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.