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Britain's prison system 'a disgrace to a civilised country'

Much of Britain's prison system is a disgrace to a civilised country, a Tory former cabinet minister told the Lords.

Lord Fowler warned that jails were being used as "social dumping grounds" for people with mental illnesses and addiction problems after decades of political neglect and public disinterest.

"So much of our prison system is a disgrace to a civilised country. Prisoners should not be locked up in their cells for most of the night and day.

"About a fifth of prisoners spend 22 hours out of 24 in their cells. We should be retraining and offering education in prison, but in all too many cases we are not doing that.

"We should not be keeping prisoners in cells where you would not keep your dog," Lord Fowler said as he opened a debate on prison reform.

The former health secretary said that with the prison population set to rise from 85,000 now to 90,000 in five years' time, overcrowding needed to be tackled as a priority.

"The aim is not to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the prisoner, it is to retrain them so that they can become useful members of society and fulfil their own potential.

"There is no evidence what so ever that deliberate discomfort is a policy that works. We should give rehabilitation a chance," the Conservative peer said.

Lord Fowler said that sentencing needed to be reviewed and fewer people sent to prison as a result.

"I do not believe that prisons should be a social dumping ground for those with mental health problems, and those with alcohol and drug abuse problems. We must find better ways of dealing with these issues.

"Our policy over the last 50 years has been a notable failure, not good for the prisoners and certainly not good for the public.

"In 1970 we faced a prisons crisis, today we face a prisons scandal," Lord Fowler said.

Former justice of the Supreme Court, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, called for action on the "deep, systemic injustice" of prisoners being detained indefinitely.

The crossbench peer called for a radical overhaul of the indefinite detention for the protection of the public of certain prisoners system.

"It is a wholly discredited system, finally abolished in 2012. But there still remains some 4,500 such prisoners, of whom some 3,500 have served longer than their tariff terms, longer that is than the terms judged appropriate punishment for their wrong doing. And, indeed, 392 have served more than five times their tariff terms.

"Of course some of those released would re-offend, but that is the price that we must pay to end this ever growing stain on our justice system," Lord Brown said.

Liberal Democrat QC Lord Carlile of Berriew hit out at some of the "ludicrous" sentencing guidelines.

"I've sat as a recorder in the crown court on numerous occasions and felt I had to send someone to prison because the sentencing guidelines were just too prescriptive and did not contain the subjectivity the case needed," he said.

Former chairman of the Commons justice committee and Lib Dem peer Lord Beith warned that prison had an "extremely limited deterrent value" in relation to quite a few crimes and many criminals.

He said some people committed further offences to get back into prison, in some cases to get access to drug treatment, and in others where "they hadn't got anywhere much to go" in winter or at Christmas.

For the Liberal Democrats, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames said the overwhelming evidence was that short prison sentences did not work and far too many prisoners were serving them.

He said short sentences worked less effectively than community sentences in reducing reoffending and warned that prison overcrowding was a "major obstacle" to rehabilitation.

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