Thursday, 24 April 2014

25 Years to Life: Why the Need for Penal Reform International is as Great as Ever

  This week,  Penal Reform International (PRI) celebrates 25 years of work to improve prisons around the world, an unfashionable cause if ever there was one, but as in need of attention today as it was back in 1989.

I first worked with the international ngo in 1994, to deliver training to prison staff in one of the Baltic States on human rights and resettlement. Such was the enthusiasm of the participants that they took photos of the acetates as we placed them on the overhead projector so that the information could be quickly disseminated beyond the classroom. This was not so much down to the quality of the material as to the keen desire – shared by many who work in prisons the world over- to learn from international standards and experience in order to improve the way they do their jobs.  Encouraging a professional and positive ethos within prisons has been one of the staples of PRI’s work, whether through staff training, the development of rehabilitation projects or working with civil society to increase oversight of places of detention.

Sadly the capacity to make improvements is all too often frustrated by chronic under resourcing, gross overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure.  If, as they reported this week, inspectors in the UK can find cells in a young offender institution not fit for occupation, it’s hardly surprising that in lower income countries conditions are often far more squalid and even life threatening. 

In 2000 I helped PRI assess prison conditions in the Middle East. What we saw shocked even the most experienced members of the team. In one establishment, the overflowing mass of humanity packed into rooms scarcely larger than store cupboards, stood in barbaric counterpoint to the elegant exterior of the Levantine villa which housed them.  The adverse physical and mental consequences of such congestion weigh particularly heavily on women, children and other vulnerable groups, for whom PRI has always attached a particular priority.

As PRI has always recognised, the answers to most of the problems within prisons lie beyond their walls. Developing diversion programmes for juveniles and para legal programmes to reduce unnecessary pre-trial detention have been notable successes which have been emulated in many countries by both government and non-government organisations. More challenging has been the creation of meaningful and sustainable alternatives to prison sentences for petty offenders.

The work that I’ve been involved in most recently has been to strengthen the community service programmes in East Africa which PRI originally helped bring into being in the 1990’s. Despite initial impact, courts have sometimes been reluctant to impose non-custodial orders, probation services ill -equipped to implement them and the public uncertain about supporting them. PRI is testing how best to turn the tide, with promising results. 

 PRI has always been keen to promote such results from its work with a range of global and regional bodies concerned with human rights and with criminal justice. The UN’s 2012 Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid owe much to the organisation’s work and the current initiative to update and improve the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners was really set in train by PRI. But unlike some organisations, success for PRI is not measured simply by impact in Geneva, Vienna or New York but through practical improvement on the ground. Similarly, PRI’s campaigning to end the death penalty does not stop with abolition but includes work to develop humane alternatives to put in its place.

AS PRI enters its second quarter century, there may be some encouraging signs. The global prison population rate looks stable, the USA may be finally edging away from mass incarceration, and the war on drugs if not coming to an end is entering a less violent phase. But there are threats too not least to some of the human rights standards that underpin PRI’s approach. Mapping the trends and challenges facing prison systems across the globe is one of the projects underway in its anniversary year in readiness for next year’s UN Crime Congress in Qatar.

In the meantime, in most of the world, prisons continue to be humanitarian disasters, comprising a complex set of problems to which the world too often turns a blind eye. We need PRI both to keep these problems high on the agenda, and to develop just and sustainable ways to address them.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Worst Prison Inspection in Four Years - Does Anyone Care?

Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick says today’s report on Brinsford Young Offender Institution is the worst since he took over in 2010. That’s saying something since he’s made   damning criticisms of among others, Pentonville, Feltham and Oakwood.  The Brinsford findings are indeed shocking, more so since for the first time the report contains some photographs of the squalid conditions. But the report has received relatively little media attention, drowned out it seems by coverage of Cardiff University’s violence study. Whether or not a fall in numbers showing up at A and E is a good indicator for levels of violence in society, it’s almost certainly not for violence in prisons. More than 10% of the young people surveyed by the Inspectors said they had been hit, kicked or assaulted at Brinsford compared to 8% in the last inspection in 2011. 

I visited Brinsford in November 2012 with colleagues from the T2A Alliance when I was preparing a report on young adults in custody. I noted that the buildings were scruffy “but that atmosphere in the prison was calm and positive. Young men were moving to their activities in an orderly but relaxed way, with staff engaging positively.”  It looks like things have gone downhill.  Why might that be?

By coincidence on the day we visited, the results of the competitions for the running of nine prisons were announced by the MoJ. Governors at Brinsford had been fearing industrial action by the POA should the establishment have been chosen to be part of a future round of competition. As it was, they told us they would have to make cuts but without the threat of privatisation.

MoJ figures show that the cost per place had already fallen by almost 8% between 2010-11 and 2012-13; we will not have figures for the last financial year until the autumn. But it seems certain that that resources were further reduced and that when the Inspectors visited in November last year there were fewer staff on the landings.

Today’s report spells out the consequences. Too many evening and weekend recreational sessions were cancelled because officers were redeployed to other areas; nurses reported that prison officers were not always available to provide supervision during medication administration times;  the inconsistent allocation of custody officers to the inpatient unit meant that most patients were spending only a few hours out of their cell each day; and , significantly in the light of Chris Grayling’s assurances that prisoners don’t need books to be sent in to them , the young men  had inadequate access to the library because of the lack of available prison officers. Library staff were frequently unable to run activities they had planned.

Many will say that prisons must cut their costs along with every other part of government. The problem is that even before any cuts prisons like Brinsford were unable to meet required standards. Back in 2005 Inspectors found an establishment that was struggling to provide appropriate levels of safety, respect and even basic cleanliness.  Two years later despite the critical 2005 report, managers had failed to remedy many of the deficits in safety and respect that inspectors considered were within their control. In 2009 Brinsford was not able to provide a sufficiently safe and purposeful environment for young adults and in 2011 this was still the case.  

Given its history how could a cut in resources produce anything but the catalogue of failure reported today?