Following the announcement made by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Alex Chalk KC MP, at the Conservative Party Conference, Clinks has written to both the Lord Chancellor and the Director General CEO of HM Prison and Probation Service. In these letters, we raise the concerns of the sector, and call for the government to change course.
The news that the government will be tabling legislation allowing it to rent prison spaces abroad has caused considerable concern across the voluntary sector. There is widespread disappointment that these proposals are being considered when other measures to reduce the population pressures, such as early release schemes and diversion programmes, are not being considered with the same priority.
The sector has already been raising a number of questions about the policy. For instance, Prisoners Abroad issued a statement highlighting the “significant levels of isolation and trauma” experienced by British people imprisoned overseas. Pact highlighted the impact on the families of people affected by this policy. The Prison Reform Trust set out a number of issues with the plans, including questioning how it will solve the immediate capacity crisis, given the time needed to put measures like this in place. The Howard League for Penal Reform have set out a number of questions the government must urgently answer.
Instead of addressing the underlying causes of crime, leading to England and Wales having the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe, the government would appear to be planning to outsource responsibility for at least some of the people in our prisons.
The average prison sentence in England and Wales has increased by 57% since 2010 and, the use of community sentences has more than halved over the last 10 years. The number of people on remand is at its highest point in decades, and nearly two-thirds of prisons are over capacity.
Moreover, even if the 20,000 new prison places committed to by the government were delivered on time, it is still forecast for there to be a shortage of 2,300 places by March 2025. Coupled with continued staffing challenges in prisons, the system is at breaking point.
The lack of details about the plan also leaves open key questions.
How will people be selected to be moved overseas? How will their interests be best served in foreign prisons? Will children or young adults be sent abroad?
What impact will these plans have around racial disproportionality, especially on racially minoritised people serving longer sentences for more serious offences? How will any selection criteria be tested for fairness?
How will voluntary organisations be able to work with people isolated in foreign prisons?
What systems and guarantees will there be to ensure people can access services in English or Welsh?
What safeguards and accountability measures will be in place to help ensure the conditions of foreign prisons, and treatment of people sent to them?
How will the people affected be able to maintain contact with their families and friends? How will the rights of children whose parent is in prison be considered if their parent is placed overseas?
Given Clinks’ and the sector’s involvement with Lord Farmer’s Reviews, we are particularly disappointed these proposals so fundamentally compromise the Ministry of Justice’s commitment to family and relationship support for people in prison.
There are many people in prison across England and Wales who are from different countries, and we know of the struggles they face in maintaining family connections and accessing support to prepare for release. Such struggles would be exacerbated by implementing these plans. We already see women in Wales, imprisoned in England, facing significant challenges that act as barriers to their effective resettlement. And in these cases, the voluntary sector often makes the difference needed providing support to meet the need the distance causes.
If, despite the widespread opposition, the government decides to progress this scheme, we believe there needs to be proper and full consultation with the voluntary sector working in criminal justice. These organisations are already relied on by the prison service to deliver support services to people in prison, funded by both the government and charitable funders.
The voluntary sector has significant expertise to offer on these proposals and their potential impact. Voluntary organisations also have people using their services in prison, with previous lived experience, or with a loved one in prison who can share their experiences. This expertise also needs to be drawn upon before the proposals are taken any further.
However, there is an alternative way to address the prison-capacity crisis: immediate steps can be taken to reduce the size of the prison population. These measures include, but are not limited to, exploring a conditional early release scheme, increasing the use of existing community sentence options and release on temporary licence, sufficient funding for diversion schemes and robust alternatives to custody, and sentencing reforms to reduce longer-term pressures.
Through the forthcoming launch of our new Clinks Thinks work, we will also be exploring the viability of services designed to reduce the demand for prison places. We will be looking to draw on best practice from across the sector to provide evidence-based alternatives to a continually growing prison population.
The criminal justice voluntary sector has a proud history of working with people in prison, prisons themselves, and the government to bring about positive change. We call for the government to reconsider these proposals, and work with the sector to develop alternative approaches to achieve good outcomes for people in prison, and enable those in contact with the criminal justice system to transform their lives.