My Lords, the fact is that overcrowding and staff shortages are significant factors in the current failed system. As the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, and the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, have commented respectively, women and people with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable. Current conditions exacerbate their mental health problems and increase the risk of suicide and sexual assault. Women offenders often have histories of mental illness, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, and prison is a re-traumatising experience for them. Gender and disability awareness both need to be improved, as does appropriate diversion to mental health services.
There is positive work being carried out in prisons. An important example is work carried out by chaplains, as has been mentioned by some Members. This is especially important during people’s first days in prison, when they are at particular risk of self-harm, bullying and isolation. I would like to share the words of one Catholic prisoner, who said:
“On the very first day I came into prison, my chaplain came to my cell. I was devastated getting into prison, but she encouraged me”.
Prison chaplains are trusted by prisoners. They are able to help counter the negative effects of overcrowding by offering personal and pastoral support to the prisoners in their care. I hope the Government will continue to recognise the vital work done by chaplains. But this work is often hindered by the pressure that our prison system is under. Recent research by the Catholic Church found that a quarter of prisoners reported problems accessing chaplaincy.
Pressures created by overcrowding also threaten to undermine the quality and provision of family contact in prison—something particularly relevant to mothers with dependent children. As the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, stated in a recent review, family ties are as essential to rehabilitation as education and employment. Prisoners who have regular contact with their families are 39% less likely to reoffend. Family contact is often support by voluntary organisations, such as the Prison Advice and Care Trust. From 2015-16 they supported 96,000 adults and 20,000 children to visit family members in prison, as well as running hundreds of relationship and parenting education programmes for prisoners and their families.
Can the Minister assure this House that neither family contact nor access to chaplaincy will be deprioritised despite the pressures of overcrowding?