Mindful that some readers may become a little weary of endless discussion of privatisation plans, can I say that it is my intention to try and vary the content and return to my original aim of just writing about what crops up or I find interesting. I'm more than happy to respond to suggestions by the way.
A few weeks ago I had cause to attend an Oral Hearing of the Parole Board. This was convened at the jail where the prisoner is currently held and as usual was made up of three panel members. For those unfamiliar with the process it is quasi-judicial and the chairperson is quite often a retired judge. The prisoner is legally represented and both they and all the expert witnesses, including probation officer, can be cross-examined following submission of their evidence.
Each panel member will be in possession of a large parole dossier amounting to some 400 pages and will have read the contents carefully prior to the hearing. Oral Hearings are so called in order to differentiate the process from 'paper' hearings conducted in private and without the prisoner or expert witnesses being present. Although not my case, I had reason to be attending due to some knowledge of the prisoner who is serving an IPP sentence, is now over tariff and requesting a move to open prison. An IPP sentence is similar to a Life Sentence, but the tariff date is normally much lower, ie the earliest date at which application can be made to the Parole Board for release.
Although Indeterminate Public Protection sentences have been abolished, there are many prisoners in the system subject to this sentence and either well over their tariff date, or rapidly approaching it. The Parole Board is mindful of this and are trying to deal with the issue as quickly as possible. To put it bluntly the main problem has been either the lack of suitable courses for prisoners to undertake in order to demonstrate a reduction in the risk they may pose, or long waiting lists for such courses.
I've always been impressed with the work of the Parole Board and the care and attention with which they approach their work. I think the public would be impressed and reassured if they knew more about what went on. These hearings are often not easy for a prisoner, sitting as they do eyeball to eyeball with panel members across the Governor's board room table and usually under the official gaze of a portrait of The Queen. They have to be prepared for a forensic examination of the details concerning the index offence. It can be harrowing and it's not unusual for tears to flow.
I simply cannot comprehend how those bean counters down in London can seriously contemplate suggesting that such proceedings can be conducted properly by video link in the interests of saving money. Despite the best efforts of the MoJ to pressurise the Parole Board into such short-sighted economy measures, I suspect many panel members are resisting and I applaud them for that. I cannot see how the process could be conducted remotely and with the same degree of dignity, care and concern for the prisoner, and have the same confidence that sound and fair decisions could be undertaken.
On this particular occasion all the 'experts', probation, psychology and prison offender manager were singing off the same hymn sheet and recommending a move to open conditions. It is not always so however and even in this instance Panel members were keen to forensically probe the reasons why there had been a change of view in some quarters. The whole hearing took nearly four hours.
There is no doubt in my mind that over recent years the power and influence of the psychologists within prisons has increased and their assessments can be at considerable variance with that of probation. I think this is at least partly due to the fact that many probation officers still have lengthy involvement with individual prisoners, thus building up an unrivalled knowledge. They are often able to describe in detail progress that has been achieved over many years and can therefore speak authoritatively on the case. Continuity is so important, but sadly not as common nowadays.
In many ways psychology strike me as being 'super' risk-averse and invariably seek to exhaust every known course and assessment before supporting progressive moves. In the end though it is for the independent Parole Board to make the decision on either progression or release, having listened carefully to all the arguments. In my experience they are willing to be more pragmatic and take a balanced view of risks and this should be of some reassurance to prisoners serving indeterminate sentences.
Now I can't end this discourse without mention of OASys. Each panel member will be extremely familiar with this assessment method since its introduction and has the benefit of a full print-out in front of them. What struck me was that at the end of each expert's evidence, the file was metaphorically pushed aside and each person asked a series of blunt questions "Now what do you think the risk is of a) absconding b) harm to staff c) reoffending d) harm to the public?" In turn each was asked a supplementary "Do you have any doubts?"
I put it to you. What exactly is the purpose of OASys? Because I don't know.
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