Sunday 19 May 2024

A School and a Prison


In the famous words of Victor Hugo, “he who opens a school door closes a prison”. What would he have made of Oasis Restore the first secure school formally opened this week and soon to take its first detainees /pupils? After all it’s both an educational and custodial institution, but one which for Oasis founder Steve Chalke represents "a revolution in youth justice. 

Its more than eight years since Prime Minister David Cameron talked of turning existing Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) into high quality schools, and five years since Oasis won the tender to run the first of them. Delays have resulted from the need to put the right legal arrangements in place – even now there’s legislation going through Parliament - and to spend upwards of £40 million to remodel the old Secure Training Centre at Medway.

In the meantime, existing YOIs and STC’s have for the most part struggled badly with Rainsbrook STC closing in 2021 and Cookham Wood YOI this year, urgently justifying the case for a new approach.

Secure Childrens Homes (SCH) have fared much better. To my mind, expanding conventional SCH places might have been a more cost effective, quicker, and less risky option than creating an entirely new hybrid model delivered by an organisation with no experience of running secure care. But we are where we are.

While there’s much to applaud in the educational and therapeutic aspirations of those involved, the Medway Secure School follows in a long line of institutions that have promised to turn around the lives of the most troubled and troublesome young people yet mostly failed to do so.  The road to penal hell is paved with good intentions. But we should all wish the Secure School well as it offers the possibility at least of a much more humane and less punitive approach to young people. But there are questions.

First is too much being made of the “revolutionary” approach being adopted? It’s reported for example that there are “teachers rather than guards.”  But of course there are specific officers to maintain and support the safety and security of the academy.  According to the Oasis proposal to run the school, “should restraint be needed; security guards will do this safely and with the least amount of restriction as possible.” Good that they minimise the use of force but let’s not pretend there are no guards. The normalised use of physical restraint has probably been the single biggest shortcoming in Secure Training Centres so the School must find safe ways of managing very volatile young people.  An ethos of “relentless love” and “healing” may not be enough.

Second, what is the core approach of the Secure School? Maybe it’s me but despite the many positive and constructive values espoused by Oasis on their website and in their proposal, what’s at the heart of the Secure School seems a bit elusive. Chalke says the core principle behind it “is an unshakeable commitment to the belief that the only way to create positive change for the young people we serve, as well as to make our streets and communities safer, is to ensure that restoration sits at the very heart of the youth custodial system.”  

What does that mean in practice? Who is restoring what to whom? To the young people, those they have harmed, their families? Time will tell.   

Third, how will we know what’s going on? According to an Assurance Handbook, conventional contract management won’t be applied with an approach instead “which accords more autonomy, provides integrated services, and assesses outcomes holistically and takes a collaborative problem-solving approach to continuous improvement”. That’s taking a lot on trust.

On the other hand, OFSTED will inspect twice a year though there’s no role for the Prisons Inspectorate. An evaluation strategy is supposed to be in place at least six months before opening, looking at safety and the indicators that contribute to reduced reoffending, for example, progress in education, intervention delivery and the quality of staff-student relationships.

It should also look at the extent to which the School is turning down referrals. As a type of Secure Childrens Home, Oasis Restore may refuse placements of children they consider “inappropriate." Persistent refusal of placements could however be considered a breach of the provisions of the Funding Agreement for which Ministry of Justice could issue a termination warning notice. Chalke says, “there are no exclusions from here”, but this issue will need to be monitored carefully. So too will the quality of care provided for the small number of girls likely to be accomodated. 

Self- styled revolutions are no guarantors of a better world. In a related field, the “Rehabilitation Revolution” produced the shambles of privatisation from which the probation service has yet to recover.

As for the Secure School, I’m cautiously optimistic that its small scale, the values driven approach of the staff and the goodwill behind the initiative will serve it and the young people well. But we cannot take it for granted.

Thursday 16 May 2024

What should a Labour Government do on Youth Justice?

Reshaping the approach to offending by young people formed an important strand of New Labour’s domestic policy agenda from 1997-2010. This was based on the idea that an effective response to children and young people in trouble can prevent them going on to a life of crime and therefore contribute not only to a safer society but reduced spending on justice and prisons in the long term.

While the national Youth Justice Board (YJB) and local Youth Offending Teams (YOT) are still in place to provide a constructive multi-disciplinary approach to children who offend, services available from police, local authorities and the NHS has been hard hit. The YJB and YOTs need to be relaunched and re-energised if they are to effectively meet the challenges facing an incoming government. The system of closed institutions for the most serious and persistent young offenders has been in crisis for much of the period since 2010 and requires urgent and sustained attention. 

The Labour Party has announced that reforming services for young people will be the focus of a major cross-departmental initiative, Young Futures, if it wins the next election. Key to that will be an investment in the recruitment, retention and capacity building of staff working with young people in trouble, making use of the growing evidence base put together by the Youth Endowment Foundation. Providing opportunities for mentoring and therapeutic work must be as central to any self-styled crackdown as greater enforcement and punishment.

There are six key areas for development

 1) Promoting Best Practice in Prevention and Diversion

The evidence is clear that wherever possible children should be kept out of the formal justice system as much as possible because of the negative impact which arrest, court processing and sentences can have.  There has been a welcome fall in the numbers of entrants to the youth justice system but the way that this has been achieved and the kinds of alternative approaches used in response to youth crime and anti-social behaviour vary enormously across England and Wales. Identifying, promoting, and implementing the most effective forms of diversionary and restorative activity to offer is an important priority. So too is ensuring that practitioners in the police, youth offending services and other agencies are properly trained to deliver these activities.

2) Reducing the time from Arrest to Sentence

One of New Labour’s 1997 pledges was to halve the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders. The target was met by 2001 but delays have crept back into the youth justice process despite the big fall in numbers prosecuted.  While these reflect well known problems in the system as a whole, priority should be given to speeding up cases involving children and young people.

3 Professionalising Youth Justice

Youth Justice suffers from the paradox that crime committed by children is of great political and social concern, yet its practitioners lack professional recognition. This lack of recognition affects their status and identity with other relevant professionals such as teachers and the wider public. To fix this, investment is needed in the provision of appropriate training and skill development and exploration of the scope for professional accreditation or registration.

4 Promoting Relationship Based Practice with young people in trouble

Research on what works in managing children who offend has found an increasing emphasis on the importance of how practitioners work with young people. Child First and Trauma Informed Practice have strong adherents, but a more overarching and comprehensive framework of evidence based practice is needed to engage the range of professions and agencies working with young people in trouble in the community, residential care, and secure settings. Relationship based practice provides such a framework and should be encouraged across the piece. It involves attitudes – such as being open, honest, optimistic, and hopeful – and techniques like motivational interviewing, pro-social modelling and problem solving.

5 Extending the Youth Offending Team approach to Young Adults

Locally based Youth Offending Teams have proved largely effective vehicles for applying multi agency work with children who offend. Inspection reports have been mainly positive in stark contrast to those about probation services. The YOT approach would have value with older teenagers and young adults, who often do not reach adult maturity until their mid-twenties. Piloting the use of youth justice measures with this older cohort should produce better outcomes than interventions led by a probation service still struggling to recover from rapid organisational changes and unsustainable demands .

6 Transforming Training of Staff in the Custodial Estate 

The Chief Inspector prisons recently reported that Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) employ hundreds of staff, yet they barely talk to the boys in their care.  Many young people spend relatively short periods out of their rooms each day. Almost one in five staff have been leaving YOIs. Given the historically low numbers of children and young people in custody, there is scope for a major initiative to improve the education and skills of staff through distance learning supplemented by practical experience. The long awaited Secure School due to open shortly may provide a model for transforming the system as a whole, but we cannot wait for that.

Saturday 11 May 2024

What is to be Done?


It should now be clear to all that the prison system is facing a very serious operational crisis.  It’s at its most acute in local prisons like Wandsworth where the Chief Inspector, summarising his findings as death, drugs and despair, found a jail failing at the most basic level, with no reliable roll to ensure that all prisoners are accounted for and a degree of despondency he’d not seen before.

But we should be troubled too by an unnoticed local watchdog report on Long Lartin, a high security prison, where much of the existing surveillance technology is obsolete or unserviceable and the emergency control room cannot properly monitor the wings. “This limits its ability to deploy timely assistance in emergencies and seriously compromises the safety of prisoners and staff”.  

In a custodial estate of 120 prisons, there will always be a number where the challenge of too many prisoners, too few staff or crumbling infrastructure become overwhelming. As the Prison Governors Association has pointed out, the relentless and growing demand for cell space leaves almost no scope to grant temporary relief to places like Wandsworth by reducing their capacity.

Extending early release provisions and using police cells may buy the system some time but without proper resettlement support some of those let out early, may be back inside all too soon.

Probation will be “reset” to enable it to focus on its highest priorities but the National Association of Probation Officers has issued a breathless warning of “early release chaos”- and an increasing risk to public safety- without offering much in the way of alternative solutions.  

What more could be done? In the short term, there’s a need to close more tightly the entrance to the court and prison system as well as throwing opening the back door. Developing the use of Out of Court Disposals would for example reduce pressure on the magistrates courts.

Given the concentration of overcrowding in local jails, guidance from the Attorney General, Lady Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor could be issued encouraging alternatives to custodial remands whenever possible, if necessary, monitored with an electronic tag.

Larger sentencing discounts for early guilty pleas could also reduce periods spent both on remand and under sentence. The Justice Ministry are reviewing this but need to get on and act.

The Sentencing Council should expedite too the publication of their guideline on the imposition of community and custodial sentences which could result in fewer short jail terms. More urgency should be given to enacting the Sentencing Bill which would introduce a presumption that custodial sentences of 12 months or less will be suspended.

A more radical measure would be to ask courts to keep out of prison all convicted offenders who have successfully spent their remand period on bail in the community. If a custodial sentence is imposed, it  could be suspended, deferred, or postponed depending on the circumstances.

As for sentence lengths, the Sentencing Council should for most offences be asked to revise its guidelines to bring the average back down to where it was 10 years ago.  After all, most of its guidelines have not been intended to raise the “going rate” but for whatever reason that’s what’s happened with disastrous consequences for the prisons where the increased terms are served. Many of those being released early, will have served longer than they would have in the recent past.  

None of this will be politically easy and, in an election, year creating a much needed cross party consensus seems fanciful. But surely someone in Labour must recognise that the prison crisis is likely to be theirs to resolve before too long and it’s in their interest as well as the government’s to prevent it getting even worse.There are of course many reforms a new government should introduce to create a more sustainable, effective and humane justice system. But the priority now its to keep it functioning and safe.    


Tuesday 30 April 2024

Plans for More Women’s Prison Places Put on Hold

Amidst the headlong rush to build enough prison places to keep pace with demand, it’s perhaps surprising to see the UK government pause their plans to expand capacity for one group at least - women prisoners.

The Prison service told MPs yesterday that high levels of inflation over the last year have had a material impact on estimated costs. So they are taking “a responsible approach” by pausing plans to build Gender-Specific and Trauma-Informed (GSTI) accommodation at five sites. They’ve got the planning permission for three of the sites but, it seems, not the money to develop them.

The numbers of women in prisons are expected to rise from 3,649 last week to 4,200 in November 2026 but the letter to the House of Commons Justice Committee makes clear that the government wants fewer women in prison.

Latest statistics show that proportionately more of the women in prison are on remand than are men (15% v 12%) and of those sentenced, 14% are serving terms of 2 years or less compared to 7% of men. So there is hope that the projected rise in the number of women in prison – already 5 percentage points lower than it is for men- won’t come to pass.  Better community sentences and more alternative residential options could help achieve that, along with more constructive sentencing guidelines which are currently being prepared.

Halting prison expansion albeit in a small way looks like a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. The letter expresses a commitment to “exploring solutions for the complex challenges within the Criminal Justice System that deliver better outcomes for the taxpayer”. It might have been an idea to start that exploration before embarking on the plans for 20,000 new prison places for men.

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.