Friday 12 July 2024

Fire Alarm


One of the most troubling findings in today’s Independent Monitoring Report (IMB) on HMP Lowdham Grange is the huge increase in cell fires started by prisoners. In the 12 months to February 2024, 162 were recorded, compared to just 21 in the preceding 12 months.

As the local watchdog says

In-cell fires put the prisoner, staff and other prisoners at significant risk of harm, and cause damage to cells, which is expensive to repair. The Board understands that each fire requires the Fire Service to attend as an emergency, and this increase has placed considerable pressure on local resources.

The report notes that on one occasion last summer, “25 prisoners refused to lock up to allow fire officers to enter the wing where a fire had been set”. This was symptomatic of a loss of control at the Category B Nottinghamshire prison where in September prisoners returned to their cells only after the ‘Riot Act’ was read to them on two successive nights.

Rising violence, self- harm and drug use – by the end of the year more than half of mandatory drug tests were positive- have reflected in part changes in the management of the prison. Sodexo took over the running of the prison from Serco in February 2023 but were unable to do so safely. The public prison service (HMPPS) stepped in in December and has been running it since.

The Prison Inspectorate  found early evidence in January that “actions taken since step-in had begun to improve safety and reduce protesting behaviour”. When HMPPS took over, they found the largest number of weapons ever recorded in one lock down search.

As for fires, although there were none recorded in December 2023, today’s report notes that in January 2024 – the month after the step in- there were 21.

Data released in May shows that Lowdham Grange had the most fires of all the prisons in England and Wales in the last calendar year.  Across the prison estate, 2,287 fires were recorded in 2023, 62% more than in 2022.

Then Prison Minister Ed Argar wrote that  

the overwhelming majority of the cell fires in prisons are classified as small and are quickly dealt with by staff. All prisons have an Arson Reduction Strategy which includes measures for managing prisoners who are known to present a risk of fire setting: these measures include strategic cell location, and control of access to ignition sources and combustible materials.

Current pressures on prison capacity are likely to impact the opportunities of strategic cell location. As for combustible materials , the IMB in another prison, Hindley, whose annual report was published this week, expressed concern that:

whilst the misting/sprinkler system deployed in the cell has been successful to date, it is only effective if the volume of combustible items within the cell are controlled. The Board have been aware of examples this year where prohibited items such as extra mattresses, electrical items (i.e. microwave and a heater) have been found in cells. In addition, some cells have a build-up of litter and other combustible materials deposited in the window grills. Much of this is plastic which if ignited will potentially produce dangerous gases with associated risk outcomes.

Argar promised in May that during this financial year the prison service will introduce an ignition-free Safer Vape Pen to replace the existing product, which is the source of approximately 80 per cent of fires set. While his successor James Timpson has a lot on his plate, he should ensure that this is done as a priority. Both the Inspectorate of Prisons and the IMB’s should also routinely scrutinise the data on fires in the prisons they monitor along with the measures in place to reduce and respond to them.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Intermediate Treatment


Not surprisingly, we’re seeing a plethora of proposals for new Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood about how to solve the prison crisis. If I was in her job, I’d be particularly attracted to the Howard League’s idea of returning responsibility for prisons and probation to the Home Office. But I think that’s unlikely and undesirable. Peter Hennessey rightly described the Home Office as the graveyard of liberal thinking since the days of Lord Sidmouth.

Most of the suggestions being floated by think tanks, charities and experts focus on reducing demand for prison places in the short term through early release. Implicit in many proposals is the notion that when the 20,000 new prison places are up and running in a few years’ time, some sort of equilibrium will be restored between supply and demand.

I’ve argued that a new way of developing policy about  who should go to prison and for how long, distanced from party political competition, might reverse the sharp rises in the custodial sentencing rate and length of prison terms we’ve seen in the last 14 years.

In addition we need to diversify the range of options that can be used as alternatives to prison.

Some of these are institutional alternatives. Many people in prison should be in hospital but thresholds for transfer and waiting times are both too high. The Justice Select Committee asked then Prisons minister Ed Argar about the number of available secure hospital beds for prisoners but doesn’t seem to have received a reply. There are simply not enough. 

Other prisoners could potentially be transferred to residential treatment facilities which are being expanded as part of the 10 year Drug Strategy.   

Other options include hostels and other supervised accommodation. From 2019 to 2023 the Approved Premise Expansion Programme delivered 169 additional beds, including opening 4 new Independent Approved Premises (83 beds) and 51 additional beds in dedicated premises for women.  But there’s a case for a much more ambitious increase in half way houses. It could be paid for by paring back the prison building plans to say 15,000.

Back in 2001, the sentencing review carried out by senior Civil Servant John Halliday recommended that the Home Office- they were responsible back then- should

“establish a review of the existing “intermediate estate” for accommodating and managing offenders in the community, with the aim of developing a strategic plan for its future use, staffing, management and development. The review should embrace all types of accommodation, whether owned by the prison or probation services, or the independent and voluntary sectors, and whether used for prisoners on temporary release; prisoners on conditional release; offenders serving community sentences; or ex-offenders receiving support voluntarily”.

I am not sure such a review was ever done – but it’s certainly needed now.

Three years after Halliday’s review, then Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that “satellite tracking technology could provide the basis for a 'prison without bars', potentially cutting prison overcrowding, and expensive accommodation”.  

Progress with electronic monitoring has been chequered during the intervening years. But the review should look at whether the role its currently playing is optimal or whether it can serve to manage security risks for people placed in non-secure accommodation- what Halliday called “containment in the community”.

 As well as the where of alternatives to prison, there’s a need to look at the how.

Back in 1979, I started work as a volunteer in IT- not computers (there weren’t many back then) -but Intermediate Treatment. With mixed results, I spent most of the next ten years trying to keep young people out of residential care homes, detention centres, Borstals and their institutional successors.

A generous description of the approach might be “eclectic”- camping trips, sports and drama sessions as much as counselling and groupwork. One troubled young man was placed on a ship in the Caribbean for several months, and an IT officer in a neighbouring area allegedly entered a crew into the Henley Regatta.

Quirky some of it might have been, but with relatively small caseloads, we were able to fashion a wide-ranging  package of therapeutic and constructive activities for each individual which would help give them the best chance of staying at home, at school or work and out of trouble. 

Of course there are resonances with the best of the approach in youth justice and even parts of probation today.  Theres a growing recognition that relationship based practice is a key to successful supervision and desistance from crime.

Practitioners need to have the opportunity and training to put that into practice so that more offenders can serve their sentences in the community and those that leave prison don’t go back. By enabling that to happen alongside a wider range of treatment and accommodation options, Ms Mahmood may be able not only to find a solution to the immediate crisis but chart a more positive long-term course.   She will need to work with her colleagues responsible for health and local government to make it happen.  Let's hope she does.  

Wednesday 3 July 2024

Taking the Politics Out of Punishment


If the new government’s most urgent task on prisons is to navigate an immediate way through the current population crisis, they should also be considering ways to avoid a repetition in the future.

When last in power, Labour ministers reviewed how to improve the balance between the supply of prison places and demand for them.  Despite the 2007 recommendation for an effective, integrated and transparent planning mechanism that reconciles penal capacity with criminal justice policy, the institution which emerged after three years of wrangling – the Sentencing Council - has not been willing or able to fulfil that role.

Since then, Parliament and the courts have been busy willing the ends of more and longer prison sentences but not the means of enforcing them. Hence the recent flurry of measures to release prisoners early which Labour accepts it will have to keep in place in the short term if they form an administration. 

In the long term they should consider two options. First, the modest idea recommended by Parliament’s Justice Committee that policy proposals on sentencing should be subject to independent evaluation, so that the resourcing implications are recognised before they are enacted.  

When it’s introduced, most but not all criminal legislation is already accompanied by an impact assessment which estimates any need for additional prison or probation resources to implement it. The future prison population is projected annually.  So legislators know what’s coming. But knowledge of impending pressures in prisons have not stopped governments adding to them, rendering them unmanageable over the last year.

So something more is needed.  

Ten years ago, the British Academy argued that penal policy needs to be insulated from the short-term political and media pressures which so often prioritise populist initiatives over a principled and sustainable approach.  A Presumption against Imprisonment  recommended the creation of a Penal Policy Committee (PPC), accountable to Parliament, comprising wide representation and expertise. Distanced from party political competition, the PPC would develop and formulate the approach to who should go to prison and for how long.

Such an approach would take full account of the financial, social and ethical costs of prison as well as its practical availability.  The British Academy suggested that the Sentencing Council, working to a revised remit, would then be able to implement the policies on sentencing outlined by the PPC.

The Sentencing Council currently takes the view that “absent an explicit statutory remit” were it to seek, artificially and unilaterally, to raise or lower sentence levels without good cause it would rapidly lose the confidence of sentencers, the public and MPs.   Arguably within its current remit, the lack of prison places provides a good enough cause to lower sentence levels. But a new mandate would certainly be helpful    

Is this an idea whose time has come?

Within a week of winning the 1997 election, new Chancellor Gordon Brown announced the transfer of the task of setting interest rates to an independent body of experts in the Bank of England. Few now question the role of the Monetary Policy Committee. If such a body can determine fiscal policy, why not something similar in criminal justice? It should certainly be explored in Labour’s promised sentencing review.

Saturday 15 June 2024

Critical Reviews


If Labour forms the next government what will happen to sentencing and the prison population? Much will depend on the outcomes of two reviews which its manifesto says it will carry out. One is a review of sentencing “to ensure it is brought up to date.”  The other is a strategic review of probation governance, “including considering the benefits of devolved models.” The terms of reference for each of these and who does them and how quickly, could determine the penal direction of Starmer’s premiership.

On sentencing, Labour think that when criminals are found guilty, “the sentences they receive often do not make sense either to victims or the wider public. This is particularly worrying for offences against women and girls”. They aren’t clear whether their review will focus only on such offences or take a broader look at sentencing levels across the board.

Either way, given that “tough new penalties for offenders” are seen as one of the measures Labour hyperbolically deem necessary to “take back our streets”, there is a risk that the review will simply lead to more people going to prison for longer through increased maximum sentence lengths.

What’s surely needed is a genuine and dispassionate assessment of sentences and their enforcement and of what needs to be done to ensure that they make sense to victims and the public apart from making them harsher. 

For one thing prisons can’t cope with more sentence inflation and Labour’s plans to increase capacity look unconvincing. More fundamentally, the prison population rate in England and Wales (and Scotland) is already very high. The latest Council of Europe statistics find they are the only jurisdictions in Western Europe with a rate more than 25% higher than the median value in CoE countries. Let’s hope the review takes account of the financial, social and ethical costs of imprisonment as well as superficial views of what the public say they want.

Why not ask the Sentencing Council to do it rather than civil servants? It would provide an element of independence which might prevent the review coming to an entirely foregone conclusion. The last sentencing review conducted by civil servants before the 2019 election was a travesty, involving no research or evidence paper, no meaningful consultation and no outcome published. When I tried to get a copy a judge ruled that “publication would present  a significant risk of undermining the confidential space needed by the MOJ to discuss and formulate policy in this controversial area”. The decisions taken after that review - to increase the proportion of sentences served in prison for sexual and violent offenders- led in part to the prospect of an unmanageable prison population. Let’s hope we don’t go further down that dismal road.

As for the strategic review of probation governance, the mood music is considerably better. The former Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell (a one-time Labour staffer) wrote last year that “the time has come for an independent review of whether probation should move back to a more local form of governance and control, building on the highly successful lessons of youth justice services.”

On this I’d like to see a broader look at the case for a more integrated local response to supervision in the community. Why not Adult Offending Teams as well as YOT’s? A more genuine effort to meet the needs of people on probation would almost certainly lead to less re-offending and recall- although the review could usefully look again at the desirability of imposing breachable supervision following all short sentences.

Consideration of the benefits of devolution could even include building in more local responsibility for the funding of prisons through so-called Justice Reinvestment.

If Russell is interested and available, could he be the person to lead the review?




Thursday 30 May 2024

Which Prisoners can Vote on 4 July?


The General Election on 4 July 2024 is the second since the UK settled the prisoner voting cases in the European Court of Human Rights. In the Hirst group of cases, the Court found that the blanket, automatic restriction on all convicted prisoners voting in parliamentary elections violated Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights which requires that elections ensure the free expression of the opinion of the electorate in the choice of the legislature. 

After years of toing and froing, in November 2017 then Justice Secretary David Lidington somehow managed to satisfy the Council of Europe that some very minimal administrative reforms brought the UK into compliance. Voting rights were extended to prisoners released on temporary licence (so-called ROTL) who are in the community on the date of an election. Lidington estimated this would affect up to 100 convicted prisoners but at the time of the 2019 election I thought the number might in practice be at the low end of the range.

This will be the first General Election since the Prison Service published its “Restrictions on Prisoner Voting Policy Framework” in 2020 which sought to clarify the position. So where does this leave prisoners’ rights to vote on 4 July?

As before the Hirst cases, remand prisoners (both untried and convicted but unsentenced) will be eligible to vote- there were 16,458 at the end of March 2024 (considerably more than the 9,512 at the end of September 2019).  

Prisoners released under Home Detention Curfew (2,169 at the end of last week) also have the right to vote as do those detained for matters such as non-payment of council tax or contempt of court. There were 412 non- criminal prisoners at the end of March, but the figure may include people held under the Immigration Act who do not qualify to vote.  The small number of fine defaulters in jail are to be also able to vote if they wish.

To get an idea of the numbers subject to release on temporary licence who may be eligible to vote, 4,500 individual prisoners were on ROTL at some point during the last three months of 2023, but the numbers in the community on the dates necessary to register and to vote will be much lower- hence Lidington’s estimate of less than 100.  

In addition, there are an unknown number of prisoners in the community subject to end of custody supervised licence, the emergency early release provision introduced and extended to cope with overcrowding pressures. As things stand, they seem ineligible to vote but arguably should be allowed to.  

Eligibility is of course only one part of the story. In order to cast their ballot, an eligible prisoner must register to vote, in this case by 18 June. Some may already be registered. For those who wish to register, the Prison policy makes clear that “no convicted prisoner can register to vote when they are in prison, including those who anticipate being on HDC or ROTL at the time of an election. Prisoners on HDC or ROTL are only eligible to register to vote once they are in the community and become ineligible again upon any return to prison”.

As for where they register vote, some eligible prisoners may be able to register to vote at their home address, others by making a declaration of local connection based on having a significant link to a particular locality. Eligible prisoners may be able to register to vote giving the address of the prison establishment where they are held, but this does not apply to prisoners on HDC and ROTL. Whether or not prisoners are able to register in these ways will be subject to the discretion of Electoral Registration Officers, the Council officials who maintain the electoral roll.

Once these hurdles are crossed, there is the voting itself. Convicted prisoners on HDC and ROTL who have registered can vote in the normal way or apply for a postal or proxy vote. Remand, civil prisoners and fine defaulters can apply to vote by post or by proxy from prison. Staff should ensure relevant application forms for absent voting are available to prisoners if requested.

There is nothing in the Policy Framework about whether prisoners can vote in person in prison. There is a strong case for the ERO to make such arrangements, particularly in prisons with large numbers of remand prisoners. Wandsworth has more than 600 remand prisoners. I’d be interested to know the practice.

For those interested in the topic, a useful article on The Administrative Disenfranchisement of Prisoners in England and Wales was published in the Prison Service Journal last year.

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.