Bishop of Southwark says prison staff shortages need to be urgently addressed

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 Southwark, Rt Revd Chrisdtopher Chessun, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, is to be thanked for this timely debate. As ​some noble Lords are aware, the diocese of Southwark contains five major prison establishments: Belmarsh, Brixton, Thameside, Wandsworth and Isis—though I hasten to add that that last name relates to the river goddess. It is my practice to visit them at the invitation of each Church of England chaplain who holds my licence.

The issue that I wish to raise in this debate is the level of staffing. Issues around the number of inmates and physical space also relate to issues of access and staffing, the activities that staff enable and the relationships that are nurtured. While Her Majesty’s Government announced their intention to recruit an additional 2,500 front-line staff late last year, that came in the wake of a reduction of over 6,000 staff, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has attested, which has compounded the consequences of overcrowding and a rising prison population. The fiscal imperative of staff cuts being played out in our prisons is very risky. For anything meaningful on the landing, spur or wing, one needs staff. Staff will best and most confidently carry out their duties if they know and trust that an able colleague has their back. Proper staffing allows for supervision outside cells and in activities that augment skill, self-insight and a capacity for fruitful encounters on release. As in so many professions, the relational element is key to success.

Educational activity and training for work has suffered only marginally from the cuts, but at the expense of everything else. The named-officer scheme is moribund. Within prisons, the availability of officers to inmates has significantly diminished; they are much less available for association periods or to build relationships, discuss and spot problems, offer advice or discreetly receive information relevant to the security of the prison. We need to ensure that more than basic security, administration and escort is being delivered constantly. I am aware that inmates wishing to attend chapel or Bible study are not able to do so because staff are not available to escort them. This is detrimental to the humanitarian standards that we would wish to see in our prisons. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, has drawn attention to the high incidence of suicide in our prisons.

We need to offer our thanks to those who work in our prisons, excellence in which is promoted by the Butler Trust. Prison chaplains minister daily to enable inmates to face life as it is and life as it may be. Their contribution and that of many volunteers has an enormous impact in difficult times. The Lord Chancellor seeks a proper emphasis on rehabilitation in our prisons. It is imperative that we work together to increase hope and ensure that words and aspirations are matched by actions and delivery. There is an urgent need so to do.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD):…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.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Minister)…Finally, prison must be safe. The level of violence in our prisons is unacceptable. We are fully committed to making prisons safer and addressing the significant increase in violence and assaults by increasing staffing levels and improving ways of working. In all of this, the work of prison staff is supported by close working relationships with a range of partners. Prison chaplains of many faiths, for example—mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—are critical in providing pastoral and spiritual care to those in our care. They offer valuable support to governors in delivering decent ​and humane regimes. We recognise and welcome the valuable pastoral care that our chaplaincies provide to staff and inmates across the prison estate.