Friday, 26 February 2016

Young Women in Prison- a Neglected Group

 Despite a growing and overdue recognition by criminal justice services that young people do not magically achieve adult maturity on their 18th birthday, there’s an important group of young adults whose needs have not yet fully been analysed let alone met- young women.  Whether it’s because numbers are small or a sense that their characteristics differ little from those of older women, recent initiatives have neglected to consider how best young females should be managed when they come into conflict with the law. 

A new report from the Transition to Adulthood Alliance looks at how the prison system manages the 18-21 year old women in custody.  While there are fewer than 200 of this age group in custody at any one time, the way they are cared for represents something of a paradox.  Up to the age of 18 girls are not held in prison service custody at all, but detained either in Secure Children’s Homes or Secure Training Centres. In some of these facilities, they may undertake education and other activities alongside boys.

On reaching the age of majority however, young women find themselves not only in prison but in an adult women’s prison – unlike many young men in custody, they are not placed in a Young Offender Institution exclusively designated for their age group.  It’s true that in some establishments, young women stay in separate wings or units but many prisons have found it easier to manage young women if they are mixed in the general population. Whether this is the right or most effective approach is one of the questions raised in “Meeting the Needs of Young Adult Women in Custody”.

Using data and information from recent Inspection and monitoring reports and from a number of site visits, the study assesses the adequacy of the current arrangements for young women and of the standards which underpin them.  The report makes a number of recommendations including:

·         the introduction of  more age appropriate rules , incentives and regimes within custodial settings

·        better staffing, with more female officers trained in ways of treating young women who have experienced trauma and abuse;  and

·        through the gate mentoring approaches for this age group with a focus on helping young women find suitable housing and work.

The report also argues that systematic research is undertaken into the benefits and drawbacks of mixing young and older women in prison together with the collection of more information about the nature and seriousness of violent offences for which young women are imprisoned.

While a higher proportion of young women in custody are there for violent crimes compared to older women prisoners, half of 18-20 year old women sentenced to prison receive terms of six months or less. Of these, over half are convicted of theft or handling stolen goods. These findings suggest that there is considerable scope for greater use of community based sentences. The report argues that a stronger presumption be introduced against the use of custody for young women. Such an approach is likely to give them the best chance of growing out of crime and leading happy, healthy and productive lives.   

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Between the Idea and the Reality Lies the Shadow- Where now for the Prison Reforms?

Prisons week in the UK is usually in the autumn – at least that’s when the Churches promote awareness of the needs of prisoners and their families in the UK. But it was last week that political and media interest in prison issues reached a level unseen since perhaps the Strangeways riot a quarter of a century ago. Starting with last Sunday’s government briefings on keeping mothers out of jail,  we heard about far reaching structural reform of prisons from the PM, and proposals for a complete overhaul of youth custody. The week ended with a front page splash in the Guardian about the possibility of a single supermax prison for terrorists, while Messrs Grayling and Gove tried to persuade Telegraph readers that there’s no contradiction between being tough on crime and smart on rehabilitation. Meanwhile, The Times carried an interview with youth justice reviewer Charlie Taylor that seemed almost as long as his interim report that came out on Tuesday.

What are we to make of the glut of policies, plans and schemes that have been put forward in the last seven days?  I have already suggested that there is more than a little rhetoric in the Government’s new found conversion to prison reform and much of what’s been announced will be difficult if not impossible to implement. Good luck to the civil servants who will have to make something of the big talk in the coming months and years.

One such senior official from the not so distant past has had interesting things to say about how criminal justice policies are formed and translated into practice. In his 2001 book Crime, State and Citizen, former Home Office mandarin David Faulkner identifies five laws of public administration which seem particularly relevant to last week’s proposals.  One is that there is a limit to the number of priorities to which any organisation can pay attention at any one time. There is a real risk that prison will move from being a victim of political neglect to one of over stimulation. NOMS Chief Michael Spurr told the Clinks AGM that after the election he had been hoping for a period of consolidation. Good luck with that one.

Another of Faulkner’s laws is that it is not possible indefinitely to do more with less. Bringing about improvements of the kind promised last week cannot plausibly be achieved without investment. It’s good that the prison education budget has been maintained but five years of  cuts in prison funding mean there’s a struggle to meet basic standards let alone achieve grandiose sounding advances.

Faulkner argued too that mistakes in matters of detail especially in the early stages of a policy can have a disproportionately damaging effect. While welcoming much of the thrust of the Taylor report, I must admit to frustration at how little detail appeared in the Youth Justice review- less broad brush more roller.  I was expecting some concrete proposals to comment on but there does not seem to be an opportunity to submit evidence at all.

A fourth insight concerns the way simplistic error drives out complex truth, with a temptation to rely on uncertain evidence because it is politically convenient. There looks to be a real risk of this in relation to the terrorist prison idea.  At a recent international roundtable on radicalisation “there was consensus that the optimal approach will vary from individual case to individual case; for example, a prisoner recently returned from Syria may in fact be disillusioned and not present a risk to other inmates in terms of radicalisation so it may be appropriate for him or her to be integrated with other inmates”. A single supermax would presumably not permit this. Even with the plan for tagging mothers, unless real thought is given to how individuals lead their lives, a well meaning  programme could be setting people up to fail.   

Finally Faulkner submitted that in almost areas of policy, dynamics count for more than structure. Structural change may be necessary but the impact on relationships, trust, confidence and motivation of those who work within the system need to be considered. Gove and Grayling give an upbeat assessment of the Probation reforms but they know that the jury is well and truly out. And it is surely worrying that the most far reaching reforms of prisons since Victorian times seem not to have involved the Prison Governors Association.  

The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on wanting to get on with proper, full-on prison reform.  But between the idea and the reality lies the shadow .As prisons go back into the shadows this week, ministers and their officials will do well to remember Faulkner’s laws if they really want to see change.  

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Secure Schools : Sea Change or Fantasy

Prison reformers tend to be  optimists so many will be hopeful that a new generation of secure schools recommended by the Charlie Taylor youth justice review will fare better than the institutions they look set to replace. When Taylor spoke at a Prison Education Trust (PET) event a few weeks ago I was struck by how he did not mention the word offenders once. His welcome focus was on how best to meet the needs of children and young people through education irrespective of how they had found their way into the justice system. It was refreshingly different from the narrow obsessions with reducing re-offending which have come to define the discourse on children in conflict with the law.

In the interim report of his review, in just ten pages Taylor proposes a sea change in youth custody which would see young offender institutions removed from the prison service and replaced by small secure schools. When I became a member of  the Youth Justice Board in 1998, Lord Ramsbotham had recommended removing prison service responsibility for under 18 year olds. But it was a step too far and we tried instead to reform the prison estate.  We struggled to make a prison culture sufficiently child aware let alone centred- it took years of negotiation with the POA to persuade staff to swap their traditional black and white uniforms for a less threatening outfit; and the rules and regulations guiding adult establishments have continued to dominate life in young offender institutions. Tearing up the current system and starting again was one of the suggestions made at the PET event and this is what is being proposed now. Taylor’s idea –and in truth it's not much more than that at present –is not a million miles from what I suggested when I stood down from the Board in 2006.

But I am afraid that I have real doubts about whether Secure Schools will come to fruition any more than the Secure College which was abandoned last year. Though the new idea is much, much better, it has pounds signs written all over it. Taylor’s report admits moving to an estate which comprises “a larger number of small, education led establishments presents financial and operational challenges, and we are exploring a range of options to achieve this vision”. These are precisely the financial challenges that have seen a dramatic decline in places in local authority run secure children’s homes- the closest we have to secure schools.  Building and running several hundred places in small local units simply looks unaffordable in the short term. Little wonder that the Prime Minister committed only to explore using the free school process to set up these "secure alternative provision academies". I titled my blog on his prison reform speech "rhetorical policy making " but wish I'd kept it for this one.

Taylor wants local rather than central bodies to assume responsibilities for the costs of his schools  in the medium term.  As I argued recently , it would be better to move quickly to devolve custodial costs to local authorities and Police and Crime Commissioners, so that they could use the funds to commission a range of options- secure, semi secure and community based measures. The school model sketched out today could be one option but intensive fostering placements, family therapy or better casework supervision might be equally relevant and effective. In truth, institutions of any kind have rarely been effective with young people- not surprising perhaps when the last thing most parents would sensibly do with a child who goes off the rails is to confine them 24/7 in the exclusive company of other such children.

Investing in services which can assist such young people without locking them up should produce better results. As Taylor turns his attention to courts, sentencing (and presumably the age of criminal responsibility) he has the chance to recommend a legal framework within which such services can be more extensively applied to young people who currently go to custody.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Rhetorical Policy Making?

There’s a lot to commend in David Cameron’s prison reform speech today, not least the language of moderation and humanity with which he describes people in conflict with the law. It certainly seems at odds with the views a man who claimed that the prospect of prisoners voting made him physically sick and who was Michael Howard’s special adviser. But it reinforced  the commitment Cameron made at last October’s party conference that prison reform would be a defining cause for  his government, with a range of initiatives designed to produce world class prisons fit for the 21st century.

Let’s leave to one side the fact that the marked decline in prison standards that Cameron decried today are in some part at least his own doing. And also the need to shrink the prison population which Cameron flatly denied. These political and policy questions will run and run. But what of the technical approach to prison management proposed today?

Cameron's bold solution lies in wholesale structural reform to the way prisons are run, modelled on the principles applied to health and education reforms. And its being done in a hurry. Cameron seemed to accept the findings of reviews into prison education and youth justice that have not been completed let alone published or debated.

But  on one of the central ideas, there must be serious questions about whether the deep seated problems in prisons catalogued by outgoing Inspector Nick Hardwick can simply be resolved by giving governors greater control over what look in many cases at least inadequate budgets.  Moreover unlike with schools or hospitals, prison’s consumers do not have the choice to attend one particular institution rather than another. The absence of consumer choice marks a clear distinction between education and health on the one hand and prisons on the other.

Blaming the bureaucracy for stifling innovation makes for good soundbites but as I have argued previously, important questions remain about what freedoms governors will actually enjoy first in the six “Reform Prisons” and more widely thereafter. Will governors be able to make more generous decisions about early or temporary release, introduce conjugal visits or create their own incentive and punishment schemes? Could they ignore the internationally acclaimed suicide and self- harm prevention procedures, allow prisoners to undertake comedy courses   or raise their levels of pay to the living wage?  The pressures of public acceptability and prisoners’ rights will surely limit the degree of innovation that Governors will in practice be able to apply. Michael Gove must indicate soon what will continue to be prescribed from the centre and what departures will be permitted

The Prison Governors Association response to the speech was lukewarm at best. In the absence of the necessary detail, many members will surely fear that prospects of performance related pay will not compensate for the risks of a buck being passed.

For the new system to work, there will also need to be clarity about the accountability arrangements for prisons.  Cameron promised more transparency with league tables to name and shame poor performers. But attribution of effects to particular institutions is arguably more difficult than with schools. Newly autonomous Governors will surely need some sort of advisory board or panel with whom to consult before introducing major innovations.

Finally the new approach while hoping for success must plan for failure .What happens in the event of an escape, the murder of an officer, a grave further offence on the one hand or simply an inability to drive down re-offending.  Are we to see a hire and fire approach on the part of the Secretary of State or something different.

Until Mr Gove can give compelling answers to some of these questions, Mr Cameron’s speech lies in the realm of rhetorical policy making. 

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A World of Prisons

If you want to know how many people are in prison in the Seychelles, your luck is in. Today sees the latest edition of the World Prison Population List compiled by Roy Walmsley. Roy started to produce the essential resource when he worked in the Home Office. The UK government decided to stop publishing it in the early 2000’s, embarrassed perhaps that England and Wales sat consistently at the top of the European section of the league table. The List (and the World Prison Brief the database upon which it’s based) then found a home at the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) . Today’s eleventh edition is published by the Institute of Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck College where ICPS moved last year and where the data continues to be collated by Roy along with Helen Fair.

This year’s list contains detailed information about how 10.35 million prisoners are distributed among  223 prison systems, and the the rate of imprisonment per 100,000 of the general population in each country- essential for making comparisons between states of different sizes. For the first time trend data is included showing how prison numbers and rates have changed over the last 15 years.

Looking through the information three points struck me.  Surprisingly perhaps, the continent which has seen the sharpest increase in imprisonment is Oceania, dominated by Australia, whose prison population rose by 66% between 2000 and 2015, and New Zealand whose total rose by 56%. And while the USA is by some way the leading user of prison among large countries, its rate of incarceration at 698 per 100,000 is not much greater than in 2000 when it was 683. It is South rather than North American countries that have seen enormous rises with prison numbers and rates more than doubling in Brazil, Peru and Venezuela for example.

The second striking fact is that the world’s poorest nations generally have very low rates of imprisonment ; none of the 12 countries with the lowest GDP per head lock up more than 100 per 100,000 of their people, most much fewer.The rates are 16 in the Central African Republic, 26 in Guinea and 61 in Mozambique for example.

But what happens when countries grow richer? Is a rise in the use of imprisonment inevitable along the lines of Brazil? Not always it seems. Of the so-called MINT emerging economies, Mexico, Indonesia and particularly Turkey have seen very large rises while Nigeria like India and Pakistan have kept rates very low.  The Asian Tiger economies appear to have seen economic and prison growth in tandem although China (where data is incomplete) seems to have kept their use of prison stable.

Finally there are some notable examples of falls in the use and rate of imprisonment in almost all parts of the world. Countries whose rates of imprisonment are lower now than 15 years ago include Canada, South Africa, Germany and spectacularly Russia where there are 650,000 in prison compared to more than a million in 2000. In some of the countries in this group, there are specific explanations – such as Rwanda where the effects of sentencing after the genocide have started to wear off. But in other countries a complex web of factors is likely to be at play- some political some technical -but something  well worth examining in detail. There are almost certainly lessons to consider and apply, not least in England and Wales where 86,000 people are currently in prison compared to 65,000 at the turn of the century..

The List provides the raw material with which to undertake that analysis.  It is an invaluable source of knowledge for which we should be immensely grateful. By the way the answer for the Seychelles is 735 prisoners- but with a population of 92,000 the islands' rate of imprisonment at 799 per 100,000 is the world’s highest.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Policing International Assistance in the Justice Field

Last week’s National Audit Office report on the Government’s ill-fated venture Justice Solutions International will seem to many the last word on the subject. The NAO found that the Commercial arm of NOMS which was disbanded in September 2015 ran up net costs of about £1.1 million, although this was largely because JSI was forced to withdraw from lucrative but highly controversial contracts in Saudi Arabia and Oman.  Legal blogger David Allen Green has described the political fallout from the saga which led to JSI’s closure.

When the issue came to the fore last year, I offered a partial defence of efforts bring about improvements in overseas prison systems in order to reduce the risk of torture and ill treatment among detainees. But the Human Rights Watch line – that quiet training programmes are not a substitute for active British engagement with the Saudi authorities on human rights abuses in the justice system- has prevailed- (although I still consider that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive).

Why the NAO report should perhaps not be the last word is that a great deal more money is obtained for overseas work by the police than it has been by prisons or probation. The College of Policing has generated more than £8.5 million as a result of the international services that it has provided since its inception in December 2012. The Government told the Home Affairs Committee last year that the College should "seek to broaden business opportunities in both new and existing markets in the UK and overseas" which might include delivering training internationally; however, this should take into account the human rights records of the countries involved.

Has it done so? The countries, listed on the College's website, which have been involved include Saudi and Oman; well over a third of the 54 countries where help has been provided retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes.  When Labour
MP Andy Slaughter asked a parliamentary question last year about the contract with Saudi, he was told that the College of Policing in common with other organisations, does not routinely publish details of commercial agreements and has no plans to do so. The Home Secretary has no plans to direct the College of Policing to disclose this information. FoI requests from the BBC revealed that 270 Saudi Police officers had been trained since 2012 and 26 College staff deployed in Saudi. Further information about the cost and nature of the support have not been forthcoming. One of the reasons for the College's reticence is that they claim to have "a duty to the organisations we work with to maintain an appropriate level of confidentiality on both technical and commercial details."  

Is that the final word? Following the JSI report,  maybe the NAO should turn their attention to the commercial activities of the College of Policing to ensure the taxpayer is getting value for money. And surely we  need a fuller  debate about how the UK provides international technical assistance in both the policing and justice sectors, the risks involved and the safeguards that ought to be in place.