My Lords, I think we all know the nature of successive reports on prisons from those whose task it is to assess them. These reports tell of a sorry state of affairs. They tell of the dreadful numbers of suicides, of self-harm and violence in custody and of the squalor in which many prisoners have to live. Then there is the matter of the darkest blot on our national escutcheon—the many prisoners held back in jail despite the fact that their tariffs under indeterminate sentences have long run out. This must be dealt with before any long-term reforms can be effective. As for our reoffending figures, we seem to have learnt nothing from other countries whose reoffending rates are less than half of ours. This, too, is something which must be, and can be, improved, but it will not be while the overall size of the prison population is obstinately stuck where it is, or rising.
If any other public service were in the position of our prisons, radical measures would have to be taken, and quickly. In the case of Britain’s prisons, this becomes more and more essential as the years go by, and the clear priority must be for a significant drop in overall numbers. The present numbers ensure that rehabilitation comes way down the priority list.
The staff in prisons undertake a complex and difficult job; that the situation is not even worse is testament to the skills and commitment with which they undertake daunting work on behalf of the rest of us. But too often their focus is on running a decent and safe regime, lacking the resources to cater to the needs and difficulties which many prisoners experience. An ex-governor has suggested that a prison population of 25,000 would be appropriate on the grounds of public protection. With such a number, meaningful rehabilitative work becomes a possibility, yet we continue to fill our prisons to excess, setting all involved up to fail. It must be our responsibility to find out why we persist with a formula which is ineffective.
What we must see is a review of our sentencing regime with a view to reducing the numbers of people we send to prison and the length of sentences. It will need steely resolve by a Government prepared to argue their case with media and public. There are no easy answers, only complexities, contradictions and hard work. Until this review is undertaken and its recommendations put into effect, the miserable state of our prisons will remain unaltered, and the same old cycle will stay to haunt us.
All this is happening while innumerable individuals and charities work nobly to turn the tide. There is a distinct danger that their faith and enthusiasm will fade as they listen again and again to the familiar cries for help. This danger can only increase if we fail to re-examine the sentencing regime which has raised the numbers of prisoners to unsustainable levels.
I know that our Government have much urgent business to complete, but the state of our prisons and the intolerable burden we place on the Prison Service continue to shame us and remain a danger to the stability of our society.