Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Prisons- a Collective Failure?

As part of the celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, today has seen efforts to promote the rules bearing his name which seek to establish minimum standards for the world’s prisons. The first of these rules states that “the safety and security of prisoners, staff, service providers and visitors shall be ensured at all times”.

How shameful therefore that today also saw the Chief Inspector of Prisons publish a damning indictment of the prison system in England and Wales. A year ago, in his 2015-16 report, Peter Clarke found that too many prisons had become violent and dangerous places. Far from seeing improvements since then, things have got even worse with “startling increases in all types of violence”. Surely, it is- or should be- a national scandal that there was not a single establishment that Clarke inspected in 2016-17 in which it was safe to hold children and young people.

There may be some satisfaction but limited value in allocating blame for what is in truth a collective failure over the last seven years. Successive Justice Secretaries since 2010 should carry the bulk of the can. In the Coalition years, Kenneth Clarke made a gung- ho financial settlement with the Treasury which he failed to adjust when his plans to reduce the size of the prison population crashed and burned. His successor, Chris Grayling focussed on making the prison system “cheaper not smaller” by allowing it to remain largely publicly run in return for reckless staff reductions. The Lib Dem Coalition partners were silent throughout.

Post 2015 when prison reform allegedly became a top social justice priority, Michael Gove was allowed to pontificate endlessly while conditions in jail continued to deteriorate. It’s perhaps only been Liz Truss who came close to recognising the scale of the crisis and started to get staff back on the landings.

There are questions too for the senior officials in the Ministry of Justice who could arguably have put more obstacles on the path to destruction. Exactly ten years ago, the Labour government were forced to release prisoners 18 days early to combat overcrowding.  Ministers took flak for the End of Custody Licence Scheme but had been told by officials that the system couldn’t cope without it. One would like to think today’s generation of prison bosses at least suggested something similar. The Youth Justice Board too fell asleep at the wheel of the children’s secure estate and has now been relieved of those duties.  

In truth, there are uncomfortable questions about the arrangements as a whole. Can a monitoring system said to be working when most Inspectorate recommendations are not achieved, and the Ombudsman finds prisons unable to learn lessons from his reports? It is dispiriting that pre 2017 election plans to strengthen monitoring bodies and require a response to what they say have been scrapped.

On the wider front, the Justice Committee has found it hard to hold ministers to account in Parliament. Perhaps like some of civil society they have been taken in by the grandiose rhetoric around prison reform. While looking at the stars they have forgotten that prisons are in the gutter. Today’s report did not merit an urgent question or statement in the House of Commons.
   

Peter Clarke says, without conviction, that he hopes sharper responses to his Inspectorate reports can be realised through administrative directions. For all our sakes, a much more comprehensive set of answers are required to the grave charges he makes in his annual report.    

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Satellite Tracking of Offenders - Pie in the Sky?

The National Audit Office Report on recent efforts to expand electronic tagging paints a sorry picture of failed procurements, contract disputes and wasted public money including £60m of sunk costs. The report finds the new generation electronic monitoring system (EM)– which both enforces curfews by verifying whether an offender or suspect is at home and a location tracking function -will be five years late if it gets going by next year.

Whether this is realistic or not “will largely depend on the plans of G4S, the new preferred bidder for the tags”. It’s hard to understand how the controversial private security company is still involved in this field at all. For one thing, they are under investigation for fraud following the 2014 overbilling scandal- one of the factors identified by the NAO as contributing to the delays in the new system. Should criminal wrongdoing be proved, could they really continue with the contract?  And while G4S’s future role seems to be limited to providing the tags themselves, only last year faults were found with these. As a result enforcement action may have been taken against offenders or suspects in response to false tamper reports.

What the NAO report doesn’t do is make a broader and longer term assessment of the contribution that EM has and could make to criminal justice. If they had, they’d find the delay in getting location tracking off the ground is closer to fifteen years than five.   In 2004, with the prison population at 74,000, then Home Secretary David Blunkett promised that satellite tracking technology could provide the basis for a 'prison without bars', potentially cutting prison overcrowding, and expensive accommodation. Plans were announced for the 5,000 most prolific offenders in England and Wales to be tagged and tracked using the global positioning system (GPS). Pilot schemes were duly arranged and evaluated with magistrates and District Judges finding tracking “a helpful sentencing option”.

Since then, while the prison population has increased by 11,000, the NAO found that the average number of subjects having their movements tracked using GPS in 2016-17 was …20. It’s true that more than 10,000 people are subject to curfews of one sort or another and some – particularly those on Home Detention Curfew- would otherwise be in prison.

But for whatever reason- political, technological, administrative- the promise of tracking as a way of emptying prisons has simply not been delivered. When I put this point to a provider of EM recently, I was told something to the effect that only 2% of households had fridges in 1950. Success, it seems is just around the corner.

An excellent recent study of EM concluded that it has universal appeal, with its chief purpose being “its perceived ability to bring about cost savings by operating as an alternative to prison”.  But as the NAO finds “there is still limited evidence"about its effectiveness. While their report documents a shocking history of failure to organise EM properly, it avoids the bigger question about the role it is expected to play in the criminal justice system in England and Wales.