Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:25 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 1:25 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I too thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, for securing this debate. It is a mark of its significance that we have heard from so many distinguished speakers with virtually no dissent from the thrust of the noble and learned Lord’s argument.

The state of our prisons is one of the scandals of our times. They are neither humane nor civilised and they fail as places of rehabilitation and reform. The combination of overcrowding and understaffing is toxic. We have heard the miserable statistics, and the depressing fact is that on present predictions from the Prison Reform Trust, overcrowding looks set to get worse, not better.

The alarming and increasing levels of violence were graphically described by Peter Clarke in his first two annual reports as Chief Inspector of Prisons. In his first he reported that:

“Too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places”.

In his second he reported:

“The situation has not improved—in fact, it has become worse. There have been startling increases in all types of violence”.

He gave the details of 103 self-inflicted deaths in male prisons over the last year, and very large increases in the incidence of self-harm, assaults on staff and assaults by prisoners on other prisoners.

Our prisons have become unsafe, and the psychological effect on individual prisoners is profound. Pack three prisoners in cells designed for two and two prisoners in cells designed for one and the resulting frustration, isolation and unhappiness are obvious. Violence is inevitable, particularly in the context of a volatile prison population.

But we compound the inhumanity of overcrowding with squalid conditions: damp, dilapidated, infested with vermin, with shared cells with unscreened lavatories. We compound it further by providing too few staff to supervise prisoners, to prevent violence or to control the flow of drugs. Just as important—as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, and the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Southwark argued—we stifle attempts to achieve reform when we provide too few staff to escort prisoners away from their cells for work or education and training activities. In many prisons we lack even the staff to enable prisoners to eat together in common areas. The result is that many are locked in their cells for as much as 23 hours a day, dehumanising them as a result.

Many prisoners, men and women, arrive in prison with a whole range of mental health problems and problems of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as learning difficulties. The very fact of being imprisoned, removing prisoners from homes and families, makes those problems worse. The impoverishment of the prison regime makes them unbearable. These issues are inadequately addressed. The noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, gave us a graphic account of this failure and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, spoke to similar effect. We are breaking people in prison, not rehabilitating them.

Overcrowding also means prisoners being shunted around the prison estate for requirements of space, without regard to their needs. Proximity to homes and families and the availability of courses to help them on release take second place to the need to find places, wherever they may be. The Prison Reform Trust says that transfer requests are the single biggest issue its advice and information service deals with.

There is virtual unanimity, in this House at least, about what needs to be done. Everyone, the Government included, pays lip service to the need to reduce overcrowding, to increase staffing and to put education, training and reform at the heart of the mission of the prison service, to enable them to retrain for employment in the way that my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford described. But successive Governments have failed to do it.

We must send fewer offenders to prison. We are constantly told by Ministers that sentencing is a matter for judges. That is a false excuse. The sentencing framework and guidelines are within the power of Parliament to alter. Parliament can and should ensure that served sentences get shorter and do so in the face of media and public resistance, as my noble friend Lord McNally and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, pointed out. The noble and learned Lords, Lord Brown, Lord Hope and Lord Phillips, made a strong argument for Parliament’s avoiding sentence inflation. We must also see that far fewer short sentences are passed and that more offences are dealt with within the community, including the voluntary sector, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, stressed. We could make more use of tagging and flexible imprisonment, with part-time imprisonment or temporary release permitting prisoners to work, and early release subject to supervision and restrictions, enabling a staged rehabilitation. We must stop the excessive use of prisoner recall.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, said, we must secure the release of IPP prisoners who have served their tariffs—in this debate he has been widely supported across the House on that. Ministers regularly tell us that IPP prisoners are kept in prison until they are no longer a danger to the public. But that is again a false argument. We abolished IPP sentences in 2012 precisely because we believed it unjust that prisoners should be kept in prison after completing their punishment. The continued incarceration of IPP prisoners who have completed their tariffs defies that principle and is an injustice that should be stopped.

For those who must be in prison, we must renew the prison estate to house them in decent, humane and uncrowded conditions. We must ensure adequate staff to look after them properly, to supervise and protect them and to maintain order and discipline. We must provide education, training and work activities which will offer prisoners the chance of rehabilitation into their communities on release.

It is a great shame that the Government have abandoned the prisons part of the Prisons and Courts Bill. Certainly some reform can be achieved without primary legislation. But had that Bill proceeded, we would have pressed for statutory minimum standards applicable throughout the prison estate. A civilised society has a duty to ensure, by law when necessary—and experience has shown that it is—that prison is genuinely only used as a last resort; that prisons must be decent, humane and uncrowded; that sufficient staff must be employed to keep prisoners safe and secure; and that prisoners must be afforded full opportunities for education and work with a view to their rehabilitation. We should legislate to insist on achieving those standards. Only when we achieve them may we say that we have an acceptable penal system.