Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 7th September 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct 11:37 am, 7th September 2017

My Lords, when opening the debate here on prison reform early last year, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, now our esteemed Lord Speaker, recalled that when in the 1970s the prison population first exceeded 40,000, the Times published a series of articles under the heading “The Prisons Crisis”. Today, there are over 85,000 prisoners and, on present trends, this number is projected to rise in a very few years to over 90,000. Can anyone doubt that today our prisons truly are in crisis—seriously overcrowded, understaffed and volatile—and that the solution cannot be simply to build more, but lies rather in adopting fresh approaches to reducing their population and restoring what is now almost entirely lost: the real prospect of prison sentences actually being used to reform and rehabilitate inmates?

I need spend little time establishing that there are too many people in prison. Numerous statistics bear it out. The percentage of our population serving prison sentences is almost twice that in Germany, let alone Scandinavia, and very substantially higher than in most of the developed world. Our standard sentences are routinely substantially longer than elsewhere. The statistics are yet more striking when it comes to indeterminate sentences: astonishingly, in England and Wales, more people are sentenced to an indeterminate term than in all the other 46 countries of the Council of Europe combined.

Nor, surely, do I need to linger long on the many and acute problems which result from prison overcrowding. Inevitably I must generalise, so let me acknowledge at once the many caring and conscientious prison staff and governors who do their very best to overcome these problems. Their efforts notwithstanding, the consequences of overcrowding are all too evident. Almost one-fifth of prisoners are doubled up in single cells or tripled in cells for two, often sharing an open, unscreened toilet. Many spend up to 23 hours a day in these squalid conditions. Often prisons are without functioning classrooms, workshops, teachers or any of the other services or supports needed to help inmates to deal with problems and prepare them for release and resettlement. In short, warehousing has largely replaced rehabilitation.

Small wonder that prison riots and disturbances are no longer a rarity; prisons are dangerous places. Who can forget the finding by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in July that in not a single YOI is it safe to house a child? Small wonder, too, that in the last year there were more than 26,000 assaults in prison, including more than 7,000 on prison staff, that many prison officers suffer stress-related illnesses, and that there were more than 40,000 incidents of self-harm among inmates and 97 self-inflicted deaths. It is hardly surprising that, as the BMA has briefed, incarceration often leads to deterioration in physical and mental health, with the prisoner’s fragile state of mind all too often having played a part in his original offending. It is unsurprising, too, that the illegal use of drugs and mobile phones and the corruption, addiction, debt and violence that generally go with them represent widespread and persistent problems, such problems unlikely to be eradicated by 300 sniffer dogs and the hand-held mobile detectors promised by the Lord Chancellor in his Evening Standard article last month.

Perhaps least surprising of all is the high rate of recidivism following a prison sentence. In that same newspaper article, the Lord Chancellor expressly recognised that about half of those sent to jail will end up back behind bars. Some years ago, a Home Secretary famously suggested that “prison works”, above all in keeping prolific professional burglars out of our houses. Whether or not that was ever so, it manifestly is not today. Rather, it militates against any chance of effective rehabilitation, and once again we see the crime figures steadily on the rise. So the £1.3 billion now promised to the MoJ should be devoted not to catering for an ever-larger prison population but rather to improving the prison estate and facilities to prepare existing and future inmates for release.

The present continuing upward spiral must end, so let me briefly suggest four basic imperatives as to how—although, alas, with no sufficient time to develop them. First, send fewer people to prison and for shorter terms. Secondly, indefinite sentences, which are now commonplace, should become a rarity. Thirdly, facilitate prison release. Fourthly, drastically cut the number of recalls.

First and foremost, of course, we must end prison sentence inflation—its upward spiral. All too often, we hear of some dreadful fresh offence and, in common doubtless with many others—not just Daily Mail readers—whether it be a case of child cruelty, the torture of some elderly person to extract his savings or the recent spate of moped riders hurling acid into people’s faces, my first reaction is to lock the perpetrators up and throw away the key: avenge the victims or, at the very least, mark society’s outrage by raising the statutory maximum for the offence.

Indeed, that has often been Parliament’s reaction over recent years, but unfortunately—although perhaps occasionally justifiable in the case, say, of terrorist offences—its inevitable consequence has been to ratchet up sentences across the board. Even now, there is under consideration—subject to consultation and apparently gaining widespread public support—a proposal to increase from 14 years to life the maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving. Earlier this year, Parliament doubled the maximum sentences available for stalking and harassment offences, variously from five years to 10 and, in aggravated cases, from seven to 14 years. Before that, in 2014, the maximum sentence under the Dangerous Dogs Act was increased from two years to 14 years. In 2015, contrary to the judges’ advice, minimum custodial terms were introduced for carrying knives, both for second possession offences and for first offences where accompanied by threats.

And, of course, by Schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the Act which first introduced the ill-starred IPP sentence scheme, the minimum terms to be served by mandatory life prisoners were fixed at substantially higher levels than ever before—through later amendments they have twice since been raised higher still—so they have risen steadily from an average of 12 and a half years in 2003 to, I think, over 21 years now.

The Sentencing Council—a largely judicial body created by statute in 2009—is loyally responsive to these demonstrations of Parliament’s will. As a result, guideline sentences have become progressively longer to maintain some sort of coherence across the entire spectrum of criminal offending. Reducing the length of prison sentences requires, above all, political will, not judicial policy-making. I urge Parliament to amend the council’s statutory remit to include among its aims the overall reduction of the prison population.

If one pauses for a moment and asks in the abstract how long a sentence should be—whether, say, a dangerous driver, a burglar or a historic sex offender should serve 10 or five years, or whatever—what logic dictates that answer? Assuming he does not need to be confined long term for reasons of public safety, but that some immediate custodial disposal is called for, how many weeks, months or years does due punishment—just retribution—require that he be locked up in a squalid cell away from his family and friends, and deprived of most else that makes life worth living? In terms of deterrence, while plainly it is important to catch, prosecute and convict offenders, there is no evidence to suggest that, whatever is fixed as the standard sentence, it is of any consequence in deterring criminal behaviour—least of all crimes of sex and violence. The first imperative, therefore, is fewer and shorter sentences, suspended wherever possible.

Secondly, we should impose infinitely fewer indefinite sentences, of which there are many different kinds, and to which currently over 11,000 prisoners are subject. Inevitably, they suffer uncertainty and hopelessness, unsettling for all those around them, not least their families. As is increasingly widely recognised, the IPP regime is a clear case in point. Despite its abolition in 2012, some 3,300 IPP prisoners are yet to be released, the majority having served for many years—some over 10 years—beyond their tariff terms. Truly, this is preventive detention—in effect, internment. It is a stain on our criminal justice system and it must end.

The third imperative is to facilitate the release of those who have served their minimum terms—indeed, ideally, to release them earlier still. Additional resources should be provided for training, education and suitable courses. Never should release be delayed because the Parole Board is insufficiently resourced to process it speedily. The burden of proving safety for release, which is almost impossible for the prisoner to discharge, should—as the chairman of the Parole Board himself recently suggested—shift on to those seeking his continued detention. Neither should release have to be delayed because of insufficient accommodation in probation hostels for long-sentence prisoners to live in under supervision in the community, the subject of a Times article last month.

The temporary release scheme, whereby prisoners are prepared for release by allowing them out during the day to undertake paid or voluntary work, has been greatly restricted over recent years, most regrettably, despite its previous record of almost 100% success. It should be fully restored. Indeed, I would go further and urge the scheme’s extension to encompass also, whenever possible, those actually serving sentences so that family relationships can be preserved, employment prospects improved and institutionalisation kept at bay.

The fourth and final imperative is that, once a prisoner has finally secured his release, he should not thereafter readily be recalled. The number of those in prison for breach of their licence conditions has grown from 150 in 1995 to over 6,000 today, including over 700 IPP prisoners, whose rate of recall almost matches their rate of release, an issue on which the Howard League is currently engaged. Recall should be used only exceptionally. As it is, the majority are largely for technical reasons: failing to attend a probation officer appointment, spending a night away from a notified address and so forth. The actual numbers of recalls have grown immeasurably. In 2000-01, there were just over 3,000 recalls to custody. In the year ending this March, over 21,000 were recalled, including 8,000 who had served under eight months. Indeed, since the Offender Rehabilitation Act, nearly 15,000 of those serving under a year have been recalled, generally for just 14 or 28 days. In short, the part-privatisation of the probation service and the eligibility for recall of those sentenced to under 12 months are proving just as problematic as many here predicted when these measures were introduced.

I am conscious that I have had time only to sketch in some of the problems and suggest some of the required solutions. I must end. I have not even touched on many of the problems affecting the Prison Service today—for example, those arising from an ever- ageing prison population, including many serving long sentences for historic sex abuse, cases nowadays representing over half the Crown Courts’ workload. Truly, prisons are in crisis. Indeed, the very fact that over 30 noble Lords, most with deep knowledge and experience in this field, are down to speak is some indication of the enormous public concern about the situation in our prisons today. I greatly look forward to their contributions, all too brief, though, alas, they must be.