Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Pulling the Chain Gang


Boris Johnson can’t see any reason why lawbreakers “shouldn't be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society”. If that isn’t a nod to Britain First whose policies include the introduction of chain gangs to provide labour for public works- it’s at least an evidence free appeal to the public’s baser instincts to punish and humiliate people in conflict with the law.

The Prime Minister is probably unaware of Recommendations made by the Council of Europe about prison and probation services, but if he is serious about this chain gang proposal – which I doubt- they provide a number of important grounds for avoiding it. 

The 2010 European Probation Rules, developed by leading international experts and approved by the 47 CoE member states including the UK, make clear that probation agencies must respect the human rights of offenders, with all their interventions having  due regard to their dignity, health, safety, and well-being. Community service, in particular, “shall not be of a stigmatising nature.”    The Commentary to the Rules  say that “uniforms that identify community service workers as offenders at work are unlikely to support reintegration”.

In 2017, the CoE adopted Rules which require community-based sanctions to be implemented in a way that does not aggravate their “afflictive nature”, because to do so would be unjust. Gratuitously punitive measures “can also be expected to create resistance and unwillingness to co-operate in any attempt to secure the individual’s law-abiding adjustment in the community”. 

The 2017 Rules also require adequate safeguards to protect offenders from “insult and improper curiosity or publicity”, because community-based penalties may expose them to the risk of public opprobrium or social stigmatisation. 

In fact, many people doing unpaid work already wear bibs- Jack Straw introduced the idea in 2008 in one of its  many rebrandings as “Community Payback (CP) ”. 

 A 2016  inspection of unpaid work found that “a small number of offenders expressed concern at having to wear the high visibility tabards as they felt it was stigmatizing” . One told inspectors that “some members of the public see the CP vests and look down on you. I bet they think ‘what’s he done’ or ‘is he a sex offender’. I have said good morning to people and been ignored. But others appreciate what we are doing so that’s good.”

While the Beating Crime Plan may amount to less than the sum of its parts, it actually contains one or two good ideas. The best unpaid work is already delivered in consultation with local partners so requiring schemes to support community objectives and meet identified needs should bolster public confidence.  As the CoE say,  “work should have purpose and wherever possible should be of genuine benefit to the community.”

More problematic is the pledge to increase the use of electronic monitoring. Expanding EM has been promised countless times since then Home Secretary David Blunkett launched the pilot “Prisons without Bars" in 2004. Will this finally be the time for satellite technology to take off?  

The Plan claims that the use of EM has increased substantially over the last year but statistics out this week show that although the number of subjects on EM on any given day has risen over the last 12-months, the number of new orders has not, "indicating subjects are being tagged for longer periods." 

Moreover, in their latest assessments of confidence in various government programmes, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) rated the MoJ’s EM project as amber/red. That means it’s in doubt, with major risks in key areas. Urgent action is needed to address problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible.

The IPA mention specific concerns about delays & the quality of case management being provided by suppliers. Apparently “the Project is working collaboratively with suppliers to identify contingency options”. This does not sound like the strongest basis for the promised expansion.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Late for School?


Mixed messages last week about the prospects for the governments flagship Secure Schools initiative. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority reported that the first school  is “on track” to open in December 2022 but the Ministry of Justice Outcome Delivery Plan committed only to a start “by 2023.”  Appearing before the Commons Justice Committee, MoJ minister Alex Chalk gave a somewhat downbeat account of  “of trying to repurpose Medway”, the former secure training centre (STC) which will become the first, and quite possibly only, secure school.

In rather flippant evidence, Chalk told MPs “It is very much more complicated than simply turning the lights on and saying, ‘There you go, it’s a secure school. Off you go.’ There is a huge amount that needs to take place because, as you will appreciate, Ofsted needs to be satisfied that from an architectural point of view it qualifies as a secure children’s home (SCH) , which is materially different from a secure training centre, and there need to be all the paraphernalia of a children’s home—new fire standards and goodness knows what.”

Chalk added that only in September, will there be a final specification “for what it needs to look like, and therefore the final cost. What I can tell you is that the cost is not going down. It is a very expensive undertaking—very, very expensive indeed.”  He complained that “ every time we go round Medway, we find other things that need to be sorted out.”

In terms of further secure schools,  Chalk wondered aloud whether the forthcoming Spending Review would provide the necessary resources. He would not be drawn on whether the currently failing Rainsbrook STC would become the site of the second secure school but thought it likely that the contract for the other remaining STC, Oakhill, would run its course until 2029. That will be  13 years after the Government agreed with Charlie Taylor’s vision that both Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and STCs “should be replaced in the longer term by smaller secure schools situated in the regions that they serve”.

Chalk raised questions about the viability of that vision even in the long term. “We are going to need to ensure for some time yet that there is a blend of provision, so that all types can be accommodated. In the early stages, the people going into the secure school will be those who are most likely to get the most benefit out of the secure school. We have to keep our wits about us a little. We are talking about 550 of the most complex children anywhere in the United Kingdom, and we want to make sure that there is an estate that reflects that complexity”.

In fact his department’s projections – which don’t include children in STCs or SCHs -are for the population of under 18s in YOIs to rise from 400 last year to 700 in 2026. Given spending constraints, it’s hard to see much scope for reduction in reliance on the use of YOIs. Indeed, MPs were told that the MoJ are already considering placing girls under 18 back into them as a result of the Rainsbrook crisis.

Chalk made some Pollyannaish efforts to reassure the Committee that he would like to see “all our establishments move on a path to saying they are, in effect, places that are rehabilitative and secure, which sounds a bit like a secure school, I suppose, with a strong emphasis on the educational aspects, so that the differences between them do not so much fade away into irrelevance but are perhaps not quite as stark as in the past.” I don’t think that’s quite what Charlie Taylor had in mind.

There is an outside chance that a stalling youth justice reform programme in the MoJ could be offset a little if the Education Department start to expand the number of SCH beds. Since 2002, 16 secure children’s homes have closed. At any one time, around 25 children each day are waiting for a secure children’s home place and around 20 are placed by English authorities in Scottish secure units due to the lack of available places.  

Remedying the shortage of SCH places might prove more sensible than pursuing the Secure Schools programme.  And perhaps  more attractive to Chalk and his Department who would not have to pay for it,  up front at any rate. 

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Crisis in Youth Custody?


The task of finding alternative placements for the 33 children held at the unsafe Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre (STC) looks more challenging given today’s inspection report about the only other STC,  G4S run Oakhill in Milton Keynes.  

The Oakhill  inspection, prompted by two serious, violent incidents in which several staff suffered significant injuries, found that for a short period in the spring  “senior managers were in danger of losing control across the centre”. Inspectors were told that one of the factors leading to the instability was the arrival of a small number of children originally allocated to Rainsbrook after admissions there were halted.

Although by the time of the inspection at the end of last month, children at Oakhill were experiencing a calm, structured daily routine, because “uncertainties remain in the centre’s capacity to achieve a sustainable reduction in violence”, it would seem risky to move more than a very small number of  Rainsbrook residents there now.  Inspectors report that a high number of staff have left, many without notice after completing their induction programme and “a significant number have been dismissed”. The recruitment of new staff has not replenished the shortfall, which has been compounded by high sickness levels.  

There should be some options instead to move the Rainsbrook children to secure childrens homes, by far the best institutions in the closed estate for under 18s. At 31 March 2021, the Ministry of Justice were contracting  107 places in seven homes but only 55 children were placed in them by the Youth Custody Service (YCS). It is puzzling why the use of SCHs has fallen – 80 children were placed in them by the YCS a year earlier. 

The ultimate decision whether to admit a child rests with the SCH provider who must comply with Children Act regulations requiring them to accept only children whose needs they can meet alongside children already placed within the home. A recent study has found that “in practice, they will resist taking too many children with the same needs or risks, including those with sexually harmful behaviour.”  But most of those who have been at Rainsbrook should be moved to an SCH.

 If the YCS cannot reach agreement with secure childrens homes about all of the Rainsbrook children, they may look at transferring them to one of the five Young Offender Institutions, four of which are run by the prison service and one by G4S. Given that  STCs hold children who are deemed to be too vulnerable to be put into YOIs”, it would be hard to square such moves with “the aim of promoting children’s safety and ensuring decisions are made with children’s best interests as a primary consideration” as placement guidance requires. But at the end of the day, such decisions are made  “against a view of the available accommodation”.  

At least as far as Detention and Training Orders are concerned , placements could conceivably be made not only in STCs, SCH’s and YOIs, but “such other accommodation or descriptions of accommodation as the Secretary of State may specify by regulations”.  Maybe it is time to explore these.

Ironically, this mess arises in the context of some good news. At the end of April 2021, the number of children under 18 in custody was 493, the lowest since records began. This is a decrease of 23 compared with the previous month and 171 fewer than in April 2020.  Despite this welcome and sustained  fall in numbers - there were nearly 3,000 children locked up 15 years ago- the failure to invest the savings in expanding and developing secure childrens homes together with the glacial progress of the new Secure School has exposed a fundamentally broken system.

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre: What Next?


The Justice Secretary’s decision last week effectively to close Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre marks another low in the recent history of youth custody. Robert Buckland was left with little choice when Ofsted told him that the STC is unsafe for children and staff and had in some respects deteriorated since the end of last year when inspectors condemned a bleak and spartan regime, which despite assurances had not been adequately addressed.

Buckland made clear to the Justice Committee in March that he did not like being played for a fool and this time has taken decisive action. The American company running Rainsbrook  strongly refute Ofsted’s latest findings  and plan to vigorously challenge them but it is not clear how. They might try to seek a second opinion- then provider G4S controversially did this after a critical report in 2015- but it looks too late for that .   

Important questions remain.

First, where will the 33 children currently placed at Rainsbrook be placed?  They have all presumably been deemed too vulnerable to be put into Prison Service Young Offender Institutions . There is only one other STC in operation – Oakhill  run by G4S which at the end of last year was found “to require improvement to be good”.  This year Oakhill has experienced high levels of violence with senior managers "in danger of losing control across the centre". There are not likely to be sufficient places in Secure Children’s Homes to accommodate the children from Rainsbrook.

MPs should ask the Justice Secretary to report on exactly what safe, alternative accommodation has been found for them by the Youth Custody Service (YCS) . The law allows the Secretary of State to designate suitable non secure accommodation in which a Detention and Training Order can be served, and his officials should be advising him to explore this option rather than resort to YOI places.

Second, is Buckland open to giving MTC yet another chance?  He says that negotiations are ongoing on the future of the contract, but it looks like trust has all but broken down. A new MTC managing director - a respected former prison service manager- gave undertakings at the Justice Committee in March but Ofsted’s findings cast serious doubts about their value. Inspectors for example report that the STC director and senior leadership team “are not visible to staff and children, failing to provide them with guidance and reassurance”.  This was one of the main concerns raised earlier in the year which the new management promised to fix.  That they have not done so makes it hard to see how MTC can continue.

Moreover, given the repeated shortcomings over several years, it is still puzzling why the contract with MTC was extended early in 2020 for an extra two years- taking it up to May 2023. The Justice Committee are due an explanation from the MoJ by the end of June for what the MPs consider to be a serious error of judgment. Even if the matter  is overtaken by events, they should pursue it. Not only is there a question about ministers’ involvement in the decision but also about the role of the Head of the YCS, who it turns out used to work for MTC.

Third, what will happen if the contract is terminated?  Buckland says options may include bringing the STC back under public sector control or repurposing the site for alternative use. It has become increasingly clear that the STC model looks broken- two of the four Centres have already closed and the future ostensibly lies in the development of Secure Schools. The first of these – Oasis Restore- is due to open next year on the site at Medway in Kent which housed the first STC. Could Rainsbrook – the second STC- be turned into the second Secure School?

Alternatively, the site may be used as prison accommodation for adult or young adult prisoners. Medway has been used in this way during the pandemic pending its conversion to the Secure School. The government’s plans for 18,000 new prison places includes 400 from “estate conversions” so this cannot be ruled out.

A few years ago while on a visit to North Carolina, I spent an afternoon at the Art Gallery where a neighbouring sculpture park and trail  had been created on the former site of the Polk Youth Prison for juvenile offenders . One of the installations was made from the institution’s bricks. Could that be another option for Rainsbrook ?


Monday, 14 June 2021

Time after Time


There’s hope among reformers that harrowing BBC drama Time could trigger a much-needed rational debate about Britain’s prisons. If nothing else, a mostly accurate dramatisation of life inside makes the case for larger numbers of better trained prison staff, more humane day to day procedures and a major expansion of mental health care .

There could be a revival of interest in Restorative Justice – discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 14 June and much more questionably, in rehabilitation programmes which expose young people at risk to the realities of prison and enable them to talk to serving prisoners. In the form of “Scared Straight”, these have proved counterproductive for young people, and the jury is out on the impact on offenders of being trained  to run intervention programmes with young people. (I understand none of these activities currently take place inside prisons in England and Wales) .         

But what about the elephant in the room- the increasing periods of time prisoners serve in prison? Is there any prospect that a debate arising from the series could slow down the seemingly inexorable rise in length of custodial sentences for serious offences and the growing proportion of those sentences which are served behind bars?  The average custodial sentence for all offences has increased by almost 40% in length over the last ten years.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill now in Parliament will give effect to the Conservative manifesto pledge to “introduce tougher sentencing for the worst offenders and end automatic halfway release from prison for serious crimes”. But the Johnson government had taken steps even before the 2019 election to require the most serious offenders to serve a greater proportion of their sentence in custody in order, as they saw it, both to improve public protection and victims’ confidence in the administration of justice.

What was the evidence on which they based this change in policy? After all, the existing system of release at the halfway point for determinate custodial sentences had been endorsed by a comprehensive review and public consultation in 2010-11, “because it can enable effective resettlement and public protection”.  

Nine years on, a month after taking office Johnson purported to hold another sentencing review. But this time, there was no research and evidence paper, and no meaningful consultation. The MoJ claimed that “given the time constraints it has not been possible to undertake any formal public engagement, but we have conducted telephone interviews with some key stakeholders to give them the opportunity to give their views.” 13 organisations were contacted- neither judges nor the Sentencing Council were among them (and the Prison Inspectorate who were on the list told me they hadn’t in fact taken part). 

Nor was any report of the so-called review published. My efforts to require its publication reached the end of the road this month when a judge ruled that publication would present  a significant risk of undermining the confidential space needed by the MOJ to discuss and formulate policy in this controversial area. The judge took the view that “although it is interesting to know whether the policy adopted by the government is supported by stakeholders consulted, it does not seem to us that there is a great public interest in disclosing the policy document for that reason. It is very likely that in any event the policy formulation process leading to a White Paper and legislation will make it clear the path the government has taken and to which stakeholders it has listened (or not)”.

The judge is half right. It is clear who hasn’t been listened to- organisations which have pointed out that the change could lead to more crowded, violent and unstable prisons, more self -harm and  higher risks of re-offending- impacts the government has itself recognised as  “non-monetised costs”  (after they decided to go ahead anyway) .

But who has been listened to? Presumably, those who favour harsher punishment for its own sake and for its electoral appeal . Justice Minister Alex Chalk told Parliament last month that if people are to have confidence in the criminal justice system, they must "serve a sentence that reflects the indignation, anger and upset that we feel as a society on their behalf".

Contrast this approach with that of 2011, when to increase public confidence, the Government promised “to work with the Sentencing Council and victims’ groups to improve overall understanding of the sentencing framework and the construction of individual sentences”. 

Sadly, very little seems to have been done on that front and we are now faced with a second wave of penal populism. And for prisoners, a great deal more time as a result.


Monday, 17 May 2021

Rehabilitative Culture War


Last month inspectors reported on a prison where “a variety of well-embedded arrangements aimed at keeping residents and staff safe were in place”. Good news, except perhaps for Prisons Minister Alex Chalk who so dislikes the term “residents” he is seeking to prevent prison staff using it to describe or refer to people in prison.

Chalk has more important things to worry about than opening up an unnecessary front in the culture wars. But he reportedly believes the increasing use of alternative language is sending mixed messages about how the state and wider society perceives serious criminals. Apparently “we should be speaking plainly and not pretending that these people are angels residing in a cell out of choice”.

While far from being the most important problem in prisons, language can be important. I recall seeing a notice from a Governor a couple of years back reminding staff not to talk about “feeding” at mealtimes or “bending up” when applying restraint. Would Chalk prefer a return to this sort of plain speaking?

There has been an overdue recognition of the importance of treating people in prison with respect and dignity, giving them a voice and showing and encouraging trust. Why? Not least because more positive perceptions of so-called procedural justice by prisoners predict lower levels of misconduct, better emotional well-being and mental health outcomes and lower rates of future reoffending.

Of course, the dreadful conditions and experiences faced by many prisoners can make the term resident look peculiarly ironic and ill fitting. But requiring the application of a generic label of prisoner could allow Mr Chalk and his colleagues to ignore those awful realities, or worse justify them under the dismal doctrine of less eligibility. He would do well to remember that people are sentenced to prison as a punishment, not for a punishment.  

In an important statement launched this week, the United Nations is rightly promoting "a rehabilitative approach to prison management that fosters the willingness and ability of prisoners to lead law-abiding and self-supporting lives upon release, and that is embedded in a decent, safe and healthy prison environment and the positive engagement of officers with prisoners".

As part of such an approach, surely governors and staff should be able to continue to use terminology which communicates most productively with prisoners and their families, something which has been particularly important during the pandemic. If the language contributes towards a more rehabilitative ethos so much the better.  Referring to people in prison as residents won’t solve all of the problems in the system but neither will it do any harm.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

The Secure Estate for Children- Dates and Updates.


The Government’s response to February’s Justice Committee report on Children and Young People in Custody seems to raise fresh doubts that the first secure school will open in September next year. Before Oasis Charitable Trust can start their  self styled "revolution of love", the site at Medway – formerly a Secure Training Centre (STC) and subsequently used to hold adult prisoners during the height of the pandemic -needs extensive refurbishment to upgrade its facilities to “provide a homely child centred environment that meets children’s home regulations”. Subject to securing necessary approvals, the government intend to commence renovations only at the end of this year.

The MoJ say they “continue to work towards an opening date at the end of 2022 and will keep the Committee updated on progress” but I would not bet against slippage to 2023. That could make it seven years since Charlie Taylor first recommended Secure Schools in his 2016 Youth Justice Review. The government says, “in such a complex regulatory and operating environment, it is important to take the time to get it right”. They are certainly doing that.

As for the long- term ambition to replace all Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and STCs with secure schools, the admission that this “will take some time to be realized” is a serious understatement. There is no guaranteed funding for schools beyond so-called Oasis Restore at Medway. The MoJ “will keep the Committee updated when we are able to say more about the timetable for further steps towards our vision”. MPs won't be holding their breath.

Interestingly, the MoJ say they continue to work closely with the Secure Children Home sector “in anticipation of the next round of commissioning, and we are committed to making the most of our SCH provision”. After years of reductions in the number of SCH beds, could this signal a revival of their role in youth justice?

For the short and medium term, the Government response lists a range of potentially useful initiatives underway to improve the operation of the current estate; by raising the skills of staff, improving mental health provision, reducing use of force and self-harm; and developing better resettlement plans. Pain inducing techniques were supposed to be removed from the syllabus of approved restraint at the end of last year, but this is now planned “by the summer.” As for segregation, a policy framework is due to be published by August with immediate implementation, although data on its use will be published only from the next financial year.  A further update on David Lammy’s recommendations on reducing racial disparity will be published “in due course”.

The response also says that the Youth Custody Service has strengthened its partnership with the NHS to identify the small number of children who present a complex mix of characteristics and “whose needs are more suitably met outside of youth custody.” In truth, this is not a small number, given the limited ability of YOIs and STCs to provide a safe and therapeutic environment.  

In a separate inquiry the Justice Committee last month lambasted the failure by private company MTC to deliver even basic standards of care to vulnerable children at Rainsbrook STC.  It is not entirely reassuring to find out from the Committee that when giving evidence to them,  the Executive Director of the Youth Custody Service (YCS) who is responsible for the secure estate, failed to declare that she used to work for MTC in a senior position.  The Committee were concerned  in their report that early in 2020, the MoJ granted the maximum possible two-year extension to the contract with MTC, taking the end date to May 2023. It is not clear what role the Executive Director of the YCS played in that decision, but it is to be hoped that if necessary, relevant interests were declared.