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.