My Lords, in April it was reported that in the previous 12 months there were 344 deaths in prison, up by 19%, of which 113 were self-inflicted. Self-harm incidents increased by 24%; assault incidents were up 27%; and assaults on staff were up by 38%. All this was described as,
“a relentless decline in safety”.
Prison officers cannot be expected to deal effectively with this crisis when their own numbers have been reduced over the past seven years, from 25,000 to 18,000. Compromised safety, the associated violence and the availability of drugs, especially psychoactive drugs such as spice—even entering prisons by drones—and plummeting morale among staff, is not an environment conducive to reform, rehabilitation or a reduction in reoffending.
Half of 15 to 17 year-olds in young offender institutions have the literacy or numeracy levels expected of a seven to 11 year-old. This pattern repeats itself among prisoners who have no qualifications, about half of whom are functionally illiterate. Victor Hugo was right when he said, “He who opens a school door closes a prison.”
Prisoners whom I met during a visit to Birmingham prison told me that, unless we break the Gordian knot that ties them into a pattern of reoffending and reimprisonment, their lives will become utterly devoid of hope. What is happening to the Government’s proposals for getting prisoners into jobs after release, for ensuring that prisoners learn English and maths and for league tables to evaluate progress on education? Where do education, training, secure schools and young offender institutions fit into the long-term strategy?
I have drawn the Minister’s attention to the 60% of prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months in custody who go on to commit further crimes and to the overall reoffending rate of 45%—one of the highest in Europe—reflecting the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe, with 148 prisoners per 100,000 of the population.
This is not just about a failure to promote reform or to work out how many prisoners can be crammed like sardines into a tin. Consider also the danger of prisons being used by jailed hate preachers acting as self-styled “emirs” to capitalise on gang culture to recruit susceptible inmates. Or consider the consequences of open-ended sentences for non-violent prisoners, who are captives of a system that seems too often to have forgotten them. We then see some of the other dimensions of jails that have become simmering cauldrons of unrest.
As others have said, we need an entirely new culture in our prisons and a different attitude to the way in which we run them—one that passes, as the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord McNally, said earlier, the Churchill test of civilisation. These are just some of the reasons why we should all be grateful to my noble and learned friend, Lord Brown, for laying this Motion for debate before your Lordships today.