Victoria Speaks In Support Of Prison Reform

PrisonsOn 24 May, Victoria spoke in the Queen’s Speech Debate on Europe, Human Rights and Keeping People Safe at Home and Abroad. A former human rights lawyer and a current member of the Justice Select Committee, Victoria made the case for more staff, fewer inmates, and an increased focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice.

The below account is taken from the official House of Commons Hansard for 24 May 2016:

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): I spent 20 years as a human rights lawyer, and for much of that time I represented the Prison Service. I remember when I was young and keen and thought I was at the cutting edge of human rights law. With hindsight, cases came and went and not a lot changed. Human rights law has not of itself reformed prisons, although it did produce a lot of work for lawyers.

What has changed is the spotlight shone on prisons by the leadership shown by the Prime Minister in his speech in February—incidentally, the first speech by a Prime Minister on prisons in my working lifetime—the reforming zeal of the Secretary of State, the family-centred focus of the prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), and the determination of the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice that women prisoners and their children should not be left behind. The Department is showing bravery in getting rid of barriers both physical, in the form of old prisons, and structural, such as the surely now outdated idea of categorisation. The vision is a compassionate one, but it is founded on sound Conservative principles. Prisoners are our neighbours. It is to our communities that they return on release and in which about half of them reoffend during their first year out of prison. It is in all of our interests that we deal with this issue. It is too expensive, both financially and emotionally, to throw away the key.

Is this the moment for those of us who care about prison reform to break out the hooch? Sadly not. There is no doubt that prisons are more dangerous places today than they have been for many years. The Justice Committee, on which I am honoured to serve, recently published a report that makes clear the extent of the problem: assaults are up by 20%; suicides and murders are up substantially; and the number of arson attacks—think how frightening a fire is in prison—is up by 57%.

The Secretary of State’s response to our report was characteristically robust: he acknowledges the extent of the problem and has found extra money to deal with aspects of it. He will ensure that, in future, the figures we really need to measure progress—such as the number of hours spent out of a cell during the day—are made available to us.

There are two major obstacles to reform. First, as identified by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the numbers of those imprisoned are impeding progress. Too many inmates and too few staff mean that limited time can be given to supervision, and even delivering a prisoner to a classroom door is often too difficult. Prisoners are put in cells with people who have the same extremist views or who are from the same gang, which might make their management easier but does nothing for their rehabilitation.

Having more prison officers will help, but they will have to be good ones. The Ministry of Justice is doing its best, and there has been a net increase of 530 officers since the last recruitment push. Experienced staff take years of training, however, and greater efforts must be made to retain them.

What would really help is a push on diversion from prison. The sad, rather than the merely bad, and the vast majority of women and young adults coming up for sentence should never go through the prison gates. A judicial working group is looking at models of problem-solving courts, where contact between a judge and those they sentence is regular, and multiple organisations work together on rehabilitation. Trials of those courts must go ahead as soon as possible. The Justice Committee saw some excellent examples when we visited the States recently. They are not easy options for offenders; it is much harder to give up substance abuse or a pattern of behaviour than to spend time in a cell. Restorative justice may have a role to play, and release on temporary licence certainly does.

The second major obstacle to reform is the exponential increase in the use of new psychoactive substances, which make an already difficult cohort of prisoners almost impossible to manage. This stuff should not be confused with cannabis. I was recently told about an incident where a prisoner had been smoking spice. He became violent and four officers went into the cell to help. All four of them had to be hospitalised because of secondary inhalation. These drugs are dangerous and addictive and they induce psychosis. They have, sadly, become the currency of choice in prisons. The criminalisation of their possession, which comes into force this week, will help, but real resources need to be put into using our world-leading testing techniques and searching everyone often, if we are serious about holding back the tidal wave of these drugs.

In summary, the Government’s reforming policies are brave and desperately needed.