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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on successfully securing this debate. I live not far from the county town of Northallerton in North Yorkshire, which for years had a prison with good reports. Three years ago the prison was sold and half of it demolished. The wall and half the prison, with its modern entrance, remain. There is a huge pile of bricks from the demolished part within the walls. The prison remains in limbo, symbolising a crumbling Prison Service.
The Prison and Probation Service poses an enormous challenge for government. Dedicated, experienced staff are needed if prisoners are to be controlled and rehabilitated satisfactorily. Prison officers need awareness training in disabilities, such as deafness, to stop isolation. There was hope when Rory Stewart MP was Prisons Minister. He was enthusiastic and full of energy. He showed great leadership, which is what the prisons need. If prisoners are locked up in cells for 22 hours a day without work, exercise and education, it is not surprising that worrying assaults on prison staff erupt far too often. With the danger of gang wars and drug abuse, this whole situation needs tackling. Overcrowding and staff shortages mean that prisons run restricted regimes that leave prisoners spending hours on end in their cells without phone calls, work, exercise, education or library visits. Are books being restricted to prisoners in some prisons?
I spent many years as a member of a board of visitors—now known as monitors—at Wetherby young offender institution. I assure your Lordships that many young people have a multitude of problems, involving violence and sexual abuse within some of their families. There are also drug, alcohol and gambling addictions. I have always felt that there should be more contact with probation and welfare officers, uniting the penal institution with the prisoners’ outside contacts. A percentage of inmates will be pronounced homeless; they will need more support if they are to survive outside prison. There are many voluntary organisations helping with the many needs of people incarcerated in prison. They should be welcomed. There should be a continued link to prisoners with addiction when returning to the community but some of these services have recently been cut, so there is a now a problem with continuing their treatment.
I want to bring to your Lordships the serious problem of the increasing number with sexually transmitted diseases. The link between prison and the community is vital. Many inmates do not have GPs in the community, so links with STI clinics need organising. Contact tracing can be difficult. The prevention of infection is so important, particularly with vulnerable groups of people. If we do not promote public health education in prisons, I feel we are losing an opportunity. Prisoners are a sitting target for doing something about the soaring rates of STIs. There has been a 249% increase in gonorrhoea since 2009, including a 26% rise within the last year. Very worryingly, three cases of extensively drug-resistant gonorrhoea were identified in 2018.
There are great concerns about antibiotics becoming resistant to infections. The Health and Social Care Committee’s recent report, Sexual Health, high- lighted the need for a national sexual health strategy. It recommended that Public Health England, in collaboration with,
“a broad-based working group of representatives drawn from all sectors involved in commissioning and providing sexual health services”,
including prisons and probation services, should develop a new sexual health strategy to,
“provide clear national leadership in this area”.
In Glasgow, there is a worrying concern that cases of HIV have recently increased. The reason is not known. I feel it is important that the probation services have training about the dangers of STIs, so that infected prisoners know where they can get ongoing treatment when they are released into the community. Data from the sexual health doctors’ association indicates that a worryingly high proportion of those doctors are having to turn patients away because they do not have the capacity to see them.
I hope that the Government will realise that something must be done to support public health in the endeavour to lessen the risk of STIs within prisons and out in the community at large. Cutting public health is, without a doubt, a false economy.