Sunday 7 January 2024

Further Delay to the Secure School


It looks like the new Secure School is unlikely to take its first children until April this year at the earliest. The need to replace the boilers at the Medway site means that construction will only be completed this month after which the building will be handed over to Oasis Restore, the charity which will run the new custodial centre for 12-18 year olds.

Justice officials told MPs last March that they were hoping that the first children could be placed there next month , with the draft funding agreement specifying an opening date of 5 February. But this timetable involved the provider occupying the site for frontline training and systems set-up from October 2023.  

Justice Minister Ed Argar said last month that the Secure School was “on course to open by Spring.”  But further delays seem possible. According to the latest timeline, the facility will only apply for registration as a Secure Childrens Home in March. This process can take up to 4 months, although hopefully this much delayed project will be fast tracked.

I hope that the Secure School proves to be a workable model which might eventually take the place of Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres. By the end of last year, the Ministry of Justice intended to commission an independent external evaluator to assess whether this might be possible. I do not know if the evaluation is yet underway.    

It’s disappointing to see on the Companies House website, that the confirmation of information about Oasis Restore is overdue. They could face prosecution or being struck off if they don’t provide the information.  

Let’s hope it’s just an administrative oversight.

Saturday 30 December 2023

Will 2024 be the Year of Prison Reform?



There’s growing recognition across the political spectrum that radical change is needed in criminal justice. This year’s converts to the cause include John Major who argued in May that “we over-use prison and under value alternative sentences; ” former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett “struck by the genuine meltdown in the criminal justice system”, and perhaps most surprising of all, leading Brexiteer Lord Frost who recently wrote of a duty to revamp our disgusting prisons.

But how should a new government set about addressing the myriad problems facing the penal system?

Some, like Justice Committee Chair Bob Neill think we need a “proper and honest debate about what prison should be for, who should go there and the costs”. While it might be tempting to try to persuade the public that the approach we’ve been taking for decades is not working, there’s no guarantee what conclusion they’ll reach.   

After all, for Frost, getting a grip on the crime problem means sending more people to prison, not fewer, for short sentences and “minor” crimes. Neill himself supports a proposal from think tank Policy Exchange for mandatory minimum prison terms of at least two years to be imposed on ‘Hyper-Prolific Offenders’  a measure which could overwhelm prisons with people convicted of theft.  There may be little evidence behind Frost’s view that unless people think they might actually end up in prison, there will be no deterrence - but many probably share it .

Instead of a debate, what’s needed is some systemic change to drive and oversee reform. As former Lord Chancellor David Lidington put it, the politics of prison reform “ is horrendously difficult for governments of  any party”, if it means spending more on prisons at expense of other, more popular public services and/or reducing significantly the numbers  we send to prison. 

So, let’s find ways of taking the politics out of it.

One way is to look at New Labour’s post 1997 reforms. They inherited a slow, cumbersome, and inconsistent approach to children in trouble, both in custody and the community.  They set up an expert Task Force to establish priorities, subsequently creating the Youth Justice Board to oversee local multi agency work with offenders and to commission and set standards for secure establishments. 

Outcomes haven’t always been perfect by any means, but it marked a major structural overhaul which remains in place, focusing attention and investment on a neglected area and keeping politicians at arm’s length. The prison and probation service arguably now needs this kind of external supervision and oversight if they are to have any chance of overcoming the current crisis and adopting a genuine rehabilitative agenda.

A new government should immediately commision a Criminal Justice Task Force to establish what changes are most urgently required. In prisons these are likely to involve action on training and recruitment of staff, the development of regimes and improved reintegration. Reducing the 600 people who leave prison each month without a home seems an obvious target.

On the community side, restoring probation’s place as a primarily local agency looks inevitable. While a recent report from the House of Lords Justice committee cautioned against yet more large-scale restructuring in the coming years, it’s call for much stronger links between probation and local treatment and other social services in fact argues for just that.

A new government could also alter the ways funds are made available for criminal justice services in order to create stronger incentives for local agencies to prevent crime and reduce imprisonment.  At a macro level, with two proposed new prisons struggling to get planning permission, some of the funds earmarked for more custodial places could be switched to strengthen capacity in the community – hostels, restorative justice programmes and women’s centres would all benefit from expansion.

At a micro level, if localised multi agency probation services succeed in keeping people out of prison, a proportion of the costs they have saved could be transferred to them. Creating such a virtuous spending cycle would help further enhance the way local communities can safely supervise and reintegrate people outside prison. A new Criminal Justice Board could be set up in law to monitor the system as a whole, working alongside the current inspectorates. 

A further measure would be to revisit the role of the Sentencing Council whose guidelines were in part originally intended to keep a lid on the prison population. It hasn’t achieved that in part because  New Labour backtracked on explicitly linking sentencing levels with available resources, in part because courts have found ways to sentence more and more harshly.  Requiring government to submit its criminal justice proposals for independent scrutiny by the Council could bring down sentence inflation as could a more rigorous obligation on courts to follow the guidelines.  

A College of Policing review published last month found that on average, custodial sanctions increased reoffending compared to noncustodial sanctions. It said that “it is likely that individuals who are in custodial settings are more exposed to risk factors associated with criminal activity and behaviour and have less access to protective factors to protect them from this behaviour”.  

There are strong reasons for looking to drive down the numbers who go to prison and drive up the standards for those who do go. Let’s hope a new government has a plan to make it happen.

Sunday 24 December 2023

A Year in Youth Custody


2023 has been yet another dispiriting year for most of the children in custody in Young Offender Institutions (YOI) and the one remaining Secure Training Centre (STC). Prison Inspector Charlie Taylor reported that “many spend most of their sentence locked up alone in their cell with very little human contact. Despite employing hundreds of staff and dozens of managers, most sites are unable to deliver one meaningful conversation with each child a week”. 

In April he found “a complete breakdown of behaviour management” at Cookham Wood YOI to the point where there was widespread weapon making and six months later reported that systems for safeguarding  children at Werrington YOI were in disarray. Over the last 12 months, almost 900 safeguarding referrals have been made about children in custody whose wellbeing has been a cause of concern.  

Parc YOI in South Wales has been an exception to this dismal picture and  Oakhill STC has seen “a tangible change in culture, with children being recognised and treated as children first and foremost”.  But the number of incidents of violence and aggression at Oakhill was still impacting on children’s day-to-day experiences.

Thanks to parliamentary questions by Labour’s energetic new Shadow Minister Janet Daby, we have learned that almost 18% of staff in the youth custody estate have left over the last year– in 2010 the rate was 5%.  This year, the Minister for Prisons, Parole and Probation made only three site visits to youth secure establishments;  the Secretary of State for Justice and the Chief Executive of HMPPS did not make any at all. 

But what about Secure Childrens Homes (SCH) , the third type of closed setting in which young people on remand and under sentence can be held?

As has usually been the case, inspection reports have mostly been good. This year Ofsted found the overall experience of children to be inadequate in one SCH largely because of the inappropriate use of restraint; and requiring improvement in another where all new staff were not always subject to the full range of pre-employment checks such as references. Despite these problems, given the generally more positive performance of SCH’s it's surprising that the number of children placed by the Youth Custody Service (YCS) in secure homes has decreased so much in recent years from 146 on 31 March 2012 to 56 this year. This is despite the YCS commissioning 101 places. Ms Daby should explore why this is the case.

In the spring, after countless delays, the secure estate should be augmented by the 49 place Secure School. The prisons minister told Ms Daby that Secure Schools are a new, innovative approach, and “it is important that we take the time to get it right”.  The government has certainly been doing that as the commitment to develop two Schools was made more than seven years ago.

There’s a good deal of uncertainty about the detail of what Oasis Restore will provide at the Medway site and how much it will cost. HMPPS boss Amy Rees told MPs in March that their funding agreement would be published by Oasis this Autumn, but there is only a draft on their website.

Local authorities may be interested to know how much they will be charged when a child is detained on remand there. This year, (for the first time I think), the cost of a night in a Secure Training Centre (£838) exceeded that in a Secure Childrens Home (£834).

Another issue to probe in the New Year.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Fire Safety In Prisons: Progress or Delay?


Finally published is the latest Annual Report of the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate (CPFSI), which regulates fire safety measures in government buildings including prisons. But it covers not the last financial year but 2021-22, so up to date it isn’t. It’s also not clear how reassuring a picture it provides of fire risk in prisons and the steps being taken to reduce it.

Positively, the report says the data on fires “masks some improvements in fire safety management in the custodial sector which creates a reasonable expectation that fire risk will be driven down if this continues to improve.”

Yet CPFSI also notes that “the rise in injuries is of serious concern therefore even more concerted action is necessary to continue to reduce the numbers of fires.”  

On the face of it, the chart below shows injuries to prisoners and staff have doubled in a year.  

But this is apparently due to the recent inclusion of ‘Precautionary Assessments’ in the data, which cover cases in which no injuries are reported, but a check is made by prison medical staff to confirm this. The breakdown of injuries chart shows that 87% of “injuries” fall into this category. 

CPFSI say that the overwhelming cause of fires in prisons is deliberate ignition. This is driven by a range of factors – "such as status, regime challenge and self-harming".

Beyond the ignition itself, the lack of suitable in cell fire detection has been the biggest cause of injuries, something which the prison service has a major capital programme to address.  

The latest (much timelier) 2022-23 Annual Report by HMPPS noted there were still 26,000 places in need of investment in March this year with a target of meeting fire standards by the end of 2027. An interim solution of placing domestic smoke detectors in or just outside cells has, say CPFSI “proved to be a major managerial challenge for prison staff to prevent tampering and vandalism.”

There are other challenges too – the inadequacy of smoke control systems and fire-fighting equipment; and of course neither the staff nor the prisoners can escape from fire as easily as in other types of buildings. CPFSI have also found that “the smoking ban in prisons has, somewhat surprisingly, negatively altered the nature of fire risk. Whilst opportunistic fire-setting has reduced, we have seen an increase in serious fire injuries linked with substance abuse. The repeating nature of those incidents has raised a fresh challenge for prisons in their duty to safeguard those in custody.”

CPFSI conclude that HMPPS are aware of the problem of the lack of automatic detection at least and “are taking urgent steps to address this problem more quickly.” But are they?

The HMPPS report says that in 2022-23 4,000 cells were upgraded. They’ll need to accelerate this pace of progress considerably if they are to finish by 2027. Troublingly, the HMPPS report also notes how “capacity pressures have restricted our ability to take places out of use for refurbishment and compliance works”.  Moreover, the Custodial Capital Maintenance Programme which pays among other things for fire safety improvement “has undertaken a review of all major maintenance projects across the adult male estate in preparation for potential decisions to halt or defer”.

The Justice Committee should check with HMPPS and with Peter Holland the Chief Inspector of the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate that fire safety work has not been halted or deferred because of population pressures.  

Thursday 23 November 2023

Improving Fire Safety in Prisons: The Need for Better Scrutiny


There’s rightly mounting anger and concern about declining safety in prisons with latest statistics showing increases in self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and serious assaults.  Too often neglected is a further dimension of safety - that which relates to fires.

Data released separately about casualties resulting from fires shows that there was one “fatality” and 105 “non-fatal casualties” in custodial establishments in England in the last financial year.  The fatality was the sixth in a prison fire since 2011-12.

The numbers of non-fatal casualties have shown a welcome fall since 2015-16 but there is no reason  for complacency. As we have known since the summer, Fire and Rescue Services attended 1,012 incidents in English prisons last year up 20% on 2021/22. 21 incidents were also recorded in what are referred to as Young Offender Units, up from 11 the year before.  Many more fires are started without the need for the Fire Service to attend. 

The reduction in casualties may reflect greater attention being given to addressing fire risks by the prison service.  The 2021 Prison Strategy White paper promised to “Build on our work to reduce the harm caused by prisoners starting fires, with the aim of equipping all prison cells with automatic fire alarm systems”. A revised Prison Service Instruction on Fire Safety was introduced in March 2022.

Last year however, the Prison service admitted that 35,000 prison places did not meet fire safety standards. They were aiming to bring 7,000 of these up to standard by March 2023. But according to their 2021 correspondence with the Coroner following the last fire related death in prison (in 2019) the overall improvement programme was not forecast to be finished until 2026-2028. There has been no update on progress that I have seen.

There is clearly a lot of work going on. Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk told MPs in July this year that the reason for about 1,500 cells being out of action was “principally about dealing with our statutory fire obligations.”  It is important that the commitment to meet those obligations is not watered down during a period of intense demand for prison places.  

The body that scrutinises what the Prison service is doing is the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate (CPFSI). It is a Home Office body responsible for ensuring compliance with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 in 16,000 government buildings. According to its last Annual Report it has just 12 staff.  It’s little wonder that they have yet to produce an Annual Report for 2021-22 let alone 2022-23.

The CPFSI has a Memorandum of Understanding with HM Inspectorate of Prisons which reads as if its main purpose is to ensure the organisations keep out of each other’s way. 

But maybe now is the time for Charlie Taylor to take over responsibility for assessing fire safety as part of his remit as Chief Inspector of Prisons; and for the MoJ to publish data on fire safety to broaden the way the performance of prisons can be assessed. It's too important to leave out of the picture. 

Thursday 9 November 2023

Postponements or Cancellations?


Along with others, I was due to give evidence to the Justice Committee on Tuesday about prison estate capacity. The hearing was called off because the Committee could not muster a quorum of three MPs to take part. It’s not clear if it’s postponed or cancelled.

Most of the committee members probably preferred to enjoy the yah- boo politics that followed the King’s Speech in the main chamber. Conservatives may have thought that a day about pre-election messaging wasn’t the right time for a serious look at what amounts to something of a public policy fiasco. Labour MPs may not have known what line to take. The hearing would have asked whether the government could have done more to prevent the current overcrowding crisis, its consequences for safety, and for mental health and what recently announced measures will do to fix the problem.  

With hindsight, it was daft to schedule the meeting for the first afternoon of the new Parliament, not least because of the raft of relevant measures announced that very morning. But putting off the hearing symbolises how legislators’ seemingly boundless enthusiasm for a greater use of imprisonment often sits alongside a studied indifference to whether and how it is carried out.

It wasn’t the only postponement this week. The decision on whether to grant planning permission for new builds next to existing prisons in Leicestershire and Buckinghamshire were due to be announced by DLUHC on Wednesday.  We’ll seemingly have to wait another month to find out how helpful Michael Gove will be to his old department. It’s a potential further delay or worse to the achievement of the 20,000 new places hitherto deemed necessary to accommodate the estimated growth in the prison population.

Perhaps it’s the recognition on the part of Justice Ministers that the 20,000 target is unachievable which has led them to temper their tough policy with a more twin track approach. The result could well be a revision downward of that projected growth in the number of prisoners.

Yes, perpetrators of the very worst offences will serve longer periods in prison but the numbers are thankfully small. Plans for those convicted of rape to serve every day of their sentence behind bars will affect more. It brings in  for this offence at least the so called “honesty in sentencing” approach first proposed by Michael Howard almost 30 years ago in the Prison Works era.

But for many other categories of offences, extending the range of prisoners who can spend up to the last six months of their sentence at home with an electronic tag and encouraging the suspension of short jail terms will bring down demand for places, maybe substantially. We’ll have to wait for the impact assessments when the Sentencing Bill is published to see what the net outcomes might be.

In the longer term much will depend on whether it's the more punitive response to the most serious offenders which will pull sentencing levels up more widely or if the more lenient approach to less serious ones will push the "going rate" down.   

Despite the short term reduction in demand for prison places, it is likely that continuing concerns about running out of space led to the cancellation of plans floated recently for automatic prison sentences for repeat shoplifters and those convicted of various other crimes. These would almost certainly have wiped out the gains in prison space from tagging and suspension and made the government's penal policy look impossibly incoherent. 

But it's distinctly possible that these measures have merely been postponed until next year’s Conservative election manifesto.




Saturday 28 October 2023

Humane Corrections: What More Can We Do?


Lots to learn at this week’s annual conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association in Belgium- including for me that Anvers and Antwerp are one and the same place. 900 people from 70 countries exchanged knowledge, views and some at least colds in a lively, varied and well organised event.

I’m not sure that Humane Corrections: What more can we do? was the ideal theme for the US exhibitor looking to sell delegates electrical weapons (albeit low voltage) to prevent escapes and assaults. But the conference programme as a whole included many positive and thought provoking experiences from across the globe on how to use prisons less, organise them more compassionately and prevent people going back after release. 

Some of the most impressive involved efforts to overcome huge challenges of congestion and understaffing to improve healthcare and human rights compliance in Africa;  and to keep the system functioning in Ukraine where 11 prisons have been wholly or partly destroyed since the Russian invasion. There were some encouraging signs of innovation in richer and more stable countries too, despite the often populist and punitive political climates, (referred to by Belgium’s brand new Justice Minister in his opening remarks).

So what were my takeaways from the event?

On using prison as a last resort, we were reminded that the expansion of probation and similar services by no means guarantees a reduction in the use of prison; and that community corrections impose burdens on people subject to them which can often be underestimated. Innovative ways of getting legal aid to people in prison who might be eligible for release may be a more direct way to reduce overcrowding in low income countries.

As for prisons themselves, small scale detention houses for young people (in Germany) and adults in Belgium seek to provide a normal living experience for residents, achieving security through staff relationships, resolving conflicts by discussion and promoting community reintegration. Such a model is costly up front but not long term if it prevents recidivism. But do the residents need to be locked up at all? There’s much in common with a halfway house approach although applied at the start rather than the end of a sentence. Promoted by Rescaled, the movement  is well worth watching, not least for its focus on ecology and sustainability.

A similar philosophy lies behind the new Brussels prison at Haren which is trying to create a fairly open regime for a mainstream, non-selected and more difficult population. Small living units of 30 people, a softer approach through personal officers and giving prisoners the regime they can handle as soon as possible mark it out from the three prisons it has replaced.

In neighbouring Netherlands, efforts are underway to humanise even deeper forms of custody by reforming solitary confinement  on the back of  an independent study – an excellent example of open and transparent engagement with research. Impressive too are Dutch efforts to improve the quality of food for prisoners and extending opportunities for them to be involved in preparing it.

There was not such good news about how people come out of prison.  Questions were raised about the proper role of individual risk assessment in determining whether someone should be released early, notwithstanding its crucial role in deciding how best they should be managed once back in the community. Sadly, lack of suitable and stable accommodation all too often undermines successful reintegration efforts, not least in the UK. We can look forward to inspiration on this at next year’s event in Singapore, a global pioneer in second chance programmes involving a wide range of government, civil society and private sector partners.

Such organisations were reasonably well represented in Antwerp, with an impressive keynote from Penal Reform International setting the scene for the deliberations and important contributions from the ICRC, and from a US advocate promoting voting rights for prisoners. It was heartening to see UK NGO One Small Thing win the ICPA President’s award.

But to answer the Conference’s question, more can be done to give a voice to people who have themselves been in prison. Not just of course at an event like this where there was some but perhaps not enough. But in the development of policies, practices and oversight relating to people in conflict with the law.