The Crisis in Criminal Justice

Contributed by: John Battle, Chair of the Commission
door of Armley Prison
We are a long way from prisons being places of 'redemption' - we seem to be going backwards

The fact that our criminal justice system is broken is regularly distracted by high profile individual cases of the need to ‘lock them up’ regardless of the conditions or provisions for eventual release. The media driven cry to ‘protect the public’ trumps all other considerations.

Yet it is a widely acknowledged reality that in Britain that,
• prisons are running at fuller than capacity with over 83,000 locked up
• tensions in overcrowded prisons are resulting in problems of violence and control coupled with
• there is a shortage of prison staff as more and more give up on that particular vocation.

HMP Armley, a remand prison in Leeds, usually houses overnight 1,670 prisoners. It was built to house 600. Many locked up in Armley have real problems with drugs, alcoholism and serious mental health conditions. Many cannot adequately read or write, forty per cent of recently surveyed inmates had spent some time of their childhood in a care home. Because of staff shortages, activities in-prison are drastically reduced which in turn diminishes any chance of rehabilitation work. The former prisons chief Phil Wheatley has warned that the conditions in our prisons are now “seriously unsafe” as a result of budget cut backs and not simply the presence in prisons of dangerous new psychoactive substances. Suicides in British prisons are tragically rising.

More recently, projects designed to help rehabilitation on release such as the pioneering West Yorkshire Community Chaplaincy Project with a good track record in training a wide range of volunteer link workers to assist those coming out of Armley to find somewhere to live, to help them sort out money, training and work opportunities and regularly meet up with them to offer consistent personal support, have had their project funding jeopardized by subcontracting out the work of probation to a few chosen private companies. The chief inspector of prisons Dame Glenis Stacy has described the 2014 outsourcing as ‘an exasperating situation” that in effect has undermined the contribution of the charitable and voluntary sector at the expense of ex-offender support in the community.

Few offenders are locked up literally for life and most have to face returning to the outside world without either in prison help to change their lifestyle or support when they come out. As one offender put it to me “the wall of the world outside is larger than the walls on the inside”. Another expressed his deliberate intention to reoffend to escape the severe isolation of life outside and to return into the prison community.

There is real need for criminal justice reform: firstly in the numbers sent to prison in the first place (and as research has been showing for decades now far too many women are incarcerated who need not be), secondly, prison overcrowding coupled with demoralized staff and shortages reduces the possibilities of work on rehabilitation during sentence and then there are the real issues of the need to support those on release.
The Catholic Church has an outstanding record of addressing the need for a humanly respectable criminal justice system that works for
rehabilitation through the Bishops’ conference now led by the Bishop for Prisons Bishop Moth, through the advocacy work of the Catholic Social Action Network and the work of the charity PACT which like the ecumenical Community chaplaincy in Leeds works with prisoners and their families supporting those committed to prison to enable them to change their lives and contribute more positively to the development of society. As Bishop Moth has noted recently the issue of staffshortages of prison officers is at last encouragingly being addressed by the government. Some years ago the Bishops’ conference published a report entitled “Prisons ; A Place of Redemption”. They are far from that at the moment and the support work for those who are released is more important than ever and remains a challenge in the work for justice and peace.

The fact that our criminal justice system is broken is regularly distracted by high profile individual cases of the need to ‘lock them up’ regardless of the conditions or provisions for eventual release. The media driven cry to ‘protect the public’ trumps all other considerations.

Yet it is a widely acknowledged reality that in Britain that,
• prisons are running at fuller than capacity with over 83,000 locked up
• tensions in overcrowded prisons are resulting in problems of violence and control coupled with
• there is a shortage of prison staff as more and more give up on that particular vocation.

HMP Armley, a remand prison in Leeds, usually houses overnight 1,670 prisoners. It was built to house 600. Many locked up in Armley have real problems with drugs, alcoholism and serious mental health conditions. Many cannot adequately read or write, forty per cent of recently surveyed inmates had spent some time of their childhood in a care home. Because of staff shortages, activities in-prison are drastically reduced which in turn diminishes any chance of rehabilitation work. The former prisons chief Phil Wheatley has warned that the conditions in our prisons are now “seriously unsafe” as a result of budget cut backs and not simply the presence in prisons of dangerous new psychoactive substances. Suicides in British prisons are tragically rising.

More recently, projects designed to help rehabilitation on release such as the pioneering West Yorkshire Community Chaplaincy Project with a good track record in training a wide range of volunteer link workers to assist those coming out of Armley to find somewhere to live, to help them sort out money, training and work opportunities and regularly meet up with them to offer consistent personal support, have had their project funding jeopardized by subcontracting out the work of probation to a few chosen private companies. The chief inspector of prisons Dame Glenis Stacy has described the 2014 outsourcing as ‘an exasperating situation” that in effect has undermined the contribution of the charitable and voluntary sector at the expense of ex-offender support in the community.

Few offenders are locked up literally for life and most have to face returning to the outside world without either in prison help to change their lifestyle or support when they come out. As one offender put it to me “the wall of the world outside is larger than the walls on the inside”. Another expressed his deliberate intention to reoffend to escape the severe isolation of life outside and to return into the prison community.

There is real need for criminal justice reform: firstly in the numbers sent to prison in the first place (and as research has been showing for decades now far too many women are incarcerated who need not be), secondly, prison overcrowding coupled with demoralized staff and shortages reduces the possibilities of work on rehabilitation during sentence and then there are the real issues of the need to support those on release.
The Catholic Church has an outstanding record of addressing the need for a humanly respectable criminal justice system that works for
rehabilitation through the Bishops’ conference now led by the Bishop for Prisons Bishop Moth, through the advocacy work of the Catholic Social Action Network and the work of the charity PACT which like the ecumenical Community chaplaincy in Leeds works with prisoners and their families supporting those committed to prison to enable them to change their lives and contribute more positively to the development of society. As Bishop Moth has noted recently the issue of staffshortages of prison officers is at last encouragingly being addressed by the government. Some years ago the Bishops’ conference published a report entitled “Prisons ; A Place of Redemption”. They are far from that at the moment and the support work for those who are released is more important than ever and remains a challenge in the work for justice and peace.