Saturday, 23 December 2017

A Right Royal Scandal

I don’t know whether protocol requires the Queen to be told when her name is attached to a new organisation or when it is, whether she asks, now and again, how it’s getting along. Probably best not in the case of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) which replaced the National Offender Management Service in April. For as the year ends, the arrangements for both custodial and community based supervision are in deep trouble, with precious few signs of imminent recovery.

This week’s leaked report of the worst prison conditions ever encountered by inspectors casts serious doubt on Justice Secretary David Lidington’s claim that his government’s reform efforts are now making a difference. Probation’s teething problems have been replaced by difficulties of an altogether more deep rooted variety.  Why is it taking so long to fix this current penal crisis?

For one thing, the political energy has fizzled out of reform. When Brexit sank Cameron, down went prison reform as a great progressive cause, falling further still when plans for legislation were junked after this year’s election. Given the tsunami of violence and self-harm engulfing particularly local prisons, it’s all to the good that grandiose rhetoric made way for practical steps to replace recklessly reduced staff numbers and tackle the everyday misery in the cells and on the landings.

But we need an ambition which goes beyond stabilising the situation on the ground. As the European anti torture watch dog, the CPT, told the UK government this year “unless determined action is taken to significantly reduce the current prison population, the regime improvements envisaged by the authorities’ reform agenda will remain unattainable”

Political courage is therefore needed to stem sentence inflation, invest in constructive regimes and allow for earlier release.  Instead we’ve seen a raising of maximum sentences and more offences made eligible for increase if they’re found to be unduly lenient. Here’s a suggestion; if it is deemed necessary to raise a maximum sentence – as is the case with animal cruelty – then lower the upper limit for something else- perhaps theft from 7 years to 5, or possession of a class C drug from 2 years to 6 months. There’s no need for ever longer sentences and the system can’t cope with them.

At a technical level, there are growing questions about whether services are being provided by HMPPS in the best way. It’s now increasingly accepted that the two tier probation system is the predicted unholy mess incapable of delivering success. But given the operational crisis in prisons, is the Academy model the right way to go?  At Holme House, one of the Pathfinder Reform Prisons, inspectors found this summer a significant deterioration in outcomes since 2013 and a big gap between aspiration and the day-to-day reality. At many jails, inspectors have called for much more in the way of support from the centre not less.   At Liverpool’s Walton jail, managers had sought help from regional and national management to improve conditions they knew to be unacceptable long before the inspectors arrived- but had met with little response.  There’s a lot to be said for empowering governors but nothing for leaving them to fend for themselves in a time of crisis.  

Nor is there merit in prisons having freedom to ignore the recommendations for improvement made by the bodies which monitor them. In 2016-7, Inspectors found fewer of the recommendations that they’d previously made were achieved than not. True they can now call out the worst problems immediately they see them, but the long awaited protocol containing this Urgent Notification Process is a missed opportunity to require a proper public response to all of the findings they make. A prison should accept them and act- or reject them and say why. This might prevent the neglect of cells at Walton which ministers claim have had no money spent on them since 1994. Better too if the recommendations of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) and Independent Monitoring Boards are treated in the same way.

Alongside political ambivalence and administrative weaknesses, there still lies a huge resource shortfall. We’re endlessly told the target for 2500 new staff is being met and of course additional officers are helping to ease the worst problems. But its not enough. As the IMB at Bristol reported, “new recruits are being thrown in at the deep end and having to shadow experienced members of staff in firefighting mode rather than with time to train staff more comprehensively”.  Crisis management is the new normal. We’ re told less about the 10,000 new prison places promised by 2020 – and even less about the old prisons they’ll replace- if indeed they will.

10 years ago the Queen famously asked academics at the LSE why no one saw the financial crash coming. She might reasonably ask the same question about the prison and probation crisis, and more importantly now, whether enough is being done to fix it. She might suggest one of her Commissions might be able to help- perhaps a Royal Commission on the use and practice of imprisonment in England and Wales.

Largely out of fashion and open to the criticism of "taking minutes and wasting years," Royal Commissions can nevertheless  play an important role in charting a way forward in respect of deep seated, controversial and intractable issues. Penal policy and provision tick all of those boxes . The CPT recalled in their report this year that  "the adverse effects of overcrowding and lack of purposeful regime have been repeatedly highlighted by the Committee since 1990". Could 2018 be the year to start to bring the scandal to an end?

No comments:

Post a Comment