Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:51 am on 21st January 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 11:51 am, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I think that the whole House owes a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, not only for securing this debate but for what has, frankly, been a brilliant speech and exposition of the issues that the prison service faces and, potentially, some of the solutions.

I cannot declare an interest as having written extensively for the Times, as I appreciate that that is clearly an important qualification for considering these matters, but last year I submitted to the Government the independent review of the deaths of young people in prisons, Changing Prisons, Saving Lives. It was commissioned by a former Minister for Prisons and the Government’s response was published in December, just as the House of Commons rose for its Christmas Recess.

That review was probably the most comprehensive independent examination of penal policy for a generation. It was rooted in an enormous volume of evidence and research, and underpinned by a detailed analysis of the tragic cases of 87 young people who died in prison between April 2007 and the end of 2013. Since then, there have been a further 29 self-inflicted deaths of young people in NOMS custody. Each of those deaths represents a failure by the state to protect the young people concerned—a breach of Article 2 of the European

Convention on Human Rights. The failure is all the greater because the same criticisms occur time and time again. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said more generally about prisons policy, the lessons have not been learnt and not enough has been done to bring about substantive change.

Our conclusion in the review was that all young adults in custody are vulnerable. Some have had chaotic lives and complex histories; others have been subjected to child abuse, exposed to violence or repeated bereavement; many have been in foster or residential care; and their vulnerability is often further compounded by mental health issues or lack of maturity.

Let us be clear. Prisons and young offender institutions are grim environments, bleak and demoralising to the spirit. When that is coupled with impoverished regimes, it makes the experience of being in prison particularly damaging to developing young adults. Quite frankly, the experience is not conducive to rehabilitation. Therefore, I welcome in the introduction to the Government’s response to the review that I led the ringing declarations by the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, about the primary purpose of prison being rehabilitation.

So, after those fine words at the beginning of the introduction to the Government’s response, it was disappointing that 33 of the central recommendations in the review were rejected outright. That included the fundamental concept at the heart of the review: that there should be a suitably trained professional who has the personal responsibility for the journey of each individual prisoner through the prison system—what we called a custody and rehabilitation officer. That person would have a caseload small enough for him or her to know each of the prisoners for whom they were responsible and a caseload that would enable them to ensure that the health, social welfare, security, education, training and rehabilitation needs of that individual were adequately addressed during that time in prison.

Frankly, it is difficult to see how the rehabilitation revolution to which Michael Gove has committed himself can be achieved without someone ensuring and owning what happens to the individual prisoner during their period in the prison system. I feel that this is a major missed opportunity and will mean that many lives continue to be wasted by a prison system that fails to find what Winston Churchill, when he was responsible for the prison system in 1910, called the,

“curative and regenerating processes … in the heart of every man”.

When the review was submitted to Ministers I wrote that:

“Those who ignore the lessons of past failures are condemned to repeat them. And that will be the fate of policy-makers who fail to act on the proposals that we are putting forward.”

Quite frankly, much more needs to be done to support young adults before and after they come into contact with the criminal justice system. In the 87 tragic cases that we examined, many of the young people’s problems and vulnerabilities, including their mental health issues, had been evident from an early age, so why did so many of them end up in custody? There needs to be much earlier and much more effective intervention. That requires a cross-governmental input to address the multifaceted problems and needs of children and young adults and to ensure that their problems are identified and effectively addressed at an early stage, comparable perhaps to the approach of the troubled families programme—targeted and concerted support.

If the Government are serious about the changes in prison policy that have been signalled by the Secretary of State, I welcome that. But we have to make sure that we intervene early enough to divert people from ever entering the criminal justice system and, for those who do, that someone takes the personal responsibility to make sure that the rehabilitation that we all want to see takes place.