It really does seem that the dead hand of prison management is just a whisker away from gaining complete control of seconded probation staff, thus confirming the long-held view that they didn't know what we did, thought we were too expensive and that we couldn't be trusted.
The penny is beginning to drop with many more colleagues that far from being any kind of 'safe haven', under plans for the TR omnishambles, NPS is going to be anything but. The comments have been robust to say the least and I think this example pretty much summarises the feeling:-
I have worked in a high risk team for six years under the OM Phase 2 and 3 models. The proposals identify one key point, the lack of standing (respect?) for probation staff among prison management especially governor grade. This is the main reason for the failure of the current model and the thought that a performance manager post will be created really chills me. Staff will be driven to deliver when they have no influence over resources.
I have had some positive experiences with prison officer offender supervisors but also some really negative ones - especially in parole cases where prison staff can not distinguish between compliant prison behaviour and risk in the community. On numerous occasions I have struggled to get information about a prisoner relevant to risk assessment from the prison, even at MAPPA Level 3. The only sanction is a letter sent to a governor by a MAPPA chair after the meeting!
Probation officers transferring to the NPS (and yes I am one) should be really fearful of this new proposal. It looks to me that this is where the buck will stop or put another way, where the blame will be placed on each and every occasion. Prisoners will be encouraged to put in apps to see the seconded PO rather than Prison Officers, thus transferring one of the main sources of complaints made by prisoners. Also, where will the redundancies come from once this has been implemented and prison staff prove cheaper than probation staff in this role? Yup, that'll be us.....
But it's not just that probation has lost any effective voice at NOMS HQ, it's the realisation that we're being squeezed out in all directions as evidenced by this astonishing advert for volunteers for the Pre-Sentence Restorative Justice Pilot in Bristol:-
About the opportunity
Victim Support are the national charity giving free and confidential help to victims of crime, witnesses, their family, friends and anyone else affected across England and Wales. We also speak out as a national voice for victims and witnesses and campaign for change. We are now recruiting for a groundbreaking Restorative Justice pilot programme in partnership with Restorative Solutions and working closely with the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). This is a unique and exciting opportunity to take part in a path-finding project based in Bristol Crown Court, working with both victims and perpetrators of serious acquisitive and violent crime. Successful applicants will be facilitating pre-sentencing conferences as part of the Criminal Justice System and taking responsibility for case management, risk assessment of case handling and decision making as to whether cases go to Restorative Justice conferencing or case closure. It is expected that successful candidates will take on a new case every month over an initial 12 month period.
About Victim Support
Victim Support is dedicated to meeting the needs of victims and witnesses of crime in the world. Victim Support helps with all kinds of crime, including the most serious. This includes supporting people affected by homicide, rape and sexual assualt.Volunteers visit victims of crime in their own homes and provide victims with support, advice and information to assist them to come to terms with the practical, social and emotional impact of crime.
What are they looking for?
This role will include: Negotiation and facilitation within the Criminal Justice System Completing aftercare and follow up support to both perpetrators and injured parties Producing reports for the courts to consider in pre-sentencing stages of Criminal Justice Evaluation and debriefing with partner agencies Working within national standards set for restorative justice work No previous restorative justice experience is necessary, but the following skills and personal qualities would be an advantage: Knowledge or experience of supporting vulnerable people Empathy, negotiation and conflict resolution skills Commitment to working with prisoners, ex-prisoners and victims of crime Willing to work within our values, procedures and policies. Flexibility in when you work events could be days, evenings or weekends.So, no previous experience necessary, carrying out risk assessments and writing reports for court! I think we can all see where this initiative is going. Restorative Justice is an excellent idea and probation has been involved in this sort of thing for years, but it's extremely sensitive and potentially risky stuff requiring training, expertise and supervision of the highest order. To be blunt it also makes me mad that these volunteers won't be saddled with the bureaucratic OASys crap that now makes writing any probation report an utter mind-numbing chore and highly expensive in terms of hours wasted.
But the real key point about this is the clue in the title - pilot. As we all know, the coalition government decided to abandon the TR pilots and just head for national roll-out of a completely untested idea in the face of almost universal opposition. Pilots are the intelligent and common sense way of testing out any major policy innovation before widespread roll-out and the embarrassing discovery that what you thought was a brilliant idea is in fact a disastrous flop.
As if to rub salt in the wound, we have the government only yesterday proudly announcing money for several mental health diversion pilots, despite there being nothing new in the idea at all:-
Mental health nurses are to be based in police stations and courts in 10 areas of England as part of a pilot scheme aimed at cutting reoffending. The nurses' duties will include helping officers to respond to calls and identify those with problems.
Ministers said "too often" criminals with mental health problems were being diagnosed only once they reached jail. The £25m scheme - being trialled in areas including London and Merseyside - could be extended England-wide by 2017.
The Department of Health says most people in prison have a mental health problem, a substance misuse problem or a learning disability, and one in four has a severe mental health illness such as depression or psychosis. It has been estimated that police officers spend 15% to 25% of their time dealing with suspects with mental health problems.
Being diagnosed with a mental health, learning difficulty or substance abuse problem will mean people can be offered treatment or support, and could affect how they are dealt with by the criminal justice system, ministers say.
The pilot mental health "liaison and diversion" teams will run in:
Avon and Wiltshire
Sunderland and Middlesbrough
Similar arrangements have already been successfully tried in Leicestershire and Cleveland.
Basically there seems to be a significant 'disconnect' in denying any need for a pilot before introducing TR and destruction of a well-performing public service, and any other changes being dreamt-up in the criminal justice system. Why, we've not only had pilots with mobile phone jamming technology in prisons, but now NOMS is commissioning research before deciding what to do, as reported in the Independent:-
Prisoners can continue to use smuggled phones because the Ministry of Justice says jamming equipment is “prohibitively expensive”. Illegal mobiles are used by prisoners to order violent attacks, harass victims and maintain links with criminal gangs and extremists, the ministry has said. n 2012 alone, the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was told 6,959 illegal phones and sim cards were found in English and Welsh prisons.
In a speech last year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the Government wanted to introduce tougher penalties for those caught with mobiles. The Government subsequently passed legislation authorising prison governors to use technology to disrupt the use of phones in prisons. But documents from the MoJ states the technology is "prohibitively expensive", although a spokesman for the department insists they have used signal jammers in trials across the country.
Officials have now commissioned a research project costing up to £70,000, during which prisoners will be interviewed to find out why they use smuggled phones. Where prisoners are found to use their phones for low risk calls, such as contacting relatives and friends, they could avoid being targeted by the authorities. This is because the focus is set to fall on offenders using their mobiles for "dangerous" criminal activity. There is no suggestion that if they are caught using a mobile to contact their family they will avoid punishment. Once they have carried out the research, officials will consider cheaper alternatives to the "jamming" technology.
The details are contained in a document sent out by the MoJ advertising the research project to companies. The publicly available advertisement says the effort and resources dedicated to finding phones in prisons varies in each jail. It states: "Since a net increase in resources is not feasible, it seems logical to target existing resources at the mobile phone usage that poses the greatest risks (eg organised crime).
"This research project will help us to understand what mobile phones are used for, and therefore what proportion falls into this higher risk category. This will help NOMS to build a policy around reducing / eradicating the potentially most dangerous mobile phone usage at a time of scarce resources." According to the MoJ paperwork, inmates from at least 15 prisons are expected to be interviewed as part of the research, which starts this month.
We really must try and keep the pressure up in demanding a Plan B or at least a proper TR pilot before the whole Service is destroyed irrevocably. Something has got to be done, and fast to stop this dangerous TR nonsense before it's too late. I see that Harry Fletcher indicates via twitter that he's having some success in convincing the Lib Dems that some action is needed:-
LibDem MPs expressing concern in double figures.Seeing 3 more next week. Keep lobbying. It makes a difference.
Lets hope commonsense can prevail, even at this late hour.
Finally, don't forget that our legal colleagues at the Criminal Bar will be taking unprecedented action at Courts the length and breadth of the land tomorrow morning Monday 6th January in their fight over cuts to Legal Aid. We wish them well in their fight with Chris Grayling.