Prisons: Howard League Commission

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, for securing this debate. The growing prison population and further increases in the number of offenders who return to custody are complex issues that require a multifaceted solution. It is encouraging to see that the Howard League has produced a thorough and informative account of the problems facing our prisons today-and the possible solutions.

The commission’s research shows that there has been a marked rise in the number of ethnic-minority prisoners, especially Muslims, compared to a lower increase in the number of white inmates. It goes on to reveal that the number of Muslim prisoners has doubled over the past 10 years and now stands at nearly 10,000 persons. This is particularly disturbing as Muslims account for 3 per cent of the total population in Britain but make up almost 11 per cent of the prison population. Why has this unacceptable situation arisen and what remedial action will be taken to address this alarming trend?

The annual report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons draws attention to the fact that approximately one quarter of Muslim prisoners said they felt unsafe. More than 30 per cent stated that they had been subjected to bullying by prison staff. I acknowledge the reality that prison staff do a tremendously difficult job. However, any type of bullying is unacceptable. Will the Minister be forthcoming in revealing what measures the Government will take to remedy this situation?

A survey by the Muslim Youth Helpline highlighted that 63 per cent of reoffenders felt that they did not have the help they needed upon leaving prison. Some 82 per cent stated that faith-based support networks in the community would have prevented them returning to crime. It is therefore important to encourage and increase the number of prison volunteers from all faiths, while recognising that there is an important role to be played by religious leaders in our communities. Does the Minister agree that a greater emphasis should be placed on helping communities to develop faith-based projects that specifically target offenders?

The commission’s research shows that between 2004 and 2008 the number of foreign national prisoners rose by 29 per cent. I believe that those who enter our country and breach our laws have lost their right to a place in all areas of British society. We should therefore aim to speed up the deportation of foreign national prisoners before the end of their sentences, and extend automatic deportation to prisoners from non-EU countries who are serving sentences of less than one year.

There is a correlation between overcrowded prisons and the number of inmates who are committing suicide. This tragic state of affairs calls for greater attention concerning the mental health of inmates as well as their overall well-being. Prison is a deplorable sanction for young people, and should be reserved for only the most serious youth offenders. This view reiterates the ardent belief that child welfare is paramount to reducing youth crime and curbing reoffending rates. Our justice system should be fundamentally based on the principles of enforcing punishment and educating prisoners. Investments made in crime prevention measures will pay dividends in efforts to counter reoffending.

Updated: 24/02/2010 — 1:03 PM