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.