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Prisons: Overcrowding

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 14 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to alleviate overcrowding in prisons in England and Wales, particularly in HMP Swansea.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the prison estate is kept under review to ensure sufficient capacity. We have committed to invest up to £2.5 billion to create 10,000 additional prison places. We have recently opened 2,106 prison places at HM Prison Berwyn, and 206 at HM Prison Stocken. We are constructing new prisons at the former HM Prison Wellingborough and HM Prison Glen Parva sites.

At the end of March, Welsh prisons held 6% of the England and Wales prison population. However, according to MoJ figures on 24 April, they had 25% of confirmed Covid-19 cases across the estate. I understand that this figure is the result of a minor reporting error and has been removed from the MoJ website, but we need clarity on what is happening in Welsh prisons. Will the noble and learned Lord outline now, or in a further letter to me, the joint strategy of the MoJ and the Welsh Government with regard to prisons in Wales?

The noble Baroness is right that some data has been removed to be reviewed by NHS Wales. As regards the prisons and cells, we are following a strategy in all prisons in England and Wales which involves ensuring that we have separate isolation for any prisoners displaying Covid symptoms, separate isolation for those in a shielding unit—that is, for prisoners identified by healthcare staff as particularly vulnerable should they come into contact with the virus—and what is termed a reverse cohorting unit, to ensure that those coming into the prison population are isolated for 14 days to give an opportunity for any symptoms to develop. As regards the statistics for prisons as between England and Wales and Wales itself, as of Tuesday 12 May, 401 prisoners had tested positive for Covid-19 across 74 prisons, and 501 prison staff had tested positive across 70 prisons. Of those, as at 11 May, 81 prisoners had tested positive in Welsh prisons and 61 prison staff had tested positive in Welsh prisons.

My Lords, the World Health Organization has been clear that testing will be a key part of tackling coronavirus. We just heard some of those stats, but could the Government please give us the number of prisoners who have been tested to date, and give an assurance that testing will always be in place before moving people between prisons?

My Lords, Gold Command has taken control of the movement of prisoners, which is extremely limited between prisons. Where it happens, that cohort is dealt with in the same way as new prisoners, so they are isolated for a period to see whether they become symptomatic. On testing, prison officers and attendant staff are key workers in the present circumstances. We have referred something like 3,000 prison officers and staff for testing. For prisoners, some who have become symptomatic may be subject to testing in prison, but otherwise there is no testing.

My Lords, Swansea prison houses twice the number of prisoners it was designed for in the mid-19th century. A Welsh Affairs Select Committee inquiry into prison provision last year heard evidence that between 2013 and 2018 there was a 475% increase in the number of drug crimes in Welsh prisons compared with a 200% increase in English prisons. One of the key challenges faced was violent behaviour caused by the drug Spice, which is exacerbated by overcrowding. Evidence was heard about the intention of the then Prisons Minister to introduce scanners in some prisons by August, which were expected to be running in all Welsh prisons by December 2019. Can my noble and learned friend confirm that these have now been installed and are operational in all Welsh prisons?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point as regards Swansea prison. It is one of our Victorian prisons and, as such, has a large number of cells that are certified to hold two prisoners, and indeed some which are certified to hold three. As of 1 May this year, the operational capacity of HMP Swansea was reduced from 479 to 396, with a prison population of about 379. Nevertheless, that can still be regarded as crowded accommodation because of the number of cells that are certified to hold two prisoners. We recognise that this is a challenge not only in Swansea but in many other local prisons from the Victorian era. On drug testing, I cannot confirm that such equipment has been rolled out in all prisons in England and Wales, but I will take steps to confirm the position and will advise my noble friend.

My Lords, to ease over- crowding, the Government have said that they would release some prisoners early. Can the Minister tell the House how many have actually been released?

First, we have made provision to ensure that we did not come up to capacity in our prisons, but we did not commit to releasing a set number of prisoners. In the event, given developments in jury trials in Crown Courts and magistrates’ courts, since mid-March we have seen a significant fall in the number of prisoners. As regards the emergency release provisions that were announced and to which the noble Lord referred, the position as at 12 May this year is that 21 pregnant women or mothers have been removed from mother and baby units, five extremely vulnerable prisoners have been released, and 57 prisoners have been released under the end of custody temporary release scheme, giving a total of 83 releases under the scheme.

Can the Minister confirm that the central plank of government penal policy is rehabilitation because it makes economic sense, while the cost of not successfully rehabilitating becomes very heavy to society? In that context, will he explain how keeping prisoners in humiliating and degrading conditions can possibly assist in the process of rehabilitation? Is getting these things right not urgent if we are sincere about saving the nation money by not having a high rate of reoffending?

The noble Lord is quite right: rehabilitation is one of the central pillars of our policy with regard to prisons. That has been made extremely difficult by reason of the Covid pandemic. It has been necessary to limit the movement of prisoners within prisons in order to contain the Covid threat. It has been necessary to curtail rehabilitation schemes and education schemes. That is extremely unfortunate, but we hope that, as soon we are beyond the Covid issue, we will be able to return to the schemes we have in place for rehabilitation.

My Lords, given the continued spread of coronavirus among prison staff and prisoners, the lock-in of prisoners for months ahead preventing training for rehabilitation, the number of prisons which, like Wrexham, are designed for two to a cell, and the increase of prisoners held on remand while jury trials are stopped, can the Minister explain why the Government’s early release scheme has ground to a trickle of just 57 out of the 4,000 announced by the Secretary of State in the other place, as overcrowding is seeding this pandemic?

As I indicated, in all our prisons we have introduced a cohorting strategy that ensures separation and isolation between prisoners displaying Covid-19 symptoms and other prisoners; a shielding unit for those who are vulnerable to contact with the virus; and a reverse cohorting unit to ensure that new prisoners are isolated for a suitable period until they are found not to be exhibiting symptoms. That continues. With regard to the number of cases within prisons, I think I indicated before that the present position as of 12 May is that we have 401 prisoners who have tested positive for Covid-19 across 74 prisons, and 501 prison staff who have tested positive across 70 prisons. The noble Lord will notice that there is a greater number of prison staff than prisoners who have tested positive. We continue to maintain a system of social separation and hand washing and, where necessary, PPE is available to staff.

I call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. No? I regret that we did not get through many supplementaries on that Question, but the time has now elapsed and we will move on to the fourth Oral Question.