Thursday 23 November 2023

Improving Fire Safety in Prisons: The Need for Better Scrutiny


There’s rightly mounting anger and concern about declining safety in prisons with latest statistics showing increases in self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and serious assaults.  Too often neglected is a further dimension of safety - that which relates to fires.

Data released separately about casualties resulting from fires shows that there was one “fatality” and 105 “non-fatal casualties” in custodial establishments in England in the last financial year.  The fatality was the sixth in a prison fire since 2011-12.

The numbers of non-fatal casualties have shown a welcome fall since 2015-16 but there is no reason  for complacency. As we have known since the summer, Fire and Rescue Services attended 1,012 incidents in English prisons last year up 20% on 2021/22. 21 incidents were also recorded in what are referred to as Young Offender Units, up from 11 the year before.  Many more fires are started without the need for the Fire Service to attend. 

The reduction in casualties may reflect greater attention being given to addressing fire risks by the prison service.  The 2021 Prison Strategy White paper promised to “Build on our work to reduce the harm caused by prisoners starting fires, with the aim of equipping all prison cells with automatic fire alarm systems”. A revised Prison Service Instruction on Fire Safety was introduced in March 2022.

Last year however, the Prison service admitted that 35,000 prison places did not meet fire safety standards. They were aiming to bring 7,000 of these up to standard by March 2023. But according to their 2021 correspondence with the Coroner following the last fire related death in prison (in 2019) the overall improvement programme was not forecast to be finished until 2026-2028. There has been no update on progress that I have seen.

There is clearly a lot of work going on. Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk told MPs in July this year that the reason for about 1,500 cells being out of action was “principally about dealing with our statutory fire obligations.”  It is important that the commitment to meet those obligations is not watered down during a period of intense demand for prison places.  

The body that scrutinises what the Prison service is doing is the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate (CPFSI). It is a Home Office body responsible for ensuring compliance with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in 16,000 government buildings. According to its last Annual Report it has just 12 staff.  It’s little wonder that they have yet to produce an Annual Report for 2021-22 let alone 2022-23.

The CPFSI has a Memorandum of Understanding with HM Inspectorate of Prisons which reads as if its main purpose is to ensure the organisations keep out of each other’s way. 

But maybe now is the time for Charlie Taylor to take over responsibility for assessing fire safety as part of his remit as Chief Inspector of Prisons; and for the MoJ to publish data on fire safety to broaden the way the performance of prisons can be assessed. It's too important to leave out of the picture. 

Thursday 9 November 2023

Postponements or Cancellations?


Along with others, I was due to give evidence to the Justice Committee on Tuesday about prison estate capacity. The hearing was called off because the Committee could not muster a quorum of three MPs to take part. It’s not clear if it’s postponed or cancelled.

Most of the committee members probably preferred to enjoy the yah- boo politics that followed the King’s Speech in the main chamber. Conservatives may have thought that a day about pre-election messaging wasn’t the right time for a serious look at what amounts to something of a public policy fiasco. Labour MPs may not have known what line to take. The hearing would have asked whether the government could have done more to prevent the current overcrowding crisis, its consequences for safety, and for mental health and what recently announced measures will do to fix the problem.  

With hindsight, it was daft to schedule the meeting for the first afternoon of the new Parliament, not least because of the raft of relevant measures announced that very morning. But putting off the hearing symbolises how legislators’ seemingly boundless enthusiasm for a greater use of imprisonment often sits alongside a studied indifference to whether and how it is carried out.

It wasn’t the only postponement this week. The decision on whether to grant planning permission for new builds next to existing prisons in Leicestershire and Buckinghamshire were due to be announced by DLUHC on Wednesday.  We’ll seemingly have to wait another month to find out how helpful Michael Gove will be to his old department. It’s a potential further delay or worse to the achievement of the 20,000 new places hitherto deemed necessary to accommodate the estimated growth in the prison population.

Perhaps it’s the recognition on the part of Justice Ministers that the 20,000 target is unachievable which has led them to temper their tough policy with a more twin track approach. The result could well be a revision downward of that projected growth in the number of prisoners.

Yes, perpetrators of the very worst offences will serve longer periods in prison but the numbers are thankfully small. Plans for those convicted of rape to serve every day of their sentence behind bars will affect more. It brings in  for this offence at least the so called “honesty in sentencing” approach first proposed by Michael Howard almost 30 years ago in the Prison Works era.

But for many other categories of offences, extending the range of prisoners who can spend up to the last six months of their sentence at home with an electronic tag and encouraging the suspension of short jail terms will bring down demand for places, maybe substantially. We’ll have to wait for the impact assessments when the Sentencing Bill is published to see what the net outcomes might be.

In the longer term much will depend on whether it's the more punitive response to the most serious offenders which will pull sentencing levels up more widely or if the more lenient approach to less serious ones will push the "going rate" down.   

Despite the short term reduction in demand for prison places, it is likely that continuing concerns about running out of space led to the cancellation of plans floated recently for automatic prison sentences for repeat shoplifters and those convicted of various other crimes. These would almost certainly have wiped out the gains in prison space from tagging and suspension and made the government's penal policy look impossibly incoherent. 

But it's distinctly possible that these measures have merely been postponed until next year’s Conservative election manifesto.




Saturday 28 October 2023

Humane Corrections: What More Can We Do?


Lots to learn at this week’s annual conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association in Belgium- including for me that Anvers and Antwerp are one and the same place. 900 people from 70 countries exchanged knowledge, views and some at least colds in a lively, varied and well organised event.

I’m not sure that Humane Corrections: What more can we do? was the ideal theme for the US exhibitor looking to sell delegates electrical weapons (albeit low voltage) to prevent escapes and assaults. But the conference programme as a whole included many positive and thought provoking experiences from across the globe on how to use prisons less, organise them more compassionately and prevent people going back after release. 

Some of the most impressive involved efforts to overcome huge challenges of congestion and understaffing to improve healthcare and human rights compliance in Africa;  and to keep the system functioning in Ukraine where 11 prisons have been wholly or partly destroyed since the Russian invasion. There were some encouraging signs of innovation in richer and more stable countries too, despite the often populist and punitive political climates, (referred to by Belgium’s brand new Justice Minister in his opening remarks).

So what were my takeaways from the event?

On using prison as a last resort, we were reminded that the expansion of probation and similar services by no means guarantees a reduction in the use of prison; and that community corrections impose burdens on people subject to them which can often be underestimated. Innovative ways of getting legal aid to people in prison who might be eligible for release may be a more direct way to reduce overcrowding in low income countries.

As for prisons themselves, small scale detention houses for young people (in Germany) and adults in Belgium seek to provide a normal living experience for residents, achieving security through staff relationships, resolving conflicts by discussion and promoting community reintegration. Such a model is costly up front but not long term if it prevents recidivism. But do the residents need to be locked up at all? There’s much in common with a halfway house approach although applied at the start rather than the end of a sentence. Promoted by Rescaled, the movement  is well worth watching, not least for its focus on ecology and sustainability.

A similar philosophy lies behind the new Brussels prison at Haren which is trying to create a fairly open regime for a mainstream, non-selected and more difficult population. Small living units of 30 people, a softer approach through personal officers and giving prisoners the regime they can handle as soon as possible mark it out from the three prisons it has replaced.

In neighbouring Netherlands, efforts are underway to humanise even deeper forms of custody by reforming solitary confinement  on the back of  an independent study – an excellent example of open and transparent engagement with research. Impressive too are Dutch efforts to improve the quality of food for prisoners and extending opportunities for them to be involved in preparing it.

There was not such good news about how people come out of prison.  Questions were raised about the proper role of individual risk assessment in determining whether someone should be released early, notwithstanding its crucial role in deciding how best they should be managed once back in the community. Sadly, lack of suitable and stable accommodation all too often undermines successful reintegration efforts, not least in the UK. We can look forward to inspiration on this at next year’s event in Singapore, a global pioneer in second chance programmes involving a wide range of government, civil society and private sector partners.

Such organisations were reasonably well represented in Antwerp, with an impressive keynote from Penal Reform International setting the scene for the deliberations and important contributions from the ICRC, and from a US advocate promoting voting rights for prisoners. It was heartening to see UK NGO One Small Thing win the ICPA President’s award.

But to answer the Conference’s question, more can be done to give a voice to people who have themselves been in prison. Not just of course at an event like this where there was some but perhaps not enough. But in the development of policies, practices and oversight relating to people in conflict with the law.


Monday 16 October 2023

Prison Capacity: Two Oddities


Lots of historical precedents for Alex Chalk’s policy manoeuvrings today. William Whitelaw introducing short sharp shock detention centres to offset more generous parole arrangements came to my mind.  And two oddities in Chalk's speech have stuck there.

First his totally false claim that the reason the prison population is nearly double the level it was three decades ago “is not principally because of the growth in the sentenced population”.

The Ministry of Justice wrote three years ago that “virtually all of the prison population increase since 1993 has been due to the increased number of prisoners sentenced to immediate custody.”

I’m genuinely puzzled why Chalk either doesn’t know this or if he does why he would wish to mislead Parliament about it. And why civil servants would allow him to say something which is factually untrue.

Second his wheeze on early release. He told MPs he’s decided to use the power in section 248 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to allow the Prison Service to move some less serious offenders out of prison on to licence up to 18 days before their automatic release date. This section allows the Secretary of State to release a fixed-term prisoner on licence if he is satisfied that exceptional circumstances exist which justify the prisoner’s release on compassionate grounds. Explanatory notes say that the kind of exceptional circumstances are where the prisoner is suffering from a terminal illness.

I wonder if it’s even lawful to use the power in the way he now wants to.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Prison Places : Emergency Measures and Long Term Sustainability


I’m currently involved in work on a strategy to prevent and combat prison overcrowding. Its themes are familiar enough - keeping people out of prison through more diversion, less pre-trial detention, and better community based sanctions; encouraging shorter and more consistent sentences; and developing opportunities for safe and, where necessary supervised, early release.  

Yes, there’s a strand on developing the prison estate, but much more focus is on reducing demand for prison places than increasing their supply – and on the need for better planning and coordination across the criminal justice system.  

Needless to say the work is not in the UK but in Eastern Europe. But as England and Wales runs out of prison space, the strategy could be useful closer to home once it’s finalised next month.

None of the short- term options for the government here to deal with the crisis they face are palatable. The one announced so far- delaying sentencing people who have been on bail -must look the least bad and should produce an immediate impact on receptions in prison. If that happens, in some cases it might be possible for the Probation service to use the time to fashion a community based sentence that avoids the need for prison altogether.

What else could be done? About a thousand people a month enter prison serving sentences of six months or less. Suspending more short sentences could reduce demand in local prisons. But many short term prisoners have long histories of offending and have, for whatever reason, not responded well to community supervision.

One reason may be the parlous state of probation which, like the prison service to which it is nowadays organisationally yoked, is lacking staff, and performing poorly.  Electronic tagging too has failed to fulfil its potential and has faced some logistical problems.  Despite this, making yet more prisoners eligible for Home Detention Curfew at the end of their sentence could be on the cards.  

Freeing prisoners a few weeks early would certainly create headroom and Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk may have to announce it when he faces MPs on Monday. But he will be reluctant to reintroduce anything too much like Labour’s End of Custody Licence which from 2007-10 gave prisoners serving less than four years a further 18 days off the length of their sentence. The Conservatives said at the time the scheme  “risks public safety, sends the wrong message to criminals and further undermines confidence in sentencing”. But it freed up 1,200 much needed places.

Other countries use a range of measures to reduce prison pressures, most of which one can’t see working here. The Coronation in May would have been the time for an amnesty of some kind but I dare say it didn’t cross anyone’s mind. In 2012 Brazil gave prisoners the chance to cut their sentence by 48 days if they read 12 works of literature. But administering any schemes which directly reward individual prisoners with time off for work, education or rehabilitation can give rise to unfairness and take up staff time.

Norway used to allow certain prisoners to wait at home before starting to serve their sentence- the so called queuing system. Research found it allowed prisoners to prepare for their imprisonment, but they suffered uncertainty and powerlessness. Political pressure to end the queue led to the deal to rent space abroad which Chalk quoted in last week’s surprise announcement of a similar plan here.   

Whatever steps are taken to get through the immediate crisis, a more sustainable approach is surely needed for the future.

Labour’s answer in 2007 was the Sentencing Council which it hoped “would provide a more effective, integrated and transparent planning mechanism that reconciles prison capacity with criminal justice policy.” That role was effectively removed from its mandate, and it has done little to slow the seemingly inexorable process of sentence inflation. It needs to play a much more leading role in doing so.

Greater sustainability could also be achieved through Justice Reinvestment - a more devolved approach to the organisation and funding of prison and probation which incentivises local agencies and organisations to prevent crime and reduce demand for imprisonment.   The House of Commons Justice Select Committee produced an excellent report on it 2009 which argued that “the prison population could be safely capped at current levels and then reduced over a specified period to a safe and manageable level likely to be about two thirds of the current population.”

Whoever forms the next government should dust it off.




Tuesday 3 October 2023

Unfree Movement of People


I’m not surprised by much in penal policy but today’s plan to rent prison space abroad is astonishing in many ways.

Politically, the headline “Foreign prison rental to ensure public protection”, appears to make safety contingent on the availability of cells overseas- an odd position for a tough on crime party which its opponents are bound to seize on.  

After all, the commitment is to “enter exploratory discussions with potential partner countries in Europe” about as far as you can get from a done deal. Necessary laws will be passed as soon as parliamentary time allows, usually code for some time /never.

Administratively, negotiating the arrangements will be fiendishly difficult. How will prisoners be chosen, whose laws will apply to their imprisonment, what systems of complaints and inspection will be in place?

If the scheme ever did get off the ground how would host state prisons ensure rehabilitation, prevent linguistic and cultural isolation, and enable contact to be maintained with families? And then there’s the costs.

It smacks of desperation born of planning delays for three proposed new prisons and an unwillingness to contemplate the kind of emergency early release programme which the last Labour government were forced to introduce in 2007. It marks a spectacular failure on the part of the Justice Ministry and arguably of the Sentencing Council whose original purpose was to help align supply and demand for prison places.

A few days after the Chief Inspector called for the closure of one in ten prisons in England and Wales, there will be wry smiles as Europeans read that Brits would be moved to their country’s jails only if they meet British standards. They’ll be asking if they have any poor enough to pass the test.

Friday 29 September 2023

New Prisons Update


The government’s stock response to the recent flurry of interest in the state of prisons is that they are in the midst of building 20,000 modern new places which will ease population pressures and raise standards.

Parliament’s Justice Committee will be providing welcome scrutiny to their plans in a new inquiry, which will be asking if the commitment to deliver the new places by the mid-2020s is achievable and sufficient to manage projected demand.

There is certainly progress with HMPs Five Wells and Fosse way up and running and HMP Millsike being built. But the Guardian reports today that the 20,000 new places will not be available until 2030.

Decisions about three proposed new builds are still in the balance.  Earlier this month, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove was due to decide on appeals by the Ministry of Justice against planning refusals in Leicestershire and Buckinghamshire. Inspectors have reportedly given Gove the evidence from their hearings about the proposed new 1,715 place category B prison at Gartree and the 1,468 place category C prison near Grendon. But more time is needed to reach a decision in each case. They are now promised by 8 November.

As for the 1,715 place Category C prison on land next to Garth and Wymott prisons in Lancashire, an inquiry was due to resume on 19 September to consider whether hazards and risks within the local road network had been acceptably addressed. But the planning inspector who oversaw the earlier stages of the inquiry became unavailable for personal reasons, so the timescale has slipped.   

The back up possibility of using the old RAF site at Wethersfield in Essex looks unlikely. The Home Office have got in there first, with 94 asylum seekers held there at the end of August with plans for 1,700.   Braintree District Council in Essex are due to challenge the plans in the High Court on 31 October.

The Justice Committee will be looking not only at proposed new builds but planned expansion in existing prisons, the introduction of Rapid Deployment Cells and the use of Police cells under Operation Safeguard.  

Importantly too they will look at the resources required to manage prisons safely and effectively and the impact of an ageing infrastructure particularly in Victorian prisons.  It’s an important and overdue piece of work.