Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Review of the Year (2) Prisons

Prisons minister Rory Stewart said today he wished he could lock MPs in the Commons chamber until they produced a positive consensus on Brexit. On reflection, yet another 650-place inner city Victorian jail is probably the last thing he needs in his day job- much as the public might at present support his sentiment. 

From the start of his tenure in January, when faced with explaining piles of rubbish, vermin infestations and degrading cell conditions at HMP Liverpool, Stewart and his boss David Gauke have certainly not ducked the challenge of trying to repair a ravaged prison estate, sensibly eschewing the high-flown rhetoric of their predecessors in favour of a back-to-basics campaign.  

At year end, Stewart told the Justice Committee he believed there are green shoots. Sadly, three weeks earlier, the Chief Inspector of Prisons told  a different tale. In July, Peter Clarke’s Annual Report had documented conditions which “have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st century.” By November, Clarke had seen nothing to give him optimism that any significant corner has been turned. “The violence figures are going in the wrong direction. We still see far too many drugs destabilising prisons. As to living conditions, I have not seen significant improvement in the prisons we inspect”.  

Of course, there should be improvements over time as staff numbers, so recklessly reduced earlier in the decade, increase and the new recruits that stick with it gain experience and confidence. The Inspectorate’s new Independent Reviews of Progress will hopefully document a more positive picture than we’ve seen in 2018- what Her Majesty might call an annus horribilis for her Prison and Probation Service.

Not surprisingly a whirlwind of initiatives has been announced during the year- and some are on the way to implementation. The revamped personal officer scheme (OMIC) has promise and the extension of in cell telephones could improve family contact and cut demand for illicit mobiles. More opportunities for release on temporary licence and enhanced living conditions for prisoners who engage with the regime could encourage positive behaviour as part of incentive schemes to be developed by governors rather than hq . Whether this can add up to a promised "rehabilitative culture" within establishments remains to be seen.

Already underway is the installation of new technology security solutions- airport-style scanners, body worn cameras, and phone-blocking. Dogs are used to patrol landings even in Category B prisons. There is a crackdown on crime in prison, with more prosecutions and tougher penalties for assaults on prison staff. 

In a recent case a prisoner in a Segregation unit pleaded guilty to three counts of administering a noxious substance for three separate potting incidents. Horrible of course, and I don’t know the details - but are three 10-month sentences served consecutively the only way of holding prisoners to account for this kind of behaviour?  More needs to be done to identify what lies behind it. In an investigation I did (published this year), I found debt in prison can be seen as a stone best left unturned by staff .

It’s not clear what’s become of promised changes to security categorisation aimed at isolating gang leaders from their followers. The rollout of PAVA spray looks to be on its way despite the Prison Reform Trust’s well-argued call for a rethink. It's a measure which owes as much to placating the demands of an increasingly frustrated POA as it does to  the success of the pilot scheme. 

In terms of resettlement, the challenges remain enormous. The Employment Strategy reports success in attracting business interest in taking on ex offenders and post Brexit gaps in the labour market could offer opportunities to people coming out of prison. Measures have also been announced to reduce shocking levels of homelessness and rough sleeping though currently limited to pilot sites.  At HMP Leeds, half of prisoners said in the Inspectorate’s survey this year they weren’t getting the help they needed to sort out accommodation, employment and finance on release.  Somehow, the inspectors rated outcomes on rehabilitation and release planning as reasonably good. 

To help fix this, a relaunched Through The Gate service should see 500 extra resettlement staff across all resettlement prisons in England and Wales. Yet the Prison Service cant seem to find a way to avoid the basic difficulties, highlighted by NACRO , created by  releasing prisoners on a Friday. 

2018 saw confirmation that two new men’s prisons will be built at Wellingborough and Glen Parva, both to be run by the private sector. These will provide more than 3,000 places out of a promised total of 10,000 in the new for old estate modernisation programme  Despite the debacle at HMP Birmingham which saw the prison service step in to run it in August, the Government has announced a Prison Operator Services Framework competition suggesting that the private sector will continue to play an important role -under a Conservative government at any rate. The Justice Committee’s hearing into what went wrong at Birmingham is a poor substitute for the full independent assessment  recommended by Peter Clarke. The assertion by former Justice Minister Phillip Lee that “companies are currently ripping off taxpayers” also needs proper investigation.

June’s long awaited Female Offender Strategy thankfully scrapped plans for small women’s prisons but pledged only a small proportion of what they would have cost to fund alternative residential centres. 

Should we expect something similar in respect of plans for new men’s prisons in the light of lower than expected prison population projections and higher pressures on the MOJ budget? There is certainly  case for a much wider range of custodial, residential and community-based options than currently exist for those remanded for or convicted of offences.

Back in January, two weeks into the job, Rory Stewart told the Justice Committee that

“If I am not able in the next 12 months to achieve some improvements in making these prisons basically clean, with more fixed broken windows and fewer drugs, I am not doing my job, and I would like you to hold me to account for that in 12 months’ time”.

Sensibly he subsequently bought himself more time (until August 2019) and specified ten prisons on which to be judged. Its HMPPS Chief Michael Spurr who’ll be leaving in the New Year.  Will Stewart be following him out of the gate?

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