Monday, 28 September 2015

Defining Decency Down

There were wry smiles among staff at the headquarters of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) last week. Apparently bailiffs turned up in Reception in pursuit of an unpaid debt. It took a senior legal adviser a couple  of hours to get them off the premises but at least the  furniture still seemed to be in place in the bit I visited anyway.

It doesn’t get much starker as an illustration of the financial pressures facing the Ministry of Justice but it wasn’t the only one to surface in the last few days. A far more serious example lies in Nick Hardwick’s inspectorate report into Cookham Wood, woeful  even by the standards we have sadly come to expect . High levels of violence, a backlog of disciplinary cases and worsening outcomes no longer shock as they should. All are symptoms surely of the need for greater numbers of capable staff to work with these troubled and troublesome boys in the care of the state.  The failure to provide enough well trained people is as much a sign of reckless cost cutting as are bailiffs at the door of hq.  

What did surprise was the response of the Youth Justice Board to the inspection, its Chief Executive pleased to see that inspectors had recognised the progress made at Cookham Wood  “which is especially encouraging in the light of the challenging and vulnerable cohort of young people whose needs the establishment seeks to address”. 

It’s true that the report commends certain improvements – in the reception process, safeguarding and resettlement for example. But progress? It is the deterioration in safety and in basic care which should really be worrying the YJB as the body that commissions the places at the establishment. In the inspectorate’s survey, only 14% of the boys said they had association every day and exercise in the fresh air was limited to 30 minutes a day, a breach of the best known international prison rule which requires double that. Many of the 25% of staff who were from other prisons “did not know the work, the institution or the boys.” Not long after the Inspectors visited, a boy died in Cookham Wood.  The YJB’s response to the findings looks like a case of “praising with faint condemnation”.

As Hardwick hints, all this is yet more evidence, if it were needed, that prison is no place for this age group. Yet if there is to be fundamental change, there is a need to be outraged by what is happening in places like Cookham Wood. The YJB , MoJ and NOMS are in danger of turning a blind eye to the impact of the budget cuts they oversee.  Given the state to which the youth custody sector has been reduced, looking to it to help the YJB find fresh savings imposed on it by the MoJ seems a poor call.

In one of his well- received pre-recess speeches Michael Gove  warned , in his philosophical way, that reforms to the criminal justice system should not be achieved by “defining deviancy down”- a phrase coined by Daniel Moynihan in the 1970’s to decry a permissive tendency to normalise what was once offensive. Whether or not he’s right on that, he certainly should not be defining decency down and accepting what is happening in prisons for young people. He should not be reviewing them- he should be planning to shut them. 

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