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Bishops Call for Prison Reform and Banning the Box

At the CSAN parliamentary reception on 2 November Cardinal Vincent called for prison reform as he launched The Right Road: A Catholic approach to prison reform, the latest document on prison reform by the Bishops’ of England and Wales which was produced and printed at HMP Coldingley. The Right Road calls for the prison system to truly embrace the road of rehabilitation, calling for the full implementation of Dame Sally Coates’s review and the development of restorative justice programs.

Cardinal Vincent said: ‘Our society is failing prisoners and prisons are failing our society. Even more than before, a bold and serious program of prison reform is needed. Many of our prisons are more overcrowded and dangerous than at any point in recent history. Every time a prisoner or an officer comes to harm this represents both a human cost and a failure of the system. It is clear that far too often prisons are places of despair rather than places of redemption.

‘However better prisons are possible and now is the time for courageous improvements to sentencing, education, staffing, health services, family contact, and pastoral care. This will require resources and determination, but we have a duty to fix our broken system for the common good of all our society.

‘The Church has a great deal to contribute in this endeavour and we have recently set out our vision for prison reform in The Right Road. I look sincerely forward to discussing this with the government and engaging with the Secretary of State’s reform agenda.’

This launch came as Justice Minister Liz Truss was set to unveil her strategy for improving prisons, including additional funding of £14 million for more than 400 extra staff. The document comes 12 years after the Bishops’ Conference published A Place of Redemption, which set out the Church’s vision for a prison system that rehabilitates offenders, supports victims and works for society as a whole.

Prison reform was also discussed at the autumn plenary meeting of the Bishops’ Conference, coming at the end of the Year of Mercy when bishops have systematically visited prisons.

Prisons are not isolated institutions and the treatment of prisoners reflects upon all of society. The bishops welcomed the government’s new prison reform which is necessary for proper rehabilitation, enabling prisoners to undertake courses and other opportunities which help break the cycle of reoffending. They also emphasised the need for more effective opportunities for prisoners to engage with their families and for family support services to be more developed.

The physical and mental health of prisoners is of the greatest importance in effective rehabilitation and the bishops call on the government to prioritise the response to the crisis of self-harm and suicide in prisons and ensure parity of care between prisons and the local community.

The bishops also announced their support for the Ban the Box initiative, a campaign the Cardinal has previously spoken about, which encourages employers to remove the tick box requiring applicants to disclose convictions, often resulting in the immediate failure of an application. Cardinal Vincent explained that, rather than making workplaces unsafe, this would encourage a conversation for all job applicants and lead the way for a life away from the potential of reoffending. This box has been removed from diocesan job application forms.

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