Prison Reform can’t wait

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The following article was published in The Catholic Universe, Friday 5 May, in it Bishop Richard Moth argues that prison reform must be a priority for the new government.

In March 2017, MPs began debating the most significant reform of UK prison law for over 50 years. Speaking in the House of Commons, Justice Secretary Liz Truss set out how the government’s landmark Prisons and Courts Bill would underpin plans to increase the time prisoners spend outside their cells, improve mental health provision, and better prepare people for life after release.

The snap general election means that there will be no time for the bill to finish its passage through Parliament and it will be dependent on the next government to reintroduce planned reforms. It is therefore vital that over the coming week, parties and candidates commit to tackling the crisis in our prison system.

Prison reform is an important issue for us as a Church, not least because of the valuable role that Catholic chaplains play in every prison across England and Wales. They work not only to reform and rehabilitate prisoners, but also to help those in their care to cope with relationships inside and outside of prison. Chaplains provide considerable pastoral support for prisoners, particularly those who are vulnerable or isolated. They also help to connect prisoners with their families, both during their sentence and after release. We know that every year around a quarter of all Catholic prisoners seek help from a chaplain to support their family relationships.

However many prisoners also struggle to access chaplaincy services, often because there are no staff available to let them out of their cells. The Prisons and Courts Bill was intended to help ensure prisoners could spend more time out of cells and engaged in purposeful activity. I hope to see the next government take this plan forwards and make sure prisoners always have an opportunity to meet their chaplains, attend services and engage in faith-based courses that can help their rehabilitation.

At a time when there is more drug use than ever in British prisons, the bill also proposed that there be more thorough testing, programmes to tackle addiction and better access to medical services. These plans should be revisited as a matter of urgency after the election. Drugs, including dangerous new psychoactive substances, are readily available in prisons and have caused dozens of deaths in recent years. They are also closely linked to the dramatic decline in prison safety which has seen more than 100 suicides, around 25,000 assaults, and nearly 40,000 incidents of self-harm recorded in 2016 alone. This growth in the number of victims has arisen by the lethal combination of increased drug-use and availability combined with severe understaffing in almost all prisons.

The balance between rehabilitation and punishment in UK prisons is an important topic. We must always remember that while people in prison have done wrong and sometimes seriously hurt others, they still have innate human dignity and deserve to be kept safe. Every time a prisoner comes to harm is a tragedy and represents a failure of our system.

Dostoevsky wrote that “the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Yet conditions in our prisons are falling far short of what we as a society have a right to expect. Last year Cardinal Vincent Nichols encouraged the government to be bold in its reform of the prison system and to “make this the turning point where prison policy is built upon giving people the support they need to make amends and play a positive role in our society”. The Prisons and Courts Bill contained positive steps to help turn this vision into action and we must not lose sight of this as we await a new government.

Keeping prison reform on the political agenda will not be easy. Momentum has been lost by the bill being dropped and this is never a popular topic for parties to focus on during an election. However there will be many opportunities between now and Thursday 8 June to remind candidates what an important issue this is – not only for prisoners, staff and their families but for the whole of our society. Prisons are not isolated institutions, standing disconnected from the outside world. They are an integral part of communities, and how we treat prisoners is a reflection upon our country as a whole. Prison reform is the responsibility of us all and I strongly encourage Catholics to make their voice heard on this most critical challenge.

With an ambitious reform programme prisons can become places of mercy and redemption, where people are helped to turn their lives around. As Pope Francis told us that “where there is mercy, justice is more just, and it fulfils its true essence.

This does not mean that we should throw open the doors of the prisons and let those who have committed serious crimes loose. It means that we have to help those who have fallen to get back up.”