Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:02 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Bird Lord Bird Crossbench 1:02 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I apologise for arriving five minutes late for the opening of this debate. Please forgive me. It has nothing to do with a lack of interest in this subject. I am very interested in prisons, because prisons are an enormous social machine for producing something we do not want to produce. They are an emergency response to a crisis that is largely around poverty, a lack of good education and other key things. When we look at the average prisoner, we often find average prisoners have a number of similarities.

I, for example, was an average prisoner. I was put away at the age of 14 for stealing a bike. I find it a bit difficult that most noble Lords who have spoken so far talk as though we have now entered a time when we have become aggressive towards people who are doing wrong. Putting a 14-year-old boy into a short, sharp shock, kicking him all over the place for three months and then bringing him out and expecting him to be a good citizen—that sounds pretty mean to me, let alone giving the same boy a three-to-five-year custodial sentence at the age of 15 for stealing £5. What are we talking about? Are we talking about a different world? Have we moved on and are we only now being really terrible to our prisoners?

I find this difficult. I am sorry to raise the issue because I am sure it is looked upon as an illiberal response, but I would like us to look at history and at the ideas around our present situation. My problem with this debate is that it seems a bit like the NHS debate. The NHS debate is enormous, but it always deals with the NHS as though its problems did not arise from the fact that we do not spend the amount of money we should be spending on preventing people from becoming ill. When you go to the hospital across the road, as I did with a doctor, and you find out that 70% of the people there have done things against their own bodies, or they have not taken the right approach, it becomes clear that we need to move towards prevention.

We have a prison population full of people who have failed at school. I failed at school, as did most of the people I knew in prison. When I go into a prison, I ask a simple question: “How did you do at school?”. Virtually all—80%—of them will say, “I failed at school”.

We have these big engines that drive forward. Until we move on to prevention, until we start to dismantle poverty, we will have overcrowded prisons. I am sorry to say this, because overcrowded prisons are not prisons that work. We can be as clever as we like and come up with all sorts of solutions, but let us stop the churn; let us stop the arrival of people in prisons. That is the big, revolutionary need in terms of our thinking.