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Prisons: Overcrowding

Volume 690: debated on Monday 19 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many prisoners are being held three to a cell as a result of prison overcrowding.

My Lords, on the last day of February 2007, the number of prisoners held three to a cell designed for two was 1,299. No prisoners have been held three to a cell designed for one—that is, a trebling—since March 1994.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that slightly depressing reply. Is she aware that on the nights of 25 and 27 February, there was serious rioting at Deerbolt Young Offender Institution and that a prison officer suffered a fractured skull? On 26 February, three alleged suicides in prison were reported; on 12 March, two more alleged suicides were reported; and, last Wednesday, a prisoner was found dead in his cell, allegedly killed by another prisoner. Does the Minister accept that incidents such as these are related to the current levels of overcrowding and that our prisons will continue to be dangerous for both staff and prisoners until there is a change in policy?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is most distressing and disturbing to hear of any self-inflicted deaths or disturbances. However, it is right that we should hold them in balance, because notwithstanding the fact that the prison population has increased, self-inflicted deaths have gone down. The figure is likely to be marginally lower in 2006-07 than it was in 1996-97. I appreciate that we are in difficult times, but I congratulate the staff on the good work they are doing to keep people safe.

My Lords, can the Minister give the House any information about the effect of overcrowding on training and education programmes? Does she see a link between the overcrowding that the Prison Service is now enduring and the sharp rise in the reoffending rate for prisoners?

My Lords, I do not think there can be a direct correlation. To take the education figures as an example, one might expect that if prison numbers go up, educational attainment will go down, but that is not the case. The number of prisoners engaged in learning had risen to 35 per cent by December 2006, from 32 per cent in August when the LSE took on responsibility for offender learning. It is expected that 36,000 offenders in custody will achieve skills for life outcomes in the 2006-07 academic year. Offender learning in custody is expected to achieve 108,000 other accredited qualifications during 2006-07. The number of basic skills awards achieved in prison has gone up markedly. Although one might have anticipated that things would get worse, in fact, they got better. I commend the ALI report that commends the Government for the good work they have done on education.

My Lords, how many prisoners are being held more than 100 miles from their homes and families—which has consequent effects—as a result of these overcrowding pressures?

My Lords, I do not have figures about those held more than 100 miles away. My noble friend will know that every effort is made to ensure that prisoners are kept as close to their normal place of abode as possible and that the expectation is that they will be within 50 miles. I can certainly write to my noble friend about that figure.

My Lords, I do not know whether we have more writers in residence. They have contributed hugely to the improvement in the attainment level of prisoners and the noble Baroness will know that we have tried to support and encourage them. We are very grateful for all the hard work that they do. I do not know whether the figure has gone up or down, but I shall write to the noble Baroness to make sure that she and the House are aware of it.

My Lords, further to the Minister’s reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, in her annual report, stated that in overcrowded local prisons only 30 per cent of prisoners said they had done anything in there that would make them less likely to reoffend. Is the Minister satisfied with that percentage? Given the enthusiasm she expressed earlier for restorative justice, how does she propose to reconcile the competing demands of restorative justice and prison overcrowding?

My Lords, the House will see from the way that we are approaching offender management that two things have to be addressed: first, the proper identification of the risk the offender poses; and, secondly, addressing the needs of the offender to reduce the likelihood of offending. We believe that the end-to-end offender management process we have put in place is the most effective way of reducing offender reconviction rates in the long term. It will enable us to get the proper balance: keeping victims safe but offenders rehabilitated.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, as, it seems, three or four years must elapse between the decision to build prison places with Treasury consent and the first prisoner going into such an institution, the short-term solution must be to turn to some other factor? Will she indicate Home Office policy on the urgency of this matter?

My Lords, we are clear that those who are dangerous and violent should go to prison, but that there are good alternatives to imprisonment for those who are not—tough community penalties, which bite on the offending and help people to change.

My Lords, is it at all true that, as one weekend paper speculated, cargo containers are to be used as cells in some prisons? While on that point, has the Minister studied the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, on the cost benefit that could be established if women’s prisons were abolished?

My Lords, there is no truth in the suggestion that cargo containers are going to be used. As the House will know, I commissioned the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, because we want to look at what alternatives there may be for women who are not dangerous or serious offenders, but who could be dealt with more creatively in the community.