On 7th September 2017 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, “That this House takes note of the level of overcrowding in prisons.” The Bishop of Rochester, who is the Church of England’s lead bishop for prisons, spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for bringing this debate. I rather wish that the slight slip of the tongue of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in first referring to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, as a former Minister for prisons had been true, but there we are.
I recall a visit in my capacity as Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons, to one of our prisons and encountering a young man who was visibly distressed and disturbed, sitting against a wall with his hands over his ears, unable to cope with the general noise and hubbub on a prison wing—not least an overcrowded prison wing. I talked to one of the officers on that wing, who was relatively newly recruited and new in post; he was clearly there because of a really positive motivation, wanting to make a difference and with a vocation to work in the Prison Service. However, he was very conscious that because of responsibility to the whole wing, he was unable to give that distressed young prisoner the focused attention that was required.
We have in our prisons many governors, chaplains, staff, volunteers and officers like the one I have just described, who seriously want to make a difference, have a vocation for this work and are committed, and who want to see what is the aspiration of the Prison Service come to fruition, namely to create a rehabilitative culture. Sadly, it is largely a matter of numbers, more particularly, the ratio between numbers and staffing, which frustrates that desire and aspiration in so many ways. So many of the good interventions, programmes and possibilities delivered by staff, volunteers and many others are not able to fulfil their potential in bringing transformation and in turning around people’s lives. If that ratio between staff and prisoner numbers is too stretched, then these programmes cannot be delivered, the relationships are not built and there is no such transformation.
There are two particular things I would like to take this opportunity to address to Her Majesty’s Government. One relates to those, of whom there are far too many in prison, who have serious mental health conditions. Can conversations between the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health be seriously ratcheted up to address that issue, with serious proposals about alternative provision for people for whom prison is not the right place to be because of their mental health conditions? That would have a significant effect on the prison population. Secondly, will Her Majesty’s Government give serious attention to the consultation that is being undertaken by the Scottish Government at the moment, which will bring in a presumption against sentences shorter than 12 months, and to ask whether there are lessons to be learned for the Prison Service on the back of that consultation, and for sentencing policy in England and Wales.
It is crucial, if prison is going to do what we all want it to do, that these issues are addressed, so I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown for bringing forward this opportunity for us to hear the wisdom of so many within this House.
Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Minister): …Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Rochester and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, mentioned the problems of suicide, self-harm and poor mental health. On suicide and self-harm, we have put in place a range of measures to support prisoners who are at risk of self-harm or suicide, especially in the first 24 hours, when they are at their most vulnerable. We are rolling out new training that will help staff identify the risks and triggers of suicide and self-harm and understand what they can do to support prisoners at risk. We have put in place specialist roles, including regional safer-custody leads in every region to provide advice to prisoners and spread good practice. We are using experts, including providing extra funding to the Samaritans, to provide support for prison staff and prisoners directly.