We've been moaning for weeks that the media never mentions probation, but yesterday we were all over TV, radio, press and the internet. Sadly not about privatisation, despite Ian Lawrence valiantly trying to steer John Humphrys on the BBC Today programme around to the topic, but a negative report by Liz Calderbank and Nick Hardwick, respective HMI's for Probation and Prisons.
Now if I were cynical I'd say the timing was suspect to say the least, providing as it does lots of negative publicity about the emotive topic of 'lifers' being released either on a temporary basis (ROTL) or Parole Licence, but with inadequate risk assessments having been carried out.
This is a big topic, but I want to try and keep it simple. First a bit of history.
1) Lifers used to be a relatively small part of the total prison population, but Tony Blair's government ensured that the number rocketed by introducing the dreaded IPP sentence. The Indeterminate Public Protection sentence is very similar to a Life Sentence, but usually with a much shorter tariff, ie the minimum period that must be served for punishment purposes and before the parole process can start.
2) Lifers used to be treated 'specially' - prison Governors chaired sentence planning meetings and typically home probation officers were 'paired' and kept their lifers for many years, even if moving office or role.
3) Any application for release would involve a visit and report by the so-called 'Independent' - a member of the Parole Board, but not part of the decision-making panel.
4) Resources were always available to ensure that each lifer was visited in prison at least once a year, no matter how far-flung the prison was.
5) Every prison had sufficient seconded Probation Officers to enable every lifer to be seen and assessed in prison, and hence by a suitably-qualified person
6) OASys had not been invented and assessments were written as real documents that could be read and understood.
Nowadays some prison officers are designated 'offender supervisers', they complete OASys assessments and chair sentence planning meetings. There's no money for probation officers to visit regularly and you are expected to interview by video link. OASys is so crap, naturally ways are found to avoid the bloody thing at all cost. 'Ownership' of the OASys changes regularly between prison and community and when extra text is added by other authors the result is akin to a dogs breakfast. This report is a complete indictment of the uselessness of OASys, and yet both authors, the MoJ, Noms, PA, PCA et al all pretend it's a vital and useful offender assessment tool. No it isn't!
If it wasn't so serious it would be quite funny how much space is taken up in the report discussing OASys and how there is confusion as to who's job it is to fill it in, how poorly it's filled in, whether it's filled in and how often it's filled in. I want to let both HMI's into a secret about OASys that might just help them understand why there's a problem OASys is a complete and utter pile of shite and whoever was responsible for commissioning it and designing it should be compelled to complete one every day until they beg for mercy!
One of the most startling findings from this inspection concerned arrangements for the completion of OASys assessments on individual prisoners while in custody. We were surprised to find that so many different models had evolved and that staff had varying degrees of understanding about what was required, of whom, and when. Phase III of the offender management model, launched in January 2008, sought to clarify arrangements for the offender management of indeterminate sentence prisoners. Under this phase of the offender management model, the community based offender manager was clearly at the heart of the assessment, sentence planning, supervision and release arrangements for those given an IPP sentence. For life sentence prisoners, by contrast, the model dictated that prison service designated staff, known as offender supervisors, would complete prison based offender management tasks, with probation staff providing the community element, including supervision post-release. This distinction between the arrangements for managing life sentence prisoners and IPP prisoners seemed illogical to us and may have contributed to the confusion we found.
Yes remember that? 'Seamless end-to-end offender management'? The same daft people who dreamt up OASys felt that the home probation officer was the ideal person to be in charge of the prisoner's progression through their sentence and chair sentence planning meetings. Oh, and preferably chair it by video link. It was a totally fanciful idea and hence has been ignored by both prison and probation. The same people are of course the architects currently trying to make the Transforming Rehabilitation omnishambles work.
Without hesitation I can categorically say that I have never come across anything invented by man that wastes more time, for absolutely no purpose. Believe me, filling in a complete OASys induces an irresistible desire to beat ones head upon the desk, cry uncontrollably and either reach for valium or huge quantities of alcohol. Will someone, somewhere please rid us of this nightmare and let us get on with the bloody job?!
Now at this point no doubt some people will be thinking it can't be that bad, and to them I'd say this. No contractor thinking of getting involved in the Transforming Rehabilitation omnishambes will have anything to do with it - they've got a business to run and it will be lean and mean with no room for timewasting useless stuff like OASys. No one ever reads a complete OASys from beginning to end, unless they are an HMI or investigating officer on an SFO enquiry. Not even the Parole Board feel its any use. When I was at an Oral Hearing recently, the Chair pushed the file to one side and simply said 'now, what do you really think?'
Risk assessment is not a science, but a skill that can be honed by well-trained and experienced staff. It can never guarantee 100% accuracy because a lot of our clients are accomplished liars and manipulators well-versed in the art of obstruction or obfuscation. We try to do our best and are successful in the vast majority of cases, but SFO's will occur. Lets not blame the PO, but the perpetrator instead and recognise that good assessments require adequate resources.