Friday 19 April 2024

The World of Probation


The sixth World Congress of Probation and Parole brought more than 400 people from 61 countries to The Hague this week to ponder the future of community corrections. As the self-proclaimed birthplace of probation in 1823, the Netherlands proved not only fitting but wonderfully creative hosts for a celebration of what Clement Okech from Kenya described as the “human face” of criminal justice.

And there is much to celebrate in how probation services around the world are, in Okech’s words “catching the fish and cooking the fish”. Participants heard about positive legal and practice developments from Armenia to Zambia; strong technical assistance provided to low-income countries from governments – not least the Dutch in their former colonies- and from NGOs like Penal Reform International; and a growing movement to expand the role of volunteers in reintegration drawing inspiration from practice in Japan.

But we had the chance to think about some storm clouds on the horizon too.

Staffing shortages and under resourcing are affecting rich and poor countries alike. Surinam reported problems in retaining officers in its developing probation service because of low pay.

Academic experts Ion Durnescu and Faye Taxman estimated that globally more than half of people in corrections are in the community rather than prison yet funds for the former are dwarfed by the latter.

The Congress heard that more than half of people entering US state prisons do so as a result of failing to comply with community supervision requirements -which I was shocked to learn average 17 in number in each individual case.  How much probation pushes people back into prison in England and Wales is the subject of the latest Transform Justice podcast. 

It seems too that the much vaunted swift and certain sanctions model (on which the UK’s intensive supervision courts pilots are in part based) is ineffective. 

There is a clearly a good case for substantial investment in probation capacity – something which has been accepted in Kenya where probation strength has almost quadrupled in 15 years. But it is certainly not typical in Africa, nor elsewhere.

Concerns too about the human face of probation being diluted by growing reliance on technology in the form not only of electronic monitoring as a standalone sanction and the role of Artificial Intelligence in risk assessment. The Dutch prison service is working on “the possibility of reducing staff deployment through robotisation” and probation may not be far behind. Dangers of racial and other forms of discrimination may be recognised but are they being addressed?

Finally, many countries face hardening public and political attitudes on crime, scepticism about social scientific evidence and a need for scapegoats in cases of serious re-offending. Maintaining core probation values can be a challenge in a risk averse climate.

The Congress heard a sneak preview of the forthcoming Handbook on Global Community Corrections which finds that compared to 30 years ago many more services report public protection, involving the victim and community safety among their mission statements.

Finding better ways of communicating a proactive narrative about how probation achieves these objectives, using stories from offenders, victims, and practitioners as well as better data is an urgent priority.

Will the worldwide probation family be able to meet these challenges? I hope to be able to report back from the seventh Congress in 2026.

It’s in Bali by the way.

Friday 12 April 2024

Race against Time : Another Update on the Prison Building Programme


 At last, the Government has made public a comprehensive list of where its new prison places will be.  In a parliamentary answer at the end of last month, Prison Minister Ed Argar gave details of the sites where 14,169 additional places will be delivered over the coming years. Together with the 5,856 places already up and running, the total, if they all come to fruition, will be 20,025.

Actually the list is not complete as the answer refers to additional sites which are “commercially sensitive and information released about these would prejudice the department’s negotiating position and ability to achieve value for money in these developments”. But it’s the fullest picture we’ve had so far.

According to the answer, planning permission is still needed for 3,362 of the places though more than half of these are at the Lancashire site next to Garth and Wymott prisons which Planning Minister Michael Gove is minded to approve. While an inquiry has been reopenedto consider safety issues on surrounding roads, the MoJ will expect to get the go ahead before long.

Less certain must be the 247 place expansion at HMP Gartree in Leicestershire, coming on top as it would do of the 1,715 place new build next door. Permission for the new prison was rejected by the local council but overruled by Gove.

1,080 of the 1280 places in Open prisons on Argar’s list require planning permission as do 320 at privately run HMP Parc in South Wales. So assuming the Garth/Wymott site is approved, the government still need permission for 1,647 places.  

Argar says they are on track to have delivered half of the 20,000 places by the end of 2025. Theres no timetable beyond that which I’ve seen

It’s worth noting that according to information given to the Justice Committee last month, more than 1,000 of the 5,856 places delivered to date have been through refurbishment rather than construction; and a further 400 are classed as urgent and temporary accommodation. 800 of the remaining places will also be achieved through refurbishment.  

There's a link here to a spreadsheet with the data on the proposed new places.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Building New Prisons and Making Existing Ones Safe


Just before Easter, Prisons Minister Ed Argar gave the Justice committee an update on the prison building programme.  He reported that of 20,000 planned new places, 5,856 are in use. Well over half are in the two new prisons Five Wells and Fosse Way, the remainder at 37 existing locations mostly achieved through refurbishment, emergency temporary accommodation and rapid deployment cells with 204 empty cells brought into use in three private jails.  

Argar assured MPs that the MoJ is on track to have a total of 10,000 places available at the end of 2025, thanks to a third new prison (HMP Millsike), new houseblocks at two current sites and “hundreds more rapid deployment cells”.

That leaves 10,000 more places to create.  Half are intended to be in three further new prisons. Outline planning permission has been obtained for two with a planning inquiry into the third re-opening last week. Road safety is a sticking point   with the hearing due to conclude, after a break, at the end of this month.

The final 5,000 places will be built “through a range of projects” including a new houseblock at Fosse Way and an expansion of open prisons. Argar’s boss Alex Chalk has promised Parliament an annual statement on prison capacity so there may be a chance for MPs to interrogate the plans if and when that happens before the election.

In the meantime, Argar reassured the Justice Committee that as far as the current prison estate is concerned, the surge in demand for space has not resulted in any essential works necessary to address critical risks to life being paused. In particular work to bring 23,500 prison places into line with modern fire safety standards remains on course to be completed by the end of 2027.   HMPPS has previously reported that capacity pressures have restricted their ability to take places out of use for refurbishment and compliance works, so Argar’s statement is welcome.

Additional fire safety issues in specific prisons have recently become known. The latest entries in the register published by the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate show enforcement notices were issued at Eastwood Park and Holme House at the end of last year along with an alterations notice at Swaleside which means that there are or could be high safety risks in the Kent prison. This is of particular concern given a prisoner died there from smoke inhalation in 2019.   

The register shows a notice issued in 2022 has not yet been complied with at Chelmsford and two made in 2021 are still in force at privately run Oakwood and Northumberland. 

There is certainly no cause for complacency.

Thursday 21 March 2024

Hidden Figures: Why Data Transparency is Essential for Prison Reform


A new Guidance Note I’ve written, with Helen Fair, for the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research at Birkbeck (ICPR) is encouraging countries around the world to collect and publish more and better data about their prisons and the people locked up in them.  

ICPR’s World Prison Brief has for almost 25 years collated information on prison populations and occupancy rates but many countries don’t themselves routinely make the numbers publicly available.   In the 56 countries of the Commonwealth, only 13 prison services regularly publish figures online although data in many others is sporadically reported in news media or official reports.

Frequently updated statistical information enables authorities and civil society to monitor trends and assess the effectiveness and costs of criminal justice policies. It contributes to public scrutiny of conditions particularly for vulnerable prisoners and informs strategies to address racial disparities and to reform prisons.  Good quality data can also prompt broader questions about the differential use of prisons within and between countries.  Why for example does the percentage of pre-trial detainees vary from 70% in Nigeria’s prisons to 11% in Ghana’s?

Almost all prisons collect administrative data about the people in them for case management purposes, and provided that safeguards are in place, converting this personal data into anonymised aggregated statistics should be relatively straightforward.

Some countries do it very well. India’s National Prisons Information Portal updates the numbers of prisoners in each state every 4 hours. Yet other countries, particularly those with limited resources, struggle to collate information without electronic systems, reliable internet, online platforms for sharing data, or trained staff to operate data systems.

Logistical and practical barriers seem to prevent publication more than a lack of political will. Sometimes the problem is a lack of procedural transparency: for example where prison administrations say that data is available on request, but it is unclear how requests should be made or handled.

The Guidance Note recommends that every country should use an electronic database to produce anonymised statistics, with a reliable methodology for their compilation and arrangements for data governance and protection, developed where possible in cooperation with the national statistics authority.

As for publication, countries are recommended to publish Core Data monthly on a website. This encompasses the number of types of people in prison on any one day, receptions and releases over time, and prison capacity (with details on how this is calculated). The Guidance includes a template for prison systems to use for this purpose.

The Core Data is very much a floor not a ceiling: countries that can should aim to publish more. Some high income countries release additional statistics about incidents in prison, staffing, and costs. Some also release detailed data about the types of offences for which people are held in prison and how long they have been on remand. This can help inform initiatives to ensure that prison is not used unnecessarily and that steps are taken to release people who can be released on bail or have reached the end of their sentence. 

Since accurate statistics are so important to ensure prison is used as a last resort and for the shortest possible time, the Guidance Note suggests that international agencies and donors should consider how best to equip relevant countries with the resources, technology, know-how and training to introduce a suitable data collection system. Better quality prisons data and transparency should also be a priority for consideration at the 15th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in 2026.

In her recent report on current issues in prison management, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture recommended that prison authorities  report accurately and regularly on detention conditions and overcrowding levels to policy and decision makers and monitoring bodies.  It’s to be hoped that this Guidance Note will prove helpful in enabling them to do so.



Sunday 7 January 2024

Further Delay to the Secure School


It looks like the new Secure School is unlikely to take its first children until April this year at the earliest. The need to replace the boilers at the Medway site means that construction will only be completed this month after which the building will be handed over to Oasis Restore, the charity which will run the new custodial centre for 12-18 year olds.

Justice officials told MPs last March that they were hoping that the first children could be placed there next month , with the draft funding agreement specifying an opening date of 5 February. But this timetable involved the provider occupying the site for frontline training and systems set-up from October 2023.  

Justice Minister Ed Argar said last month that the Secure School was “on course to open by Spring.”  But further delays seem possible. According to the latest timeline, the facility will only apply for registration as a Secure Childrens Home in March. This process can take up to 4 months, although hopefully this much delayed project will be fast tracked.

I hope that the Secure School proves to be a workable model which might eventually take the place of Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres. By the end of last year, the Ministry of Justice intended to commission an independent external evaluator to assess whether this might be possible. I do not know if the evaluation is yet underway.    

It’s disappointing to see on the Companies House website, that the confirmation of information about Oasis Restore is overdue. They could face prosecution or being struck off if they don’t provide the information.  

Let’s hope it’s just an administrative oversight.

Saturday 30 December 2023

Will 2024 be the Year of Prison Reform?



There’s growing recognition across the political spectrum that radical change is needed in criminal justice. This year’s converts to the cause include John Major who argued in May that “we over-use prison and under value alternative sentences; ” former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett “struck by the genuine meltdown in the criminal justice system”, and perhaps most surprising of all, leading Brexiteer Lord Frost who recently wrote of a duty to revamp our disgusting prisons.

But how should a new government set about addressing the myriad problems facing the penal system?

Some, like Justice Committee Chair Bob Neill think we need a “proper and honest debate about what prison should be for, who should go there and the costs”. While it might be tempting to try to persuade the public that the approach we’ve been taking for decades is not working, there’s no guarantee what conclusion they’ll reach.   

After all, for Frost, getting a grip on the crime problem means sending more people to prison, not fewer, for short sentences and “minor” crimes. Neill himself supports a proposal from think tank Policy Exchange for mandatory minimum prison terms of at least two years to be imposed on ‘Hyper-Prolific Offenders’  a measure which could overwhelm prisons with people convicted of theft.  There may be little evidence behind Frost’s view that unless people think they might actually end up in prison, there will be no deterrence - but many probably share it .

Instead of a debate, what’s needed is some systemic change to drive and oversee reform. As former Lord Chancellor David Lidington put it, the politics of prison reform “ is horrendously difficult for governments of  any party”, if it means spending more on prisons at expense of other, more popular public services and/or reducing significantly the numbers  we send to prison. 

So, let’s find ways of taking the politics out of it.

One way is to look at New Labour’s post 1997 reforms. They inherited a slow, cumbersome, and inconsistent approach to children in trouble, both in custody and the community.  They set up an expert Task Force to establish priorities, subsequently creating the Youth Justice Board to oversee local multi agency work with offenders and to commission and set standards for secure establishments. 

Outcomes haven’t always been perfect by any means, but it marked a major structural overhaul which remains in place, focusing attention and investment on a neglected area and keeping politicians at arm’s length. The prison and probation service arguably now needs this kind of external supervision and oversight if they are to have any chance of overcoming the current crisis and adopting a genuine rehabilitative agenda.

A new government should immediately commision a Criminal Justice Task Force to establish what changes are most urgently required. In prisons these are likely to involve action on training and recruitment of staff, the development of regimes and improved reintegration. Reducing the 600 people who leave prison each month without a home seems an obvious target.

On the community side, restoring probation’s place as a primarily local agency looks inevitable. While a recent report from the House of Lords Justice committee cautioned against yet more large-scale restructuring in the coming years, it’s call for much stronger links between probation and local treatment and other social services in fact argues for just that.

A new government could also alter the ways funds are made available for criminal justice services in order to create stronger incentives for local agencies to prevent crime and reduce imprisonment.  At a macro level, with two proposed new prisons struggling to get planning permission, some of the funds earmarked for more custodial places could be switched to strengthen capacity in the community – hostels, restorative justice programmes and women’s centres would all benefit from expansion.

At a micro level, if localised multi agency probation services succeed in keeping people out of prison, a proportion of the costs they have saved could be transferred to them. Creating such a virtuous spending cycle would help further enhance the way local communities can safely supervise and reintegrate people outside prison. A new Criminal Justice Board could be set up in law to monitor the system as a whole, working alongside the current inspectorates. 

A further measure would be to revisit the role of the Sentencing Council whose guidelines were in part originally intended to keep a lid on the prison population. It hasn’t achieved that in part because  New Labour backtracked on explicitly linking sentencing levels with available resources, in part because courts have found ways to sentence more and more harshly.  Requiring government to submit its criminal justice proposals for independent scrutiny by the Council could bring down sentence inflation as could a more rigorous obligation on courts to follow the guidelines.  

A College of Policing review published last month found that on average, custodial sanctions increased reoffending compared to noncustodial sanctions. It said that “it is likely that individuals who are in custodial settings are more exposed to risk factors associated with criminal activity and behaviour and have less access to protective factors to protect them from this behaviour”.  

There are strong reasons for looking to drive down the numbers who go to prison and drive up the standards for those who do go. Let’s hope a new government has a plan to make it happen.

Sunday 24 December 2023

A Year in Youth Custody


2023 has been yet another dispiriting year for most of the children in custody in Young Offender Institutions (YOI) and the one remaining Secure Training Centre (STC). Prison Inspector Charlie Taylor reported that “many spend most of their sentence locked up alone in their cell with very little human contact. Despite employing hundreds of staff and dozens of managers, most sites are unable to deliver one meaningful conversation with each child a week”. 

In April he found “a complete breakdown of behaviour management” at Cookham Wood YOI to the point where there was widespread weapon making and six months later reported that systems for safeguarding  children at Werrington YOI were in disarray. Over the last 12 months, almost 900 safeguarding referrals have been made about children in custody whose wellbeing has been a cause of concern.  

Parc YOI in South Wales has been an exception to this dismal picture and  Oakhill STC has seen “a tangible change in culture, with children being recognised and treated as children first and foremost”.  But the number of incidents of violence and aggression at Oakhill was still impacting on children’s day-to-day experiences.

Thanks to parliamentary questions by Labour’s energetic new Shadow Minister Janet Daby, we have learned that almost 18% of staff in the youth custody estate have left over the last year– in 2010 the rate was 5%.  This year, the Minister for Prisons, Parole and Probation made only three site visits to youth secure establishments;  the Secretary of State for Justice and the Chief Executive of HMPPS did not make any at all. 

But what about Secure Childrens Homes (SCH) , the third type of closed setting in which young people on remand and under sentence can be held?

As has usually been the case, inspection reports have mostly been good. This year Ofsted found the overall experience of children to be inadequate in one SCH largely because of the inappropriate use of restraint; and requiring improvement in another where all new staff were not always subject to the full range of pre-employment checks such as references. Despite these problems, given the generally more positive performance of SCH’s it's surprising that the number of children placed by the Youth Custody Service (YCS) in secure homes has decreased so much in recent years from 146 on 31 March 2012 to 56 this year. This is despite the YCS commissioning 101 places. Ms Daby should explore why this is the case.

In the spring, after countless delays, the secure estate should be augmented by the 49 place Secure School. The prisons minister told Ms Daby that Secure Schools are a new, innovative approach, and “it is important that we take the time to get it right”.  The government has certainly been doing that as the commitment to develop two Schools was made more than seven years ago.

There’s a good deal of uncertainty about the detail of what Oasis Restore will provide at the Medway site and how much it will cost. HMPPS boss Amy Rees told MPs in March that their funding agreement would be published by Oasis this Autumn, but there is only a draft on their website.

Local authorities may be interested to know how much they will be charged when a child is detained on remand there. This year, (for the first time I think), the cost of a night in a Secure Training Centre (£838) exceeded that in a Secure Childrens Home (£834).

Another issue to probe in the New Year.