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Covid-19: Prisoners

Volume 804: debated on Thursday 16 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards the implementation of the recommendations in the report by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody “Keep Talking, Stay Safe: A Rapid Review of Prisoners Experience under COVID-19, published on 31 May.

My Lords, we welcome this report from the IAP on the experience of prisoners during Covid-19. The Government are committed to making safety a priority for all those in custody as well as staff. We have reviewed the recommendations in the report and are making good progress against a number of the areas identified, with many discussed further at a Covid-19 sub-meeting of the Ministerial Board on Deaths in Custody on 7 July 2020.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. The IAP report said that early release was important to protect life. We were told that 4,000 prisoners would be released; indeed, the MoJ bought 2,000 tagging kits for those released. But, so far, only 209 prisoners have been released early. What went wrong? So far, 23 prisoners have died from Covid-19 in a prison population of 80,000. Each death is a tragedy; those prisoners were under the care of the state, and the state had a duty to keep them safe. However, to keep the numbers to such levels, many prisoners are confined, essentially in solitary confinement, in their cells for 23 hours a day, with limited access to exercise or basic rehabilitative activities, exacerbating mental health problems. There have been 36 self-inflicted deaths so far this year. Can the Minister tell us what proportion of prisoners are currently restricted in this way and when he expects that figure to improve?

My Lords, the end-of-custody temporary release on licence scheme was there essentially as a safety valve for capacity reasons. As the noble Lord observed, there have been 209 releases as at 3 July. That is consistent with maintaining appropriate capacity within the prison population. There have tragically been 23 prisoner deaths since the start of the pandemic, again based on data available at 3 July, as against a model in March of 2,300 deaths—I emphasise, a model. Nothing has gone wrong with the release system as such. With regard to the situation within prisons, we have now seen a majority of prisons move to a less rigorous regime within the parameters set for prisons; indeed, a proportion of prisons are now able to admit visitors as well.

My Lords, noting my interests in the register, this report reminds us of the need for robust and effective alternatives to custody. This is especially so for people with mental health problems, whose experience of prison can worsen pre-existing conditions, including the risk of self-harm. Will the Minister therefore assure me that the planned investment in community sentence treatment requirement programmes will continue in the current 12 test areas, and that national rollout will be prioritised to ensure universal sentencing options for the courts and necessary treatment for offenders?

My Lords, we are committed to developing a more robust community sentencing framework. We recognise the importance of that. With regard to the health of those within the prison system, we have been taking steps to ensure that appropriate support is in place. The Ministry of Justice, working closely with Cruse Bereavement Care, has established a series of interactive webinars specifically designed for chaplaincy and welfare teams.

My Lords, in his follow-up report just a few weeks ago, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that “large and increasing” numbers of new prisoners are arriving and that

“the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme … had failed to reduce the population meaningfully.”

With overcrowding and capacity still major problems, and with prisoners locked in cells for 22.5 hours a day, what is the point of having a release scheme which, according to Her Majesty’s chief inspector, has failed?

My Lords, the scheme is there to ensure that there is a safety valve for capacity within our prison system. It has worked in that respect. The primary issue has to be public protection. We have to take great care over the early release of those who have been imprisoned, particularly for offences that might otherwise inflict further danger on the public. At present, the Government have fully implemented compart- mentalisation in 98% of prisons and introduced strong measures to protect not only prisoners but staff. The remaining matters of compartmentalisation simply await the completion of temporary accommodation.

I refer to my interests in the register. While recognising the point that my noble and learned friend has just made about security, can he tell us what progress has been made in implementing the report’s second recommendation—namely to streamline and expedite the early release scheme to create the headroom needed to take active steps to protect life? Does he agree with the report’s suggestion that:

“Given numbers of medically vulnerable people who need to be shielded”,

we should

“overhaul the process of release on compassionate grounds and review and halt the misuse of prison custody as a place of safety”?

My Lords, we are not going to rush into reviews of the kind that my noble and learned friend refers to at this stage. However, we are of course anxious to build on improvements within the prison system, for example by building on some of the recommendations in the report, such as those concerned with the key worker scheme and with greater prisoner engagement and peer support.

In view of the Government’s general acceptance of the very sensible recommendations of the independent advisory panel, will they make a further report on the progress of their implementation when the House resumes at the beginning of September?

My Lords, I am perfectly content to take further questions on this issue as we seek to implement some of the recommendations of the IAP report. As I indicated, it has already been the subject of consideration at a joint sub-committee ministerial meeting and we are taking forward some of the recommendations. I have mentioned two; the others I would mention are improvement in family contact, and the introduction of bereavement support and counselling for prisoners.

I congratulate the independent advisory panel on its report. One problem at the moment, because of coronavirus, is the fact that there are very few jury trials or magistrates’ courts trials, the consequence of which is that more prisoners are spending longer on remand. Can the Minister describe to the House what steps have been taken by the Prison Service to facilitate having more, and quicker, jury trials and magistrates’ courts trials, in particular by facilitating video links to prisons, courts in prisons and lawyers being able to take instructions from people remanded in custody?

My Lords, the Prison Service is not directly facilitating the issues relating to jury trials, but we are taking steps to introduce additional courts so that we can, essentially, restart and develop the criminal justice system.

The last full report of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman suggested that 70% of people who died of self-inflicted means in prison had already been identified as having mental health needs, but that these needs had been flagged to the Prison Service in only half those cases, while 29% of them had not even had a community referral for community mental health services. What is the Government’s target to ensure that 100% of those admitted to prison with mental health needs are flagged up to the Prison Service, and that they are able to continue to receive treatment?

My Lords, we have encouraged prison governors to continue to operate peer support schemes, where possible, and issued guidance on how and why they should be maintained. We have also continued our partnership with the Samaritans by providing a further grant until 2021 to run its Listener scheme, which operates in 111 prisons and provided something like 30,000 hours of emotional support last year.

My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to ask for robust and full implementation of a Lammy recommendation, and I add my voice to that of my noble friend Lord Harris on the implementation of this report. I am disheartened to learn that we did not secure the release of significant numbers of prisoners during the pandemic, particularly those who are pregnant and women with young children. The numbers of black and Muslim men suffering at the hands of our police remain grim and deaths in custody are a scar on our democratic system. I have spoken about Zahid Mubarek in this very Chamber; he was killed in 2000 at the hands of a racist prison inmate and denied human decency when he sought assistance from prison officers. I could list hundreds of others; I wish that I could. I honour the women and families still campaigning for justice. What steps are being taken to enable the justice system to be fit for purpose and to have trust in upholding a humane justice system, eradicating the physical and mental cruelty inflicted disproportionately on black and Muslim men, be it on the roads with stop and search, through arrest or in police custody?

My Lords, we have taken considerable steps in the implementation of the recommendations in the Lammy report.