My Lords, I am conscious that many, if indeed perhaps the majority, of your Lordships speaking here today have had first-hand experience of the prison system from an executive, supervisory or regulatory perspective. My own experience, by contrast, has been limited to visiting the seven prisons in the county where I reside. These visits have provided me with the experience to have an appreciation of the recent comments of the president of the Prison Governors Association, particularly regarding drugs and Islamist extremist activities.
I have had a number of conversations regarding prison officer numbers, the benefit of new, purpose-built prisons as opposed to outdated buildings, which are inefficient in every sense, and the issues surrounding IPP offenders. However, I have been drawn to three particular aspects of the prison system that seemed so anomalous that I subsequently drew them to the attention of the then Secretary of State for Justice, and I think that it is worth reiterating them now in the context of this debate on prison overcrowding.
If a prison governor is obliged by law to take responsibility for the repair of grade 1 and grade 2 listed buildings, it is quite possible that he cannot afford to make those repairs. In response to health and safety regulations, he may have to close those buildings to prisoner access. If the buildings have provided the location for recreational activities or have been the site of vocational or basic skills training which will facilitate employment for prisoners upon their release, similar to those programmes run by the Clink Charity or Timpson, their closure has a psychological impact as well as a physical one. However, the most obvious consequence is a reduction of utilisable space, which in turn adds to the sense of overcrowding. When choosing which old prisons should be closed, I suggest that this consideration should be factored into the argument.
The second consideration arose from observing the increasing number of prisoners who do not have English as their first language, and indeed in some cases barely speak or understand English at all. The need to have translators in court, the difficulty sometimes of obtaining suitably qualified candidates to translate and the delays incurred thereby have been well documented elsewhere. However, when the same problems are exacerbated in prison, a failure by prison staff through no fault of their own to communicate effectively with inmates, and the inability to comprehend inmates’ various dialects and vernaculars and the issues that are particular to their tribal differences, cause delay in administration, which in turn restricts the execution of the system, which in turn leads to overcrowding. I am aware that there is no speedy resolve to these language problems, other than to hasten repatriation where appropriate.
The third consideration arises from looking at the times of prisoner release. If we are endeavouring to assist offenders to integrate back into society as quickly and smoothly as possible, surely one of the worst things we can do is to release them so late in the working day that the safety net of the probation service is unable to be on hand to help them. Release late on a Friday afternoon, with limited ready funds and no protected environment within which to reside, must surely contribute to a higher possibility of reoffending than might otherwise be the case, with the subsequent prison overcrowding that comes as a consequence.
As a further observation, the closure of some of the prison farms has also had detrimental effects. Notwithstanding the rights and wrongs of the financial debate over whether the sourcing of such food is cost effective, providing offenders with the opportunity to work on the land, away from the immediate confines of prison buildings, has the double benefit of, first, creating less physical overcrowding pressure on these buildings during daylight and working hours, and, secondly, providing the advantage of working outdoors for those whom it temperamentally suits and the possibility thereby of obtaining a training that can have a benefit when they are released.