We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I too welcome this timely debate and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on his tireless campaigning to improve the plight of prisoners and the conditions they are kept in.
This week saw the Government announce their intention to automatically increase the length of some prison sentences, although judges already have the power to do so where they consider the risk to the public to be high. To the alarm of prison reformers, the Government have also signalled their determination to abandon their earlier acceptance that short-term sentences are ineffective. How will these announcements tackle the crisis in our overcrowded prisons? Record levels of violence against staff and inmates, adding to low morale among overstretched officers, will not be resolved by building more prisons without a commitment to radically improving rehabilitation and reducing reoffending, not just increasing numbers in prison.
At its conference last week, Labour pledged to end ineffective short sentences of six months or less for non-violent and non-sexual offences. Such sentences serve only to disrupt family ties, result in homelessness and loss of jobs and interrupt treatment programmes. They are counterproductive, not constructive.
Labour also pledged to divert funds the Government have allocated to build these promised 10,000 prison places to fund schemes proven to reduce reoffending—especially long-term investment in women’s centres, as recommended by my noble friend Lady Corston in her ground-breaking 2007 report. The APPG on Women in the Penal System, which my noble friend chairs, has called for the abolition of prison sentences of less than 12 months for women. As she said:
“Too often, magistrates view custody as the only option when all the evidence indicates that women’s centres provide better support for women and are more effective at reducing offending”.
However, if the vulnerable continue to be incarcerated, rehabilitation must be the priority. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has already mentioned, Professor Rosie Meek’s independent review of sport in youth and adult prisons, entitled A Sporting Chance, which focused on health and relationships and was published a year ago, has excellent recommendations. She argues that sport, and the relationships it can foster, can motivate young men with complex offending histories, some with especially challenging and disruptive behaviour, to change their attitudes and lifestyles. It can improve mental and physical health, thereby reducing violence, and tackle reoffending. The report also calls for the development of a physical activity strategy to meet the particularly complex and unique needs of women and girls in prison, 57% of whom have been victims of domestic abuse, and gives special consideration to the high levels of trauma they have experienced before entering custody.
The Government commissioned the Meek report and should now implement its recommendations and reconsider the decision not to endorse one on martial arts. As the DCMS Select Committee recently noted:
“Violent incidents in prisons appear to be at an all-time high and the report’s recommendations reflect the need to consider alternative violence reduction strategies. Given the positive impact of boxing and martial arts programmes in our communities, as reflected in the evidence we have received, prison governors should be given the option of using similar approaches in their establishments, if they so wish”.
Effective rehabilitation must be a top priority if we are to overcome the revolving door whereby 29% of adults and 42% of children reoffend within one year of release. Rehabilitation cannot be achieved if prisoners are kept in their cells for most of the day without productive and worthwhile activity, yet over one-third of young adult prisoners aged 18 to 21 are locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day.
More imaginative use must be made of the voluntary bodies that want to assist in rehabilitation. Charities such as the Liberty Choir, through singing sessions, and the Prison Phoenix Trust, which supports prisoners in their spiritual lives through meditation and yoga, could be given greater access to the prison estate as their interventions have already proven effective in turning prisoners’ lives around, both in custody and on release, through encouraging a greater sense of well-being and self-worth. Clinks, the national advocacy group that supports voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system, calls for the Ministry of Justice, courts, probation services and prisons to champion volunteers who can work on prevention. They can help in the early identification of people with health needs, diverting them into treatment and ensuring continuity of care for people as they enter prison, move between prisons and, crucially, are released back into the community. The probation service cannot do everything alone.
It is regrettable that the Government appear to be redirecting their criminal justice programme towards a focus on retribution rather than rehabilitation. Can the Minister clarify the position on reducing the use of short-term sentences? Only by increasing efforts to prevent crime, with more police and better services to divert the young and vulnerable away from criminality, can we begin to cut the numbers entering our overcrowded prisons. We must ensure that rehabilitation works to stop the cycle of reoffending, which only creates yet more victims and blights the lives of future generations whose parents have been imprisoned.