Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:56 am on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Labour 11:56 am, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I welcome this debate and thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for securing it at such a critical time, as this summer of unrest has shown.

We are facing a crisis that shows no sign of ending. Without a reduction in the numbers going to prison, there can be no solution to overcrowding. Together, England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. The prison system as a whole has been overcrowded in every year since 1994. People in prison, both prisoners and staff, are less safe than they have been at any time, with more self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and assaults than ever before.

I have two suggestions to reduce the numbers going to prison. First, we should urgently review the use of short-term sentencing and reverse the sharp decline in community orders. Secondly, we should stop the imprisonment of women for non-violent offences and invest more in women’s centres. The Government should cancel plans for new women’s prisons and spend the resources instead on a network of women’s centres. Imprisoning women for a short time results in loss of employment and housing—and, worst of all, in their children being taken into care, often with devastating consequences.

The number of women in prison has more than doubled since 1993: there are now nearly 2,300 more women in prison today than there were in 1993. On 16 June this year there were 3,994 women in prison in England and Wales, and 8,447 women were sent to prison in the year to December 2016, either on remand or to serve a sentence.

Most women entering prison under sentence have committed a non-violent offence, with theft offences accounting for nearly half of all custodial sentences given to women in 2016. As a result, most women entering prison serve a very short sentence: 70% of sentenced women entering prison in the year to December 2016 were serving six months or less. Short sentences do not allow for a programme of rehabilitation, education and training to take effect or for the health and social needs that many women face on entering custody to be addressed. Many are already damaged, with 53% reporting having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. There were 12 self-inflicted deaths of women in prisons in England and Wales in 2016. My noble friend Lady Corston made important recommendations in her report a decade ago that are still relevant today.

Reducing the use of short prison sentences would ease pressure throughout the prison estate. They are not only wasteful but ineffective, with 60% of people serving sentences of 12 months or less reoffending within one year of release. Now is the time to rethink sentencing and imprisoning women unnecessarily.