Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Academics and TR

When the time comes and the history of the TR omnishambles is written, rational observers will be astonished by many aspects of the whole bloody daft thing, not least that it was felt appropriate to put prison managers in charge of probation. If further proof were needed of the folly, one only has to look carefully at the damning joint report by the Chief Inspectors of Prison and Probation into prison offender management published yesterday.

Of course it was Tony Blair's Labour administration that cooked up the daft idea of a forced marriage between the two distinctly differing cultures of prison and probation in the first place with the creation of the National Offender Management Service. Right from the start the dead hand of prison management was put in control as NOMS duly set about introducing the idealistic aspiration of something called 'seamless end-to-end offender management', and supposedly assisted by our much-loved friend OASys.

So, some years down the line, how's it doing? The answer according to this joint report is badly, which comes as no great surprise to probation staff, but makes grim reading never-the-less. However, as academic Rob Allen points out, there may be some that mistakenly feel the report gives succour to Chris Graylings plans for TR:-

Whatever irritation Justice ministers may have felt about the weekend leaking of the risk report on their Transforming Rehabilitation changes , will have given way to delight with today’s inspection findings about the failures of offender management.  Why?  Because the findings can be used to make the case for the radical changes that they want to introduce to the prison and probation system. 

Yes, the findings cast doubt about the Prison Service’s capacity to implement their part of the new strategy designed to reduce reoffending rates, especially for short-term prisoners. But concluding that the National Offender Model is “more complex than many prisoners need and more costly to run than most prisons can afford” will be music to ministers’ ears. It will strengthen their resolve to cut costs and to roll back the frontiers of this little bit of the state. They will feel vindicated in replacing a failed national model with an assortment of arrangements paid for only if they succeed. It will be goodbye to an approach based on research findings and a desire to raise standards across the board. Welcome now to a black box approach in which government can withdraw its interest in finding out and implementing effective practice and leave that to the market instead.  

The failings identified by the inspectors are real and need attention but the report does not make the case for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Prison staff may be insufficiently trained to do the work; there are too few rehabilitation programmes, poor recording and a limited integration of offender assessments into the wider prison experience. But these are capable of fixing through proper resourcing and good management.

The Inspectors may even be right to conclude that the current arrangements should be subject to fundamental review. Where they are wrong is to say that this should be taken forward as part of the strategy of implementing Transforming Rehabilitation.  The review is needed before the landscape of offender management is profoundly and irreversibly reconfigured, not when the bulldozers have moved in. 

I would agree entirely, but would go further and say that it proves beyond doubt the folly of putting prison managers in charge of NOMS, and hence what is left of the probation ideal.

The joint report makes much of the differing culture, training and supervision between probation and prison staff and in particular how this impinges on the quality of an absolutely vital part of offender management, that of risk. I notice that Russell Webster picks up on this today in his blog post highlighting an article by Professor Fergus McNeill in the latest edition of the British Journal of Community Justice. 

Firstly, TR seems to me to be based on several fundamental misconceptions about risk. Many informed commentators have noted the dangers of creating an organisational structure that reifies risk classifications; that assumes people can be easily or sensibly classified for any period of time as high, medium or low risk. They have also pointed out - repeatedly - that most ‘serious further offences’ by people under supervision are carried out by those classified as low or medium risk - not necessarily because the assessment and classification was wrong, but often because risk is dynamic and situational; it is always changing.

My concern with risk is a slightly different one. Ever since NOMS has elected to pursue a policy that resources should follow risk, it has slipped into the assumption that people who present a high risk of harm require the most intensive supervision. In one sense they do – public safety demands that they be closely monitored. But the ‘risk principle’ in the ‘what works’ research said something quite different; i.e. that people who presented a high risk of reoffending - whatever the likely gravity of their crimes - required (and benefited most from) intensive interventions. The reason was obvious. People who offend persistently tend to have very complex personal and social problems and it takes considerable time and skill to address those problems in a way that reduces risk. Yet TR seems to me to be built on the assumption that people who represent a low or medium risk of harm (but who often represent a high risk of reoffending) don’t need skilled and intensive support – that their supervision can be safely delegated to less experienced, less skilled and less qualified supervisors or supporters. While desistance research certainly does suggest a potentially important role for peer mentors, other volunteers, friends and family in supporting change, it also makes abundantly clear that for people who have offended persistently (but not necessarily seriously) desistance is a complex and uncertain process - a long and winding road that requires skilled navigation. TR diminishes the likelihood of skilled navigation (for reasons I’ll elaborate further below) at the same time as making the route between services more complex and elaborate.

This article goes on to completely demolish the case for TR. Indeed we know there is absolutely no academic support for the daft and dangerous idea at all and Professor McNeill concludes his article powerfully in this way:- 

Rather, my fear is that by transforming rehabilitation from being a moral good into a market good, something central to justice will be lost. Doing justice is not a task that we should contract out because it is a civic duty that citizens owe to one another. When we seek to sell off our mutual obligations to one another, we weaken the moral bonds between us, because we treat as merely instrumental things that are in fact constitutive of ‘the good society’. Rehabilitation is one such good; it is a duty that citizens owe to one another. Those that offend owe it to those they have offended. Those that punish also owe it to those that they have punished. Is it really desirable that we seek to meet these obligations merely by paying others to do it for us? My view is that rehabilitation is best thought of as being everyone’s concern and no-one’s business. Transforming Rehabilitation risks turning it into some people’s business and no-one’s concern.


  1. Chris Grayling has called for an inquiry regarding the day release of an IPP prisoner from North Sea Camp open prison on work related activities who was convicted of attempted rape recently after attempting to rape someone at knife point in a local park on one of his work release ROTLs.
    In order to participate in unsupervised day release work ROTL prisoners must meet particular risk assessment requirements, i.e no more then a medium risk of harm on OASYS.
    To my mind that leaves Grayling with a very difficult question to answer (and I hope its put to him asap).
    Is the current methods of risk assessments (OASYS) good enough, and if you agree that it is then you have to accept the dynamic and changable nature of a persons risk of harm.

  2. CG will also have to say what, if OASys is NOT adequate, is he going to replace it with. At the moment, his alternative is LESS robust and to be implented by inexperienced providers.TR just looks less and less defensible by the minute.


    1. Simon Hughes as justice minister? What a wonderful christmas gift for Grayling!

  4. I have always felt that the takeover of NOMS by the prison service and the consequent marginalisation of the probation service was both inevitable and ultimately damaging to any progress towards a rehabilitative and positive approach to engaging with offenders. However, there are a couple of interesting 'ironies' and anomalies in the history of NOMS. Firstly, it should be remembered that the first NOMS model had a single national offender manager and she came from the probation service--Christine Knott, previously Chief of Manchester Probation Service if I am not mistaken. There was a regional structure with 9 regional offender managers, of whom 7 were recruited from the probation service. In those early days there were a number of organograms published by the Home Office as it was then (2003 when NOMS was first created on the back of Patrick Carter's fag packet) and these variously had the Director General of the Prison Service accountable to the NOM, and almost on a parallel with the national Director of Probation.And then came a gradual transformation to the present situation where the prison service ethos completely dominates NOMS. But even during this period the Chief Executive of NOMS for a year or so was Helen Edwards whose background was with NACRO and as a civil servant with the Active Communities Unit.
    The original vision for NOMS actually had probation officers (offender managers) determining the sentence planning and indeed in theory the movement of prisoners through the prison system. As if a governor of an overcrowded prison was going to hold on to probation officer's client for an additional few weeks to complete a literacy course. The simplistic naivety of it all is stunning. There was never any chance that the prison service would be subsumed under the NOMS banner and it was always the case that it would survive intact. And this was because custody would always trump community. The probation service was understandably nervous and defensive while this was going on especially as it was continually being exhorted to 'outsource' a proportion of its work to the voluntary and private sectors, and there was never a strong professional voice in the probation service (NAPO tried to fill the void but it wasn't really in a position to take on the role previously held by ACOP) to articulate a progressive vision for the service. There were those in the voluntary sector in particular who were keen to line up alongside the probation service and try to develop a comprehensive community based response to local offending and this might have had a chance of developing a countervailing message to the dominant prison service ethos. However, by this point the probation service had long since defined itself as being a 'law enforcement agency' delivering 'punishment in the community' and talking a managerialist language that was opaque and alienating. Not the least of the difficulties was the heightened prominence of 'risk management' and 'protecting the public'. With this sort of talk there is only going to be one winner in a cultural battle with the prison service which can always claim (albeit falsely and simplistically) that locking people up is the best way to manage risk and protect the public.The shame of this was that there was terrific work going on in some localities which showed the probation service up in its best light as the human face of the justice system best placed to bring together a range of agencies and individuals to assist offenders and their families to change.

    1. A good potted history of the cultural and organisational changes in probation over the past decade. Of course, probation was relabelled a law enforcement agency by ministerial diktat. What has disappointed about probation has been the failure of the senior leadership to defend and promote core values and principles. In fact what happened was that they embraced the new rhetoric. However, the fundamental problem is that the UK's penal policy remains too punitive – we imprison too many. And over many years the good folks in probation contributed to the rising prison population through draconian, target-led breach policies. The deprofessionalisation of probation also helped to create a supine workforce. The prisons did not change but probation acquired an authoritarian mantle and seemed to enjoy wearing it. Probation also became intoxicated with risk methodologies and fell for the early promises that it would place probation 'centre stage' – but that soon ended.

    2. Not sure I have much enjoyed today's doom and gloom spin on probation. What I have learned over these years is that a healthy separation from politics is good for practice. I mean that a political commentary on probation since the 90 s is not a reflection of our practice or what we do behind interview room doors. The recent roll out of seeds found lots of officers new and old retorting what a nice refresher it was but we were all doing it anyway? All is not lost. And whatever happens values live on in people and outlive hashed excuses for social policy designed to win votes and woo tabloids. Policy repeats repeats fails. But the same work often keeps going on. So take heart. Say I anyway!

  5. It is interesting to note that, throughout the 'changes' that took place in Probation, the offenders didn't change one iota. Their criminogenic needs pre-date the invention of the word 'criminogenic' and their response to the services offered remain the same as they did before we coined the term 'responsivity'. They remain troubled by mental ill health, bereavement, memories of childhood abuse, learning difficulties, hidden disabilities, relationship difficulties, alcohol and substance abuse, emotional vulnerability, homelessness and unemployment. Plus ca change.... The powers that be are still looking for the magic pill where there is only the need for patience and understanding. 25 years of this work and I am still impressed at how willing people are to change when help is offered intelligently and not condescendingly. Ditch the IT and get back to working with what matters: the people we work with.



    1. The two outsourcing giants at the centre of a scandal over the delivery of Government projects are braced for more bad news on Thursday as they fight to start bidding again for major Whitehall contracts.

      Sky News understands that G4S and Serco will be informed in the coming hours about the outcome of a cross-Government probe of their work following the discovery that they had overcharged tens of millions of pounds in fees for monitoring prisoners on their release from jail.

      Ministers are said to have decided that while the two companies have embarked on genuine attempts to rebuild their relationship with the Government, they have not yet done so sufficiently to enable them to be considered for significant contracts in the short term.

      An announcement about the outcome is expected on Thursday although it could be delayed, say people close to the situation.

      Whitehall insiders said on Wednesday that a settlement being thrashed out with the two FTSE-100 companies will include the repayment of well over £50m of fees that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had decided had been wrongly paid.

      One source added that fees relating to other contracts handled by the two companies may also have to be repaid, although the scale of these was unclear.

      The financial impact is understood to be larger for Serco than the City is expecting. Last month, it said it had incurred £27m of costs relating to the electronic monitoring, or tagging, contract, as well as another for providing Prisoner Escort and Custody Services.

      Serco, which is without a chief executive following the departure of Chris Hyman, added that the MoJ had "calculated that their interpretation of the difference on billing totalled low tens of millions of pounds since the contract commenced in 2005. Any such potential repayment and any other directly-related incremental costs, would be charged as further exceptional items."

      A person close to the situation said Serco's repayment would be less than £100m but higher than shareholders had been led to anticipate.

      The MoJ inquiry has been run in tandem with the Cabinet Office. It was unclear whether the former would make a separate announcement on Thursday, although it is understood to have discovered further shocking examples of charging irregularities as part of its review.

      Ministers reacted furiously during the autumn when it emerged that G4S and Serco had billed Whitehall for tagging prisoners who had died, were in prison or were living abroad. Earlier this week, Capita was handed the electronic monitoring contract in their place.

      The effective barring of G4S and Serco from bidding for new Government work has highlighted the dearth of companies able to provide key public services.

      A Serious Fraud Office probe into the two companies is ongoing, although the Government's settlement with them is unlikely to include additional financial penalties beyond the repayment of the overcharged fees, one insider said.

      G4S and Serco executives are understood to have been locked in meetings on Wednesday to negotiate the outcome of the Government's review of their work.


    1. It is easy to get drugs in Brixton prison, but not clean underwear, according to the latest inspection report on the London jail.

      The chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, says the "evident and blatant" smell of cannabis on the wings at the Victorian-era jail goes unchallenged by staff while clean underpants for prisoners are rationed to two pairs a week.

      The report, published on Tuesday following an inspection in July, says that although Brixton was designated a "resettlement prison" 12 months before their visit, inspectors found 751 inmates crammed into single cells built for only 505, and too many activities on hold waiting for new facilities to be ready.

      "The prison was operating at about 60% over its certified normal capacity. Many prisoners shared small, cramped cells and some had inadequately screened toilets and because, at the time of the inspection, there was far too little activity for the size of the population, many were locked in their cells for more than 20 hours a day," the chief inspector says in his introduction.

      Hardwick says work was underway to provide new and refurbished buildings that should provide about 500 activity places. Plans also exist for a restaurant in the prison which would be staffed by inmates but open to the public.

      But the inspectors say not enough was being done to get on immediately with necessary improvements and too much reliance was being placed on the planned enhancements to solve Brixton's problems.

      They say that in light of this it was not surprising to find very poor relationships between prisoners and staff and claims of high levels of victimisation by staff.

      The inspection took place at the height of summer and the inspectors say they were concerned to find that new prisoners had been left in vans for up to two hours in the middle of the hottest days waiting to enter the jail. When the inspectors insisted the prisoners be taken out they were found to be "in a poor state".

      The inmates found it hard to get basic needs met, such as clean clothing and underwear. On some wings underwear was limited to two pairs per man per week despite a clothing exchange policy allowing seven pairs each week.

      In contrast, 30% of prisoners said it was "easy" or "very easy" to get hold of drugs inside Brixton. This was twice the level of those – 15% – who said it was easy to get hold of alcohol inside the jail.

      Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, said Brixton had continued to adapt to its new role since the inspection.

      "In January the prison will see further changes with a new range of employment and education initiatives helping to increase productive time out of cell. This includes a new Clink Restaurant opening in February, which will give offenders the chance to learn the skills that can help them secure employment once they leave prison," he said.

      But Andrew Neilson, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the situation at Brixton where you can get drugs but not clean underpants, showed what happens when prisons are asked to accommodate hundreds more prisoners than they are designed for.