Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:11 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 1:11 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I have long been an admirer of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and his contribution today has done nothing but strengthen that admiration. However, there have been many other important contributions to this debate. The contribution of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, was crucial. What he described is a disgrace and a blemish on all our claims to a commitment to justice in our society. I draw particular attention to the words of my noble friend Lord Harris. In my view, his report is compulsory reading, and all of us who take these issues seriously should read it if we have not already done so.

I say to the Secretary of State to be careful. We live in an age of unprecedented cynicism about the political system, partly because large sections of the public see politics as a game of rhetoric without real commitment to, and fulfilment of, the needs of society as a whole. The excellent priorities that he has set out on rehabilitation could too easily become part of that accelerating cynicism if they prove to be nothing more than rhetoric. We all have to realise that when commitments of this kind are made, it is necessary to face the discipline of the resources that are required. These things cannot be done cheaply. They cannot be motivated by a desire to have social provision, wherever it is, on the cheap; they must be motivated by the determination to make the resources available.

We talk about rather abstract statistics and figures when we discuss penal reform, when we should all be thinking of the huge number of terrible human experiences that individuals have within the system, with so many broken lives and nightmare experiences. It is not a great credit to us that all we can do in response is lock people up.

The first thing to do is decide what we are trying to do and then say what is necessary to do it. Large warehouse prisons are certainly not the way to do it; what we need are far more well-designed individual establishments appropriate to individual needs. Almost nothing in this is more important than the mental health dimension.

Women are a particular challenge. I remember being told by a prison officer in Holloway, in absolute exasperation, “What are we supposed to be doing, particularly with women on short sentences? Their life is one of unremitting chaos, and with short sentences we are only adding to that chaos. Sometimes, I think the best that can be said for what we contribute is that we give them relief for a few days from the pressures that are ruining their lives outside”. What a commentary.

That brings me to my last point. When I was president of the YMCA in England, I tried to give as much time as possible to the work with offenders. I was glad that in the leading councils of the YMCA we had a very experienced senior police superintendent from the north of England, who was a very effective policeman and very down to earth. He said, “I often feel that it is at the moment when the person is being sentenced and sent down that there should be someone at their elbow saying, quietly but firmly, ‘What a terrible mess this is in your life. How are we going to sort it out?’. Such a person should take the sentenced person through the experience of imprisonment and back into a rehabilitated life outside. Without such an approach, we are just playing mechanical games that are destined to fail”.