Tuesday, 23 December 2014

A Year in Prison

2014 opened with reports of a disturbance at Nottingham prison, the first of several  this year allegedly linked to, if not caused by, overcrowding and staff shortages in various establishments . The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) claimed in response that “all our prisons run a safe and secure regime and are staffed appropriately”.
The year ends with a stand-off between NOMS and the Howard League over the adequacy of staffing arrangements during the Christmas period, particularly in Young Offender Institutions. While the Howard League claims made on Newsnight, may be somewhat overblown, the repeated failure of the Government to acknowledge the seriousness of the problems facing  prisons has been one of the features of the year. The NOMS CEO ‘s rebuttal of the Howard League claims as complete nonsense has more than a hint of protesting too much.  Another feature of 2014 is how perhaps failing prisons are no longer news. 

What can’t be disputed are prison numbers. The prison population last week stood at 85,406, almost 400 higher than this time last year. What looks a relatively modest rise should be seen alongside a much more substantial change in the projected numbers over the next five years. Last year Justice Ministry of Justice statisticians estimated prison numbers would fall to 81,800 by 2019; this year they predicted a rise to more than 90,000.

The change is due to increasing prosecutions of sexual and violent crimes (seen as a Savile effect by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling) but other factors are likely to contribute to future trends. The largely unnecessary  Criminal Justice and Courts Bill debated this year requires 300 places in the short term and more later on. The implementation next year of the Offender Rehabilitation Act (which received Royal Assent in March) will introduce supervision for short term prisoners on release; positive effects on reoffending may be offset by greater use of custody and the risk of breach. An expected sentencing guideline on theft could also increase the use of custody.

The Government claim to be on course to end their term with more adult male prison places than they started through adding house blocks to existing establishments. The Wrexham super prison for 2,106- a Titan in all but name- received planning permission in November but will not open until 2017.  Controversial plans for a secure college for320 juveniles have yet to achieve parliamentary approval with Labour pledging to scrap the plan if they form a government in May 2015. Progress on reforming the Women’s secure estate has been slow although Lib Dem Minister Simon Hughes pledged to divert more women from the system. Decisions on how best to accommodate young adults were deferred pending a review into self-inflicted deaths in the age group chaired by Lord Harris.

The year has seen a series of critical inspection reports, increases in suicides and assaults, and a number of low level disturbances in prisons. In November, 11 prisoners were cleared of mutiny following one such incident at High Down. Most prisons have seen substantial cuts in staffing following the benchmarking exercise and in some areas the effect has been compounded by high vacancy rates and sickness levels.  A reserve bank of prison staff was created to try to fill gaps but the head of prison governors association warned in October  of a tipping point of instability. 
Prison management has not been made easier by a less favourable system of privileges  introduced in adult jails at the end of last year and a uniform 10.30 bedtime in Young Offender Institutions brought in in August.  Foreign nationals were barred from placement in open conditions. It was revealed that prisoners calls to MP’sand lawyers had been unlawfully monitored.

The summer reshuffle saw Andrew Selous eventually appointed as prisons minister after several others reportedly turneddown the job. Prisons Inspector Nick Hardwick announced he will not reapply for his job next year, unsurprisingly in view of how he has been ignored. Probation Inspector Paul McDowell appears to have ridden out a controversy about potential conflicts of interest. 
Prison reform campaigns had successes with the overturning of bans on prisoners receiving, first steel string guitars and later on  books . It was confirmed that 17 year olds should be treated as children in police custody and improvements to the operation of the courts were recommended by Lord Carlile’s committee 
Next year will see the publication of the reviews into self-inflicted deaths and open prisons; the newly privatised probation system is due to operate fully from February. It will also of course see the election. A responsible new government will have the chance to reform not only the substance of prison policybut how it is paid for.  For the longer term, a Royal Commission might be needed to chart a reasonable and sustainable future for the whole penal system. 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Who Guards the Guards?

It’s sad but not surprising that Nick Hardwick will not be seeking re-appointment when his post as Chief Inspector of Prisons is re-advertised next year. Sad because he’s consistently delivered the objective and authoritative assessments of conditions in detention which are needed more than ever in a period of declining resources and ambitious change. Not surprising because since the summer at least, when his views were swatted away by Chris Grayling on the Today programme, the Inspectorate (HMIP)  has been in something of a stand-off with the Ministry of Justice- the department that both sponsors and funds it and holds responsibility for most of the establishments it inspects.  I’ve not always agreed with   Nick’s judgements – for example in respect of young adult offenders whom he thinks are best dealt with alongside adults – but he has always based them on the evidence from the visits he and his team have made.

The news that he will stand down next year provides the chance to think about whether and how the Inspectorate’s role might be made more effective. The National Audit Office (NAO) study of inspection in justice and home affairs early next year also offers a window of opportunity for reform.

I favour three key changes- one to strengthen its independence, a second to improve its evidence base and a third designed to ensure it produces change.

First, Nick is standing down because “you can’t be independent of people you are asking for a job”.  To bring HMIP into line with international standards, it needs to be more institutionally independent- reporting to and funded by Parliament rather than the MoJ. It is a move recommended recently by the Public Administration Select Committee in their inquiry into relationships between government and arms length bodies. Perhaps  the Justice Committee could oversee the Inspectorate's  work along the lines of the Public Accounts Committee's relationship with the  NAO;  but this would need to be considered in detail.

The second change would be to broaden the scope of the Inspectorate’s work and enhance its evidence base. Lord Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector from 1995 to 2001, wanted to scrutinise prison service hq as well as the establishments; for him the failure to have a proper chain of command for, say, women’s prisons, explained the failures he encountered at Holloway and elsewhere. He had a point. Just as important, I’d like to see some more basic data collected during inspections, most importantly at the moment on staff numbers. It has been left to the Howard League to document the impact of cuts to prison staff. It’s a contested area to which the Inspectorate could bring light. So too would a more systematic and comprehensive  collection and publication of prison level   data sets on assaults, self-harm, use of segregation, IEP levels  and so on . Many reports include some of this information but a stronger quantitative focus would complement  the findings from prisoner surveys and the narrative assessments .

Finally something needs to be done to ensure that a proper response is made to the findings and recommendations – whether by the establishment, NOMS or the Ministry. I have previously suggested the power to put prisons into special measures but some in the education field argue this can make matters worse. Some kind of technical assistance and follow up is certainly needed in the most problematic cases.  It should not have been possible for HMIP this year to find that at Brinsford   “hardly any of our concerns had been addressed effectively and that in almost all respects the prison had deteriorated markedly”.  Unacceptable too  is the failure of the current secretary of state to enter a proper dialogue with HMIP on prison conditions.

There are dangers of course in opening up a debate about the future of inspection. Labour’s 2006 Police Bill tried to merge all the criminal justice inspectorates under one umbrella organisation and further attempts to do so cannot be ruled out. On that occasion, the then government in the end had to accept the argument that people deprived of their liberty enjoy (if that is the word) a unique status in a free society which requires dedicated and specialised monitoring. A future one might not see it that way.  In a book published after the 2010 election, two current members of the government were “not ashamed to say that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places”. Presumably they would not be too squeamish about weakening the way they are monitored. That is a further reason to put a greater distance between the Inspectorate and the government of the day.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Up and Down: What can be done to halt the rising prison population?

 Latest Government projections suggest the prison population will rise over the next five years rather than fall as previously thought. It’s estimated that there will be 87,700 people in prison in June next year- over 2,000 more than the 85,582 locked up in the same month  this year- and the 90,000 mark will be passed by June 2019. These estimates are substantially higher than last year’s projections- more than 10% higher in the case of the 2019 estimate.

How accurate have these projections proved to be in the past? While they have always provided a range of scenarios laden with caveats, recent predictions have not been great.    Take the estimates made for the numbers thought likely to be  in prison June 2014; the projections produced in each of the years from 2008 to 2011 overestimated what turned out to be the actual figure. But estimates produced in 2012 and 2013 were lower than what transpired. In November 2013, the statisticians thought   the prison population in June 2014 would most likely be 83,400, 2000 less than it proved to be. Had these projections been more accurate, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling might have been in less of a hurry to close the four prisons he did during the course of the year.

Yesterday’s report predicting that prison numbers will go up rather than down – apparently based on recent increases in sexual and violent offenders brought before the courts- may enable Grayling to burnish his punitive credentials as some sort of Michael Howard light. But they will sound alarm in the already pressured Prison Service bracing itself for another round of cuts. Officials will be hoping that the controversial Transforming Rehabilitation initiative will eventually reduce demand for prison places. It’s likely that in the short term however, upheaval in probation is reducing courts confidence in alternatives to prison. The introduction of community supervision after short prison sentences next year may produce a further double whammy by   making such disposals more attractive to sentencers and more liable to breach.   The Ministry of Justice estimate that 600 places will be needed for breach cases alone.  Ministers gratuitously trumpeting tough messages about the alleged value of prison and reckless plans to scrap cautions can only ratchet up the use of what is not only an undesirable but an unaffordable approach to penal policy.

What should be done instead? The British Academy recently set out a comprehensive agenda to reduce our reliance on prison through diversion, restrictions on custody, better alternatives and reduced sentence lengths. What’s needed alongside is a change of infrastructure and the way it is financed.

Some lessons might be provided by the NHS, where effective rationing of hospital beds is seen as essential if the system is not to collapse. The prison-hospital analogy- repeatedly made by Lord Ramsbotham since he became Chief Inspector of Prisons in 1995 is not perfect of course, but it seems to have increasing resonance in an era of sharply reducing resources.

In the NHS, keeping people out of hospital has become a key priority. GP’s are encouraged and incentivised to keep their patients at home wherever possible. Enhanced services are being put in place to prevent unplanned hospital admissions, care plans required for vulnerable patients. Community based infrastructure has been strengthened with community matrons organising multidisciplinary care and service hubs delivering it.  There is still much more to do. Labour has drawn attention to how political neglect of social care and a lack of investment in the sector has led to huge pressure on hospital accident and emergency departments. But the direction of travel away from institutions and into the community need to be adopted in the penal system.

Using financial incentives to pay for that journey is long overdue. In health, if emergency hospital admissions exceed what’s expected, providers receive only 30% of the usual price.  Commissioners are expected to invest the remaining 70% of the tariff income into demand management schemes which prevent inappropriate  admissions by improving patient care outside of hospital.
Analogous Justice Reinvestment approaches have been much talked about but so far little practiced. They are just the sort of methods  needed to prove the MoJ statisticians wrong and start to reduce the unnecessary use of prison.  

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Beware Stockholm Syndrome- Why Sweden's Prisons May Not Be Perfect

I am looking forward to hearing the head of Sweden’s prison service, Nils Oberg, give the Longford Lecture tomorrow about how the country has reduced its prison population and maintained, and even developed, a progressive approach within the prison walls. The headline in his Guardian interview with Erwin James today is “Prison is not for Punishment in Sweden”, but of course it’s not supposed to be in the UK either. Notwithstanding the present Justice Secretary’s desire to make jails Spartan places, people are sent to prison as a punishment not for a punishment. Its perhaps not surprising in times of austerity that less eligibility assumes greater significance in penal policy- it will be interesting to hear how the Swedes have dealt with the tiresome argument that life in prison should be in no way preferable to life outside, in case people are somehow  incentivised to return to it.

While we have much to learn about the best size for prisons, appropriate training of staff and the philosophy of normalisation, before we all to succumb to Stockholm syndrome it is worth remembering two areas where perhaps the Swedes can perhaps learn from elsewhere.

The first concerns the treatment of remand prisoners. About a quarter of Swedish prisoners are on remand in pre- trial detention, compared to 14% in England and Wales. During 2013 the authorities subjected about half of detainees to extended isolation or to restrictions on mail delivery or exercise. Authorities took this step when detainees’ contact with people outside the detention centre could risk destroying evidence or changing witnesses’ statements, thereby imperilling a continuing investigation.In such cases, the only visits a detainee might receive would be from a lawyer and a priest.

 The Council of Europe and UN have been highly critical of the treatment of pre- trial detainees in Sweden and while rights to appeal against restrictions were introduced in 2011,  we will have to wait until the Committee for the Prevention of Torture visit next year to establish  how far things have changed.

The second area concerns the prevention of torture and ill treatment. Sweden was one of the first countries to ratify the Optional Protocol on the Prevention against Torture which requires the establishment of National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) to visit places of detention. Sweden gave the role to two existing supervisory bodies , the Parliamentary Ombudsman and Chancellor  of Justice.

A UN delegation that visited in  2007 was  left “with a certain degree of perplexity asto the prospects for these bodies to fulfil the NPM mandate” because they were largely reactive and lacked funds. Since then ,  a separate unit has been established in the Ombudsman’s office with a budget- but it remains to be seen whether the arrangements are now satisfactory.

Mr Oberg could rightly claim that these shortcomings are outside his mandate- and they should do nothing to detract from the many positive aspects of rehabilitation and preparation for release which characterise Swedens prisons and the way probation services have helped to bring down the number of prisoners. But they serve to show that penal systems in perhaps every country  have both  strengths and weaknesses - there is cerainly no perfect model.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Women in Prison: is the penal system fit for purpose?

At a Halsbury Law Exchange meeting last night, a top notch panel, aided by a powerful film of testimony from former women prisoners, did not take long to agree that it isn’t. Rather longer was spent discussing what should and could be done to fix it, with  Joshua Rozenberg in the chair.  

A helpful paper prepared by Felicity Gerry QC (marred only by its omission of any reference to the 2010 UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Offenders) focussed attention on four issues: how to keep women out of the criminal justice system, the best approach to sentencing women who can’t be diverted from court, appropriate arrangements for imprisonment where it’s unavoidable and ensuring support on release.

Representatives from the Howard League, Prison Reform Trust and User Voice argued for more widespread and stringent efforts to provide alternatives to custodial remands and sentences, to address the needs of children of imprisoned mothers and seek to resolve the financial, housing and relationship problems which underlie much of women’s offending- the last of which has been made much more difficult by the reductions in civil legal aid.  Lord Ramsbotham repeated his oft made call for a Women’s Justice Board to provide leadership and structure for developing effective policy and practice.  So far, so familiar.  

In terms of likely improvements to the system, three specific directions seemed to emerge. First, at the shallow end of the system, notwithstanding the Government’s crackdown on cautioning, there is still support for keeping petty persistent women offenders out of court and into the kind of agencies that can help rather than punish them. Simon Hughes the Lib Dem minister told the meeting that specific diversion arrangements for women would be in place in all metropolitan areas (covering 40% of the population) by February next year.
At the deep end, by contrast, on prisons, Baroness Corston’s proposal for small prison units to replace large prisons like Holloway and Styal looks to be a dead letter.

But what about sentencing, arguably the most controversial aspect of any reform programme. Corston did not recommend a separate sentencing system for women and the Sentencing Council has never produced a comprehensive set of gender specific guidelines. Lord Phillips the former Chair of the Council said he thought that they should have done so when he was in charge. It seems a very significant gap in recent efforts to improve justice for women. As was suggested last night, he should get on the phone to the current chair and ask them to get working on it. 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Is Inspectorate up to the task of alerting Ministers to risks of Probation reforms?

 This morning, Justice Minister Simon Hughes defended the government’s probation reforms. He used three main arguments, all highly questionable.
First he claimed that Transforming Rehabilitation has been undertaken “deliberatively” and over an appropriate time scale. Yes there has been consultation but it is hard to see much evidence of how   debate has influenced the shape of the programme.  And the timescale has been widely criticised as too rushed, dictated by the need to sign the contracts ahead of the election. Even new providers are concerned about the pace. Only half-jokingly, a senior representative of one told me recently that there was only one thing more worrying than losing out in the bidding process and that was winning the contracts.

Hughes’s second contention was that the reforms had been piloted. This is a half- truth at best. Yes there has been piloting of post release supervision of short term prisoners which seems to have shown positive results. Payment by Results has been tested in a number of contexts.  But just as trying out new computer programmes is of limited relevance if you are planning to change the whole operating system, so there is a good deal of uncertainty about how the moving parts in the new probation machinery will actually mesh together. Yes that new system has been running for a few months; not before time, it looks as if a court of law will judge on the reasonableness of such a wholesale reorganisation given the risks that have been widely identified.

But perhaps Hughes most interesting point was that the independent inspector has alerted us to “no concerns that the system isn't moving across”. In fact the Chief Inspector of Probation wrote in his most recent annual report that “like all significant change programmes the transitional phase of Transforming Rehabilitation carries inevitable heightened risk.” But to be fair to Paul McDowell’s position, he recognises “the opportunity to innovate, to think afresh, and to make a significant impact on reoffending outcomes”. 

If Ministers are to look to the Chief Inspector to alert them to problems, it is obviously important that the office is structured to do that effectively, impartially and independently. In the case of HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Chief Inspector is always appointed from outside the prison service to give that assurance. Moreover, the Prison Inspectorate website contains a register of interests for the Chief Inspector. On it, Nick Hardwick reports that he has a close relative who works for the Metropolitan Police service.

In the case of the Chief Inspector of Probation, there is no requirement that the post holder is drawn from outside the service which he or she inspects. Most have been former senior probation staff.  Paul is a former Chief Executive of NACRO, the charity which will henceforth play a major role in the probation landscape which he will inspect. NACRO (for whom incidentally I worked from 1989 to 2000) has been named as the preferred bidder in six Community Rehabilitation Company areas.

NACRO’s partner is Sodexo, whose deputy managing director is Janine McDowell, who is a close relative of Paul.  I have no reason at all to question the integrity of either Paul or Janine, whom I have met, like and respect as professionals. But I do think there is a potential for a perceived if not actual conflict of interest. It needs addressing at the very least by greater transparency and in future by recruiting Chief Inspectors from outside the world of  probation and community rehabilitation companies.  

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Conference Calls : What the Parties had to say about Prisons

 As the conference season finally comes to an end, what have  the various parties said they have in store for the criminal justice and prison system? Most attention has been paid to Tory plans to limit the writ of the ECHR; no votes for prisoners, fewer hurdles to extradition and whole life sentences all feature in their  promised land freed from  the Human Rights Act and less fettered by Strasbourg judgements . So too do measures to reduce diversion from prosecution and extend honesty in sentencing (which will add at least 1000 to the prison population in the long run).

Chris Grayling’s speech also set out a more nuanced –some might say  contradictory- vision for the prison system; cheaper but with more work and education, less like a holiday camp but better able to meet mental health care needs, stricter but with improved resettlement and mentoring. But aside from the not inconsiderable matter of weakening human rights protections for prisoners, there was little new in the conservative platform and no prospect of relief for the ailing prison service or retreat from the sale of probation.

Not surprisingly, Grayling’s somewhat pollyannish view of the state of the prisons was criticised by his Labour shadow Sadiq Khan who cited the Chief Inspector’s picture of a system on the edge of collapse.  Labour plan a victims law, the revival of their unimplemented 2001 commitment to extend the role of the Youth Justice Board to 18-21’s, and, it seems, the devolution of youth custody budgets to local authorities to incentivise further falls in its use.  But with what looks like a firm pledge to scrap Police and Crime Commissioners, their preferred shape for local arrangements to govern criminal justice remain unclear, as do their intentions in respect of the soon to be privatised probation service.

It was left to two other parties to address the elephants in the penal policy room. As one might have hoped, Simon Hughes pointed out that the key problem is that we lock up too many people in the first place. He identified the need for alternative sanctions for those receiving short sentences, people who have drugs for personal use, the mentally ill who need treatment and for women.  A stronger advisory council on drugs and a new women's justice board were promised. Of course the Lib Dems record in the last four years has not achieved much along these lines as part of a government which has, as Grayling boasted, locked up more people, for longer, more cheaply. 

More surprising was the contribution of UKIP. They of course would move faster than anyone to get rid of the ECHR altogether and historically have taken a tough line on penal policy. Their 2010 manifesto promised to double prison capacity. Their Justice and Home Affairs lead Diane James told this year’s conference of the need for a full costed analysis of the prison system and, paradoxically, to learn lessons from abroad in reforming it. In their hands such an exercise would almost certainly be a disaster. For abroad they seem to have the USA in mind and their preference might well be for a wholly privatised system. But they do at least acknowledge the problems in prisons and the need for a comprehensive review.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Failing Prisons Are No Longer News

  On a busy day, another scathing prison inspection report hardly counts as news.  Serious assaults, frightened prisoners, restricted regimes, backlogs in assessments have become the norm.  Nick Hardwick’s finding that HMP Swaleside is failing in its central task as a training prison comes as little surprise.

Even if the catalogue of shortcomings is a sadly familiar one, today’s report has some startling features. Staff seem to have given up on mandatory drug testing so they have no accurate idea about the availability of narcotics inside the prison. Alcohol seems to be more widely available than in other jails. The regime in the dirty and ill equipped segregation unit is punitive and records are not properly kept about the use of force. ‘Special accommodation’,   (a small bare cell without furniture), is used much more often and for longer than at comparable prisons. Despite some good work opportunities, others are exceptionally mundane, and in the case of the rag-cutting workshop, stultifyingly boring.

What if any lessons can be learned from what’s happening on the Isle of Sheppey?  First as with all inspection reports these days, it is not at all clear if the recommendations made by the inspectors are actually accepted and if so acted on. Years ago reports were published with a response from the prisons minister, head of the prison service and the governor. That should be reintroduced in recognition of the fact that , as Inspectors concluded at  Swaleside , while  prisons can themselves address some of their shortcomings, they need  much more effective support from the centre.

The second lesson is that the centre – that is the prison service headquarters functions and the National Offender Management service (NOMS) needs much more in the way of external and expert oversight. The processes and initiatives by which NOMS has cut costs – “fair and sustainable”, “benchmarking”, “new ways of working” appear to have caused some serious unintended consequences.  For example, the Swaleside Independent Monitoring Board reported this year that too many staff were allowed voluntary redundancy during the year due to lack of forward planning by NOMS and as a result, a vast amount of irreplaceable experience was lost.

With so much of what happens in prisons a direct result of decisions made in Whitehall, the balance of informed scrutiny needs to be shifted so that the administrators are inspected as well as the prison staff.  It is true that the National Audit Office looked at the NOMS cost cutting plans last year but they reached an absurdly narrow conclusion that the strategy for the prison estate is the most coherent and comprehensive for many years, has quickly cut operating costs, and is a significant improvement in value for money on the approaches of the past. The Prison Inspectorate, currently limited to looking at prisons, should work much more closely with the NAO in the future.

Finally, there is a strong case for exempting prison budgets from the next round of cost cutting which the outgoing head of the civil service warned today may last five years.  Recent reports such as Swaleside show that establishments increasingly cannot do their job with resources available to them.  The prison system is becoming an institutional failure.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Going Dutch

  There is much to admire about the Norwegian penal system. Relatively few people are in prison, less than half per capita than in the UK.  Conditions are generally good, prisons small and in the case of the well-publicised Bastoy seemingly very comfortable. Staff are trained for three years and prisoners enjoy a resettlement guarantee which requires local welfare agencies to ensure they have a place to live, continuing health care and a work or training when they are released.

It comes as something of a surprise to learn that from next year, some Norwegian prisoners will be serving their sentences in the Netherlands. Renovation work in some of Norway’s 42 jails will bring down capacity from the 3,800 places currently available. With more than a thousand prisoners waiting in a queue to serve their sentence, ministers must have felt the need to make some emergency provision.

Prisoners serving their sentences in other states is common practice in the USA. Many of Hawaii’s prisoners are in a facility in the Arizona desert and in 2012 almost 10,000 of California’s prisoners were in out of state prisons. Former British Home Secretary David Blunkett describes in his memoirs how he looked at using space in Scotland and Northern Ireland when the prison system in England and Wales came under pressure in 2002. But the first and so far only example of one country renting an already staffed and equipped prison from another was in 2009 when the Dutch   government agreed to house Belgian prisoners. When the steep rise in the Dutch prison population came to a halt in the mid 2000’s, Holland was faced with spare capacity.  Tilburg prison, near the border, seemed to provide a temporary solution to Belgium’s chronic overcrowding problem while a building programme was undertaken.

Five years on Norway seems to be following the Belgian lead. It’s much further away of course (more than 1000 kms from Oslo to Amsterdam or a 14 hour drive).  Few Dutch speak Norwegian. But perhaps this won’t matter. The Belgians chose to select prisoners not in frequent need of transfers to Belgium for medical or family reasons, and in respect of whom pressure in terms of rehabilitation is low. This meant to a large extent foreign national prisoners and it  is likely that Norway , a third of whose prisoners are foreign nationals plan to do the same.

When the Committee for thePrevention of Torture (CPT) visited Tilburg in 2011, they took the view that as a matter of principle, a prisoner who has been sentenced to imprisonment in one State should not, on the basis of an administrative decision, be forced to serve the sentence in another State. Prisoners should therefore be able to choose. Will they do so?  Conditions in the Netherlands may not be as good as in Norway (where prison costs 270 euros per prisoner per day- among the highest amount in Europe). The CPT found serious problems of overcrowding and violence at Tilburg and a lack of regime. Norway may need to insist on certain standards in the places it’s buying but if its needs are so urgent it may have to accept what’s on offer. But is the need that urgent?

The prison waiting list is reportedly 1,300 but it has been higher - more than twice that number back in2006.  In much of Europe, people sentenced to prison do not always start their sentence immediately. If they have been on bail they return home to arrange their affairs before receiving an invitation to report to prison. This may be some weeks or months later. In some countries where prison capacity is limited, the invitations are delayed as a way of managing the population. The position is different for those remanded to prison and many foreign nationals, with fewer community ties fall into that category.

But where someone has abided by bail conditions and receives a short sentence there is no reason not to commute that to a period of home detention with some unpaid work of community benefit.  For more serious cases, the Government might look to reduce the proportion of sentences served in custody. Knocking 10% off sentence lengths (replacing them also with a package of tagging and community service), could free up places and improve resettlement.    Renting extra space might no longer be necessary.

Constructive and imaginative measures such as these would confirm Norway’s reputation as a leader in prison reform. It could otherwise be endangered by the risky plans for going Dutch.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The crisis in prisons has revealed not only a deterioration of a service but a failure of governance.

  Of all of the public services facing austerity cuts since 2010, prisons have perhaps been the least able to cope. The often disastrous decline in standards in many establishments, public and private, is all too clear from seemingly weekly Inspection reports. Last week we learned that at Wormwood Scrubs, many windows are broken with some exposed shards, graffiti is widespread and many toilets are filthy. Three years ago it was an improving prison that had got many of the basics right. But even then, a few cells were in very bad condition and sometimes prisoners could not be provided with socks and pants. Little wonder that with budget cuts that have seen staff numbers fall by almost a quarter, the prison has deteriorated in almost every respect.

Given that what’s happened at Scrubs increasingly looks systemic, few would disagree with the Observer newspaper’s call for a complete overhaul of the penal establishment in England and Wales. An overhaul means a thorough examination of a system, with repairs or changes made if necessary. The question is who is to do it and what should be its scope?

As for who should do it, we need some new machinery. The crisis in prisons has revealed a failure not only of a  public service but of its governance. There is no shortage of watchdogs but the Inspectorate, Ombudsman and local Monitoring Boards have been revealed as lacking in  teeth.  Parliament takes a sporadic interest but the Public Accounts Committee’s last foray produced the risible conclusion that the management of the prison estate should be disseminated across Government as a best practice example.

The Justice Committee is starting a long overdue inquiry into prisons planning and policies which they say will be an opportunity to consider in detail the current programme of reforms and efficiency savings. But there can be no great confidence that it will produce much more than a further catalogue of failure, with the danger of dividing on party lines as the election approaches.  I have previously suggested a Royal Commission but as Harold Wilson said their problem is that they take minutes and waste years.  If as the Observer rightly says the need for prison reform is desperate, we can’t afford to wait. A judge led inquiry like Lord Leveson’s could be a better model.  

As for scope, the organisation, funding , standards and inspection of prisons and probation should all be looked at, with plans to sell off the latter put on hold until the inquiry reports.
There’s no doubt that any meaningful inquiry into prisons needs to look too at who goes to prison and for how long.  Anything else would put the cart before the horse.  Terms of Reference could be drawn from a recent British Academy Report which asks why and how we should try to reduce both the number of people we imprison, and the length of time for which many are imprisoned.

Today’s Liberal Democrat “pre-manifesto” proposes action on two of the proposals in the British Academy’s report  -restricting the use of jail for certain offences and removing mentally disordered and addicted persons from prisons. Plans to “depenalise” drug use are bold and encouraging (contrasting with a misleading claim that the Coalition has delivered more prisoners working longer hours).  

The promise to reform prisons, likely to be made in due course by all the parties, can only be achieved by these kinds of measures and others proposed in the British Academy Report.  Any overhaul needs to consider how to achieve more extensive diversion from courts, greater use of alternative disposals, restrictions on short prison terms and shorter sentence lengths. Only then perhaps will we ensure that prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs can get underwear.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Parc Inspection Report should send Secure College Plans to the Drawing Board

 The champagne corks must be popping at the headquarters of G4S. After two “anni horribili”, the company can bask in the glow of a positive report from the Prisons Inspectorate. The children and young people at Parc prison in Bridgend are being well looked after and experiencing good education and healthcare. 

Coming after a run of appalling reports from HMIP about prisons of all kinds, it comes as something of a relief to read about a safe clean establishment, (or part of one at any rate), with low levels of violence, self-harm and drug use, doing its best to ensure that young people can access good and useful services and experience positive outcomes.

And as someone who has been critical of the shortcomings in some privately run prisons, it was sobering and pleasing to read about the positive staff culture at Parc. Young people, HMIP found, are not collectively seen as a problem or blamed, and the culture is not punitive.  There’s a lesson there for the rest of the juvenile secure estate. But what else can we learn?

For one thing of course that as far as prison custody is concerned, the Parc Unit is very much the exception rather than the rule. With a capacity of 64 and an average population of 50, it is smaller than each of the Secure Training Centres let alone the other Young Offender Institutions.  If not beautiful, small is the least ugly as far as prisons are concerned. The report suggests that the Coalition’s plans for a 320 bed secure college to be negligent at best and reckless at worst.

A second reflection is that according to the Howard League’s recent report, Parc Prison as a whole was one of the only prisons in the country to see its staff numbers increase between 2010 and 2013. According to a parliamentary answer last year, there were 70 total staff in post in the young offender unit in 2012. This relatively generous staffing ratio explains why for example more than two thirds of the young people told inspectors that someone had checked on them personally in the last week to see how they are getting on. In other juvenile YOI’s fewer than two fifths say so. 

There are weaknesses identified in the report. Fewer than a third of black and minority ethnic young people agreed that most staff treated them with respect compared to 80% of white young people. More worrying still, half of BME young people said they had been victimised compared to 7% of white. These findings deserve more attention than the Inspectors’ comments that they did not see evidence of this and children did not raise it with them. The Inspectors also skate over the finding that fewer than half of young people said it was easy to attend a religious service, compared to two thirds in 2012.

A more troubling anomaly is the Inspectors comment that the use of separation or segregation was commendably low. True it was lower than at the last inspection two years ago. But 131 placements in segregation in the six months prior to the inspection is actually high for a unit with 50 people. In a similar period, Wetherby used it 182 times with a population of 230; Hindley 96 times for a population of 161.

Inspection reports are immensely useful but would be even more so if they included a little more in the way of quantitative data.  Systematic information about staff numbers and ratios, budgets, numbers of incidents of various kinds would enable more telling comparisons to be made and lessons drawn. But there is no doubt about the main one to be taken from the Parc Inspection. Take plans for the Secure College back to the drawing board.  

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Chris Grayling Must Accept Whats Happening in Prisons

          One imagines the election can’t come quickly enough for Chris Grayling. Whatever the outcome, he’ll be freed from responsibility for a prison system that is rapidly deteriorating in front, if not of his eyes, then those of almost all who work in and visit jails. 

While he may not think so, as a society we are indeed lucky that the Prison Inspectorate (HMIP) and local monitoring boards (IMB’s) can catalogue for us the impact of the cuts which he and his predecessor have imposed on the service; and to signal the dangers they pose to security, control and justice in prisons. As Zola put it, "if you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way".

Much has been made of the stinging criticisms in Nick Hardwick’s recent reports. But the annual reports of IMB’s- the local people who visit prisons week in week out are to some extent more telling. IMB’s sometimes have a reputation of being too close to the prison management and too much part of the local establishment – I met an IMB chair last year who had first been appointed by Roy Jenkins. But the reports they send to the Justice department each year are born of familiarity with the day to day life of the prison which HMIP cannot easily capture.

What is striking about recent reports is the concern about the impact of the benchmarking process which has been used to determine adequate staffing numbers.

Take two very different prisons both given reasonably positive reports last year by HMIP and both rated a 3 -   meeting the majority of their targets- in the latest NOMS performance table. At Liverpool, a large local jail, the IMB reported that members, when performing their duties on the wings, “have noted with considerable concern, the low ratio between Prison Officers and prisoners. If staffing levels were reduced further, the Board feels that the capability of prison staff to contain any incident that may take place would seriously compromise staff.” At Erlestoke, a small Training prison “the Board continues to be concerned about the staff to offender ratios, particularly on the residential wings. There are times during the day when only one officer is on duty, responsible for over approximately 50 offenders. The Board considers this to be unsafe for the officer and for offenders”.

At Nottingham, the IMB reported that  the reduced staffing levels which came into effect in September 2013 as a result of the nationally imposed benchmarking operation, have severely stretched the prison’s resources, resulting in frequent cancellation of education, library, work, exercise sessions and  gym sessions together with  the virtual collapse of an effective Personal Officer scheme. At Norwich, officials from the Department of Work and Pensions do not consider the reduced staffing levels provide enough safety for them to visit prisoners in the activities block. At Portland, the IMB questioned whether the prison could continue to function humanely and efficiently at even the most basic level, if there are further financial cuts.

Other Boards describe some of the impacts of those cuts and of overcrowding, whether it is prisoners forced to urinate on the floor of vans outside Norwich prison, cells measuring less than 6.5 square metres being used for two prisoners at Lewes or lack of sufficient prisoner clothing at Lincoln. Some of this treatment,  including the growing incidence of abuse of prisoners by cell mates  and other prisoners - could easily be found inhuman and degrading were it brought before the European Court of Human Rights .

While he is likely to be dismissive of any such findings, it is difficult to see how Grayling can simply continue to ignore the findings of the Boards or the Inspectors. Both the HMIP and IMB’s form part of an internationally authorised body aimed at preventing ill treatment in places of detention in the UK- the so called National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). Under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, the UK government has agreed (at article 22) to examine the recommendations of the NPM “and enter into a dialogue with it on possible implementation measures.”

Such a dialogue is therefore not simply an urgent practical necessity but a legal requirement. Grayling will surely wish to comply with the Ministerial Code which places (at 1.2) an overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations.


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Reducing Prisoners not Staff the only Answer to Prison Crisis

Another week another deeply disturbing report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Actually Nick Hardwick concludes that the Isis Young Offender Prison is generally better than when he last inspected in 2011 but this is damning with faint praise. Last time, his inspectors were overwhelmed by prisoners who wanted to complain about their treatment by staff and officers’ unwillingness or inability to help with simple, everyday problems. This time he found an “emergency” regime which meant that far too many prisoners were locked in their cells with nothing meaningful to do. The prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) reported earlier this year that this will continue until September 2014 at least, possibly indefinitely.

Normalising an emergency regime is symptomatic of the way low standards have come to be accepted in the prison system as staff numbers have declined.

In the last inspection report on Isis, HMIP thought that the essential step in meeting the formidable challenges the prison had still to overcome was achieving a stable, permanent staff group with a common culture and objectives. It needed, and was entitled to expect, every support from the prison service nationally.

According to the IMB, far from providing support, the prison service imposed a freeze on recruitment. In the Board’s view, this was exceptionally damaging and contrary to the stated aims and objectives of Government to optimise work opportunities for offenders and to prepare them for release with a view to reducing reoffending.

Does this constitute a crisis – a time of intense difficulty (according to the dictionary)? Not according to Chris Grayling who admits there are challenges but claims he is meeting them. He increasingly risks looking like Canute refusing to accept that waves of cost cutting will adversely affect safety, decency and rehabilitation in prisons. The fault is not all his. Kenneth Clarke was reckless in accepting budget cuts in his department without assessing their impact. But he at least wanted to reduce the demands on the system.

Dictionaries also define a crisis as a time when a difficult or important decision must be made. With little prospect of additional resources, the decision must be made to look to reduce not the numbers of staff but the numbers of prisoners. A recent British Academy report has shown how this can be done. If this government won’t do it , the next one must.   

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Young Offender Institutions and Inspections: Models that Do Not Work?

Prisoners having to pay for their beds – either to other prisoners or corrupt officials is not uncommon in many countries I’ve visited where jails are effectively under the control of the convicts. But I was shocked by today’s revelations from the Chief Inspector in England and Wales not just of ‘unofficial rent’ for cells being demanded by some young prisoners from others at Glen Parva Young Offender Institution but at the lack of action taken to address it.  With the prison "not on top of" the availability of legal highs,  widespread disregarding of its policy on offensive displays in cells and the poor example set by the behaviour and offensive language by some staff, we get a picture of an establishment almost out of control.  Without control -alongside security and justice, one of the three pillars of a successful prison identified by Lord Woolf in his Strangeways report- high levels of violence, self- harm and institutional failure are almost bound to result. As indeed they have.

What’s surprising about Glen Parva is that only two years ago the same inspectors thought the Governor and staff could be proud of the progress achieved since their previous inspection in 2009. In a good, if not glowing report of an inspection in August 2012, Nick Hardwick concluded that the prison was making sufficient progress in ensuring that prisoners were held safely, treated with respect, and engaging in positive activity.  Moreover, In a report covering the year up to November 2013, - only four months before Hardwick’s team arrived in March this year - the local Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) took the view that  Glen Parva was a well-run establishment, providing a safe and respectful environment. What on earth has gone wrong?

Clearly the reductions in staff numbers will have had an effect, with prison officer grades falling from 250 in 2010 to 160 to 2013 according to the Howard League’s recent briefing. It may be that the loss of experience rather than just the numbers has had an impact. The greenness of the staff is suggested by the IMB’s report that there was to be “training in recognition of cannabis following false suspicions caused by new leather furniture. The smell of the new furniture was mistaken for cannabis.”

Budget reductions will have had other impacts. Leather furniture notwithstanding, the latest inspectorate report found many cells lacked basic amenities such as curtains, a toilet seat, chairs and lockable cabinets. Failing to provide such basics is unlikely to enhance the prisons legitimacy in the eyes of the young men or to encourage respect for property or the people around them.

It’s also possible that there has been a change in the profile of prisoners. Although there were fewer prisoners in 2014 than in 2012, the IMB noted that many prisoners in the establishment were “a long way from their normal abode. This can pose many difficulties for families trying to maintain relationships, impacting on prisoners and their families alike.” It can also add to the stress experienced by young people for whom contact with loved ones is immensely important.

Fewer staff, worse conditions, prisoners more distant from home- these may explain the deterioration at Glen Parva but it’s surely important to identify more precisely how the YOI has gone so far downhill so rapidly. 

Nick Hardwick thinks that his report- coming after similar indictments of Feltham, Brinsford, Aylesbury and Isis means this is a model of custody that does not work. He may be right. But perhaps it is the model of inspection that does not work either.

With hindsight, the IMB report for 2012-13 looks na├»ve and complacent in equal measure, explaining away the apparently high rates of violence by reference to the fact that “the prisoners are adolescents, with some suffering mental illness or substance abuse.” The IMB reported that staff had been made aware of new ‘legal high’ drugs such as Black Mamba and that whilst none had been found in the Prison, “officers are prepared”. HMIP reported that legal highs were becoming more prevalent in the prison; “not all managers were properly sighted on this issue and staff awareness was poor.”

Hardwick’s report , while thoroughly documenting failings , leaves some key questions unanswered- most notably  about how things went wrong since he was last in Glen Parva and how they could be put right. Some of his recommendations are simply truisms such as the suggestion that the tackling antisocial behaviour system should provide effective support to prisoners at risk from others and challenge perpetrators of bullying and violence.  He has failed to tackle head on the question of the adequacy of staff numbers.

But the biggest problem for both HMIP and IMB’s is that even for an unsafe prison like Glen Parva, there is no formal mechanism –a notice to improve or special measures – to ensure that remedial action is taken- at the prison, by NOMS or where necessary by the Ministry of Justice. It’s not even clear whether recommendations made have all been accepted.  Some structural refinements are surely needed to give the findings of monitoring bodies greater clout. One simple one might be to get the IMB to follow up on the most urgent  recommendations on a week by week basis.

During their inspection, HMIP inspectors were told that the basic items missing in cells- toilet seats et al -were on order and would be in place within the next few weeks. Is there any way of knowing if they are?

Friday, 1 August 2014

We need a Royal Commission on Prisons

    The Sun newspaper is not widely known for supporting prison reform. More than ten years ago it sent a removals van to the Royal Courts of Justice to urge then Lord Chief Justice Woolf to make way for a more punitive successor and it has campaigned regularly since for a harsher approach to sentencing and the treatment of prisoners. It comes as some surprise today that its leader  accuses Justice Secretary Chris Grayling of failing to accept that there’s a  crisis in the prisons and urges him to give priority not only to the security of the public and prison officers but also (and perhaps more surprisingly)  to  the welfare of inmates.

Yesterday’s raft of statistics from NOMS about the deteriorating performance of prisons also led  the Economist to decry the shameful state of Britain’s prisons and   the Independent  to opine that  the  steep rise in prison violence is the logical consequence of too little funding and too many inmates. This seems to be the view of the Chief Inspector of Prisons who also sees a link between high rates of overcrowding and the current level of self-inflicted deaths.

Yesterday’s statistics included a league table of ratings of the 111 public and fifteen private prisons in England and Wales.   The methodology for giving the jails one of four grades (from 4 “exceptional” down to 1 “serious concern”) is complex and open to question. Much has been made of the failings at Brinsford Young Offender Institution which scored 1 and was earlier in the year described by the Chief Inspector as the worst prison he had been to in four years.  The three new prisons, the privately run Oakwood and Thameside and the publicly run Isis are still causing concern at level 2.  While the Independent Monitoring Board at Oakwood has found the prison much more settled (and unfairly criticised in the media), it none the less reported today that four in every five hospital appointments had to be rescheduled because of lack of staff to escort the prisoners.

What is at least as concerning however, is the performance in the best prisons. Inspectors reported  last year (within the period covered by the NOMS ratings)  on a prison where more than a third of prisoners told them they had been victimised by staff including 6% who had been hit or kicked; and where 32% had been victimised by other prisoners. The watchdog  described another establishment where more than one in ten prisoners said they had developed a drug problem while inside and fewer than half of those with such a  problem (whenever they developed it) said  they had been offered help or support. The performance of both of these two prisons was rated by NOMS yesterday as exceptional.

There is something deeply troubling about such tolerance of poor standards and the need for a fundamental and independent examination of the state of our prisons. While the Inspectorate does valuable work day in day out to document what is happening, its status is not strong enough to insist on change. The inconvenient truths it uncovers can, and have been ignored or swatted aside by Chris Grayling. At the very least, like OFSTED, it needs a strong Chair and greater powers.

But something more is needed. As we approach the twenty fifth anniversary of the Strangeways disturbances in 1990, we need a judge led investigation into the prison system, its standards, resources, staffing and monitoring arrangements. If the government will not set a Royal commission or something similar , Labour should do so. Lord Woolf may not himself feel like revisiting the field of his magisterial inquiry but something like his investigation is needed if we are to avoid the kind of disaster which prompted it.  

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Ranby Report shows need for Improvement in Inspection as well as Prisons

A month after his disturbing assessment of the state of the prison system was cavalierly dismissed by Chris Grayling, Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick has produced a shocking report on Ranby , the category C prison in Nottinghamshire which has seen four suicides in the last year.

The high levels of violence and poor response to self-harm are sadly not in themselves unusual. What is troubling is how far  the prison has deteriorated since the last inspection two years ago. In 2012 Ranby was found to be reasonably good at providing purposeful activity and resettlement work but outcomes in terms of safety and respect were not sufficiently good.

The decline in performance is perhaps not surprising given the cuts in resources which Ranby , and indeed all prisons have had to face . The Independent Monitoring Board asked the Prisons Minister in their 2012-13 report how he can “approve a reduction in the level of staff and expect to provide all those who work and live in HMP Ranby a safe and secure establishment?” 

Given the further reductions in resources expected in the next few years, this is surely an issue that the Inspectorate themselves must  address more directly. Providing a factual summary of trends in staff numbers in each of their reports would be a start.

The Ranby report also suggests the need for a different kind of inspection regime. When Ofsted finds schools to be inadequate they can give a notice to improve if they think the management capable of bringing about change or place it in special measures if not. A similar approach is being introduced in health and social care.

 In the case of Ofsted, schools with serious weaknesses can be prevented from taking on newly qualified teachers.  Inspectors visit once or twice a term to check that an action plan is on course.  Providing this closer level of attention to how prisons are run is going to be necessary if the Inspectorate is to help bring about improvement rather  than simply document failure.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Crowding Out the Truth.

Today’s publication of the latest World Pre-Trial Imprisonment List from the International Centre for Prison Studies puts UK jail problems in perspective. Its data shows how prisons in the poorest countries and those emerging from conflict largely are involved in locking up people on remand. In Bolivia, Libya and DR Congo more than four fifths of prisoners are awaiting trial. Many stay in detention for years in congested conditions where corruption, violence and disease can be life threatening.

Remand detainees represent less than 15% of prisoners on any one day in England and Wales, a low rate due to a comparatively efficient criminal justice process, and relatively generous provisions for bail pending trial.  The conditions in which they are held are immeasurably better than those in most low income countries. But can the prison conditions in which British prisoners are held be fairly described as overcrowded?

Earlier this week the UK Parliament heard Justice Secretary respond to an urgent question from the Opposition by asserting that “we do not have a prison overcrowding crisis”.  Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan accused him of breath taking complacency, quoting Wandsworth prison in his constituency, “which should have 943 inmates, currently has 1,597” and has been asked to provide even more spaces.

The politicians were not for the first time talking at cross purposes. Khan is right that the Certified Normal Accommodation (CNA) -the number it was designed to hold- in Wandsworth is 943. But for more than twenty years, the prison service has measured overcrowding not in relation to CNA but to what they call Operational Capacity. By deciding that most single cells could accommodate two prisoners, prison capacity was at a stroke almost doubled- in Wandsworth it is currently 1628.  Grayling could therefore claim that pressures on the prison estate are little more than business as usual.

It is that business as usual which is the greater scandal , not that more doubling up may be needed until new prison places come on stream. There is an underlying acceptance by the political class that large scale overcrowding and enforced cell sharing is inevitable. Almost a quarter of prisoners –half in local prisons- are held in accommodation units intended for fewer prisoners. Not only does this impact on the quality of life of prisoners, but it limits the prison system’s ability to respond to unanticipated pressures as seems to be happening now.

The Conservatives recognised the problem when in opposition, arguing that “overcrowding has dramatic consequences both for prisoners and for the operation of prisons. Living and working conditions, the ability of prison officers to work effectively, inmates’ access to educational and training programmes, the success of and access to mental health, drug and other vital rehabilitative programmes, are all affected”. Plans to take total capacity to over 100,000, significantly reducing overcrowding and formally ending it by 2016, were  scaled back even before the 2010 election.  After it Kenneth Clarke’s efforts to reduce demand for prison places were also ditched when he was, producing the political and policy failure highlighted by the Chief Inspector of Prisons at the weekend.

It is drastically reducing prison numbers through sentencing reform and justice reinvestment that holds the key to a sustainable penal policy. But this must be complemented by specific  legislation to prevent overcrowding. After the 1990 Strangeways riot , Lord Woolf recommended a  new Prison Rule that no establishment should hold more prisoners than its CNA, with provisions for Parliament to be informed if exceptionally there is to be a material departure from that rule. It was not accepted but something similar is required today if we are to avoid the kind of disaster that gave rise to the recommendation.