion from prisons.

My final point about probation is that, at the weekend we saw many reports about how fly-tipping has increased enormously. Locally, dumping in alleyways is a huge issue for residents. Until August last year, our probation service had community payback activity that involved cleaning the alleys. That has now stopped because, apparently, it did not provide a feeling of worth for the individuals. It is private land and the council have no responsibilities over it, but tenants and landlords are not taking responsibility for it. That activity provided a useful public service, and I ask that it be reinstated as a rotational duty for community payback participants. While it may not seem to have any worth for them, it does for the wider community.