How Catholic leaders are responding to the Queen's prison reform speech

Queen Elizabeth II arrives at the Vatican on April 3 2014 for an audience with Pope Francis Credit Lauren Cater CNA CNA 4 3 14 Queen Elizabeth II arrives at the Vatican on April 3, 2014 for an audience with Pope Francis. | Lauren Cater/CNA.

The Catholic bishops of England and Wales are ready to support the government's proposed prison reforms outlined in Queen Elizabeth II's speech to Parliament.

"The Church has a strong practical contribution to make. Our chaplains work in every prison throughout England and Wales, and are often at the forefront of supporting prisoners in their rehabilitation," Bishop Richard Moth of Arundel and Brighton said.

"This is a remarkable opportunity to place reform and redemption at the heart of our prisons," he added. "It is only through a properly resourced system focused on genuinely helping people to turn their lives around that we will create a safer and more civilized society."

Bishop Moth is the bishops' liaison for prisons. He said recent conversations with the Minister for Prisons and his staff have been "extremely helpful."

The bishop's comments were a response to the queen's May 18 speech to Parliament which summarized the legislative agenda.

"My government will legislate to reform prisons and courts to give individuals a second chance," she said.

"Prison governors will be given unprecedented freedom and they will be able to ensure prisoners receive better education," she added. "Old and inefficient prisons will be closed and new institutions built where prisoners can be put more effectively to work."

She said there will be better mental health care for individuals in the criminal justice system.

Prisons will be required to publish statistics on education, reoffending, and inmates' employment when they are released, BBC News reports.

There are pilot programs planned that will allow prisoners to become weekend inmates. The prisoners will spend weekdays at home and at work. Their movement will be monitored with GPS technology and satellite tracking tags.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, in his comments on the queen's speech, said that institutions for young offenders have not been working.

"They give the public the security of knowing that offenders are locked in but they're not doing enough to turn around the lives of people who will one day be let out," he said.

He explained that prison reforms would draw on practices from other public service reforms like publishing results, giving proper control to administrators and "encouraging innovation, rewarding success and not tolerating persistent failure."

Green MP Caroline Lucas has criticized the reform proposals, saying progress would be undermined by big cuts to prison budgets and overcrowding.

The queen's speech also touched on anti-extremism measures.

"Legislation will be introduced to prevent radicalization, tackle extremism in all its forms, and promote community integration," she said.

A spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales said Parliament's expected anti-extremism legislation must be produced "with diligence and careful consideration."

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"It is vital that measures to keep the public safe do not inadvertently curtail free speech or alienate communities. The best way in which to undermine extremist beliefs will always be through the promotion of effective integration."

Some Catholics and other commentators have voiced concern that measures apparently meant to counter Islamist extremism, such as the government's push to teach "British values" in schools, could harm sincere religious believers and burden Catholic schools.

In 2014, government officials downgraded the high-performing St. Benedict's Catholic School in Suffolk because its students allegedly were not aware of the dangers of extremism and were not prepared for contemporary British life. The school said parents complained that the inspectors asked children as young as 10 about homosexual acts and transsexualism.

The Catholic Education Service demanded an apology for the action.

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