“You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.”
I’ve said it before, but Dostoyevsky’s quote bears repetition. It may not be a fashionable cause for an MP to take up, but with three of my former constituents dying behind bars in the last 18 months, I am determined to speak out on this issue.
One Cheltenham resident committed suicide, another suffered heart failure (likely to have been drugs related). The cause of death for the third has yet to be established. All three men were in their twenties.
Let me be clear: prison must not be a holiday camp. Those that deserve to lose their liberty have harmed others, breached trust, destroyed lives and violated innocence. In those cases, the courts should not hesitate to protect the public and mark society’s condemnation. That applies to my constituents just as much as to anyone else.
But that does not mean they deserve to die. In a decent society prisons must be places of safety as well as punishment. They must be humane. And they must also focus on tackling the underlying causes of criminality – including poor educational attainment and substance abuse.
Today our prisons are far too violent and far too crowded. Some prisoners are locked up in their cells for 23 hours per day.
And one of the greatest stains which contributes to these prison pressures remains the nearly four thousand prisoners serving sentences known as Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP).
A specific case which made the news earlier this week is James Ward. Whilst in custody he set fire to the mattress in his cell. A judge gave him an IPP for arson and told him he would have to serve a minimum of 10 months. That was ten years ago.
Since then, Mr Ward has regularly self-harmed. With a low IQ and mental health problems, he struggles with prison life. He remains a prisoner because he cannot prove to a parole board that he should be released.
IPPs were introduced by Labour in 2003. And although they were abolished by Ken Clarke in 2012 their toxic legacy endures. Last month I raised the issue in Parliament. I pressed the Government to do more to confront this issue and I’m encouraged that a new unit has been set up to support the parole process. Its work will include giving IPP prisoners the mental health intervention they need to help the parole board make the most informed decisions.
Society should not have a bleeding heart about its prisoners. But it shouldn’t have blood on its hands either.