Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:39 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 12:39 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I will focus on one aspect of my noble friend’s Motion. My only real experience, I am glad to say, of prison life comes from the many years I spent as a trustee of the Koestler Trust, which the Minister will know seeks to provide prisoners with access to the arts and the means to participate in the arts: competitions and material, for example, for the visual arts, music and writing.

It is difficult enough to fulfil these noble aims even when prisoners have the space and time to work on those disciplines. But when prisoners are locked up for 22 or 23 of the 24 hours, and barely have the space to humanely cohabit in their cells, the arts tend to be the first thing to go out of the window. If we seek to reduce recidivism and show that there is another path, we simply have to be a more enlightened society. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, rightly reminded your Lordships that the way in which a society treats its prisoners is a test of its civilisation. In the light of the statistics given by my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, I wonder whether the Minister would consider that we pass or fail this test.

I have seen the quite remarkable transformation that can be achieved by giving an incarcerated person the means to express themselves through acting, music-making, painting and writing. A prisoner wrote to me to say that, had he had the ability to play an instrument when he was a young and wild man, he would not now be serving life for murder. Artistic expression can afford an outlet for turbulence, frustration and pent-up violence, and that release is a vital part of rehabilitation. Without it, more prisoners will turn to drugs, not simply to relieve boredom but as a means of psychological escape.

Overcrowding in prisons is severely hampering the opportunity for rehabilitation and the shining of a light in a dark place to illuminate a more redemptive path.