As time marches on it's getting increasingly difficult for Chris Grayling to deny there's a crisis in the prison system, and one that was brought about by him. We know this because a prison governor has been in the witness box giving evidence on oath, as reported here by intrepid local reporter Hardeep Matharu:-
Government "got it wrong" over cuts which led to "mackerel and dumplings" prison rebellion
The Government admitted that it “got it wrong” after introducing reforms to the prison system which sparked a rebellion among inmates at High Down last year, the prison's governor has said. High Down was only the second jail in the country to make cuts mandated by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, a criminal trial into 11 men accused of a prison mutiny and criminal damage heard yesterday.
The men, who were all inmates at the Banstead prison at the time, each deny trying to overthrow lawful authority at the prison last October by barricading themselves into a cell for seven-and-a-half hours. Pyrotechnics were eventually used to startle the inmates after specialist prison officers stormed the cell and restored order to the prison, Blackfriars Crown Court heard.
The governor of High Down, Ian Bickers, told a jury of seven men and five women that the prison had undergone “significant change” in the period leading up the incident. He said High Down was only the second prison in the country to implement a new Government policy, New Ways of Working (NWoW), which aimed to make the prison system more tightly run and meaningful for prisoners by cutting staff, benchmarking and getting rid of prisoner ‘association’ time. But he said that, after it came into effect at High Down in September last year, the Prison Service acknowledged the new regime was not working.
Two weeks ago, the court heard how the defendants passed a “demand note” under the door of the cell during the barricade, which read: “The reason for these capers is we are not getting enough food, exercise, showers or gym and we want to see the governor lively.” Yesterday, the court heard how High Down was 50 staff members down on the date of the alleged incident, on October 21 and 22 - 30 prison officers and 20 operational support grades.
Andrew Jefferies QC, defending, told the court that the prisoners made a number of demands during the barricade including: “If we get mackerel and dumplings we will come out.” Mr Bickers said that the prison does not negotiate or give in to the demands of prisoners: “Whether it’s tobacco, to see the governor, food, gym, mackerel and dumplings we do not acquiesce to the prisoners.” Asked about the demands earlier in the trial, Mr Bickers said the new regime “involved a reduction in the number of staff at prisons and standardisation in the way prisons operate”.
He said: “Prison governors to some degree have less discretion about what they can do and when. "They follow a standard process and every prison is benchmarked against another. “The core day is 7.30am to 7.30pm. Less prisoners are actively involved in work or education and they spend more time locked up. “As a local prison, we have been asked to provide part-time work opportunities for prisoners.
"Prisoners are at work or education and during the rest of the day they spend time locked up in their cells. "We provide limited time [out of their cells] – one hour of general association to shower or exercise if they are entitled to it, to make phone calls."
Mr Bickers said prisoners across the prison system had found it “quite difficult” to adapt to the changes. "Up until this time, prisoners would have spent much more time in free association, playing pool or table-tennis, with friends, and that stopped as part of NWoW,” he told the court.
Mr Bickers said there are now no “unstructured activities” for prisoners within the core day and added: "It is a policy driven by central government which has tried to remove the freeness around prisoners to make prison much more purposeful."
The governor told the court that following the introduction of NWoW, the prison saw a “fairly significant increase in complaints” in a number of areas.
The changes brought about by NWoW were compounded, he said, by the prison moving from serving two hot meals a day to one. He told the court this was to do with the number of staff required to serve two hot meals a day and added: "Meal times are very, very potentially inflammatory times. "We replaced it with a packed lunch in their cells.”
Under cross-examination by Mr Jefferies, Mr Bickers said the change introduced at High Down last September “wasn’t a surprise to us". He said: “We spent a long time consulting with staff and prisoner groups. "They were not changes of our making. To some degree they were forced upon us. “On September 1, we were the second prison in the country to go live with NWoW.”
In response to Mr Jefferies referring to High Down as a “guinea pig”, Mr Bickers told the court: “The prison service had tested this in three other establishments during the previous year. “We were going into it with our eyes wide open. We listened and learnt and the changes were made. "We were just in a position on September 1 to make the transition.”
He said prison staff had to get used to a change in their roles: “We were asking prison officers to do less. “Prison officers who traditionally spent lots of time getting prisoners out of their cells were being asked, with less staff, to leave prisoners behind their doors, locked in their cells."
Mr Jefferies read out a list of complaints to the jury which were made by High Down’s inmates leading up to the incident. Mr Bickers said: “It’s a fallacy at High Down that we lock prisoners up and forget about them.” On one complaint referring to the gym being closed, Mr Bickers explained: “Gym was closed because we had to deploy every single prison officer we could to facilitate getting the men out of their cells for phone calls and showers.
“We absolutely always strove that prisoners were out of their cells, subject to operational requirements. “I can’t stand here and put my hand on my heart and say someone wouldn’t have been missed. “But if prisoners choose to stay in bed that’s their choice and I believe in giving a real world choice to prisoners."
He added :“Regimes in prison change all the time. I have never known a stable regime to operate from the beginning to the end of one year. We have to be flexible. “It’s the nature of our business that regimes change. We will absolutely do our utmost to deliver that regime to prisoners. "Happy prisoners mean a happy prison. “But you do have to accept that when significant change happens people become unhappy with that. "The increase in complaints is an outcome of what that might look like.”
Mr Jefferies suggested to Mr Bickers that he was forced to find the best way to govern under a system he could do nothing about. The barrister said: “The reality is that because of the situation, there was no negotiation to be had because you were bound by the cuts which meant that you had to deal with it. “And if the money wasn’t there to have four more staff you had to find a way to best govern your prison to make sure everyone get a share of the gym, library and healthcare, but you’re not a miracle worker. “In effect what was being communicated to prisoners is ‘we can’t do anything, we all have to adapt to it’.”
Mr Bickers said the prison started a process to recruit more prison officers once NWoW was implemented because the Prison Service acknowledged the new regime was not working. He told the court: “Yes, we were going through significant corporate change. Things didn’t work perfectly, things go wrong and not always as you plan. “Though we were the second prison to do this, the Prison Service didn’t quite get our regime right. “They said ‘we are sorry, we got it wrong, we will come and get it right’.”
He said the aim of NWoW has been to ensure a “safe, decent and secure” prison system. “Yes there was a balance to be made as to what was safe, decent and secure,” Mr Bickers told the court. “Providing prisoners with the opportunity to talk to family and to shower is decent. Is going to the gym absolutely imperative to keep prisoners alive and safe? No. “We have to make a decision that we are going to close the gym as we need to get 190 men out of their cells for showers. "The priority has been for showers and phone calls." He added: "In October, we were trying to implement something which was done wrong by people in headquarters.”Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons continues to highlight the dangers, as reported here in the Guardian today:-
Surge in violence at Elmley jail lays bare prison crisis
A shocking inspection report detailing a 60% rise in violence and 11 “mini-riots” in 11 months at an ordinary local prison in Kent has revealed the depths of the prisons crisis facing the justice secretary, Chris Grayling. Extra temporary staff were immediately drafted into Elmley jail on the Isle of Sheppey after a report by Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, revealed that urgent action was needed to stabilise the prison.
The “very serious” situation at Elmley comes after Grayling told MPs on Monday that prison staff had monitored – and listened in to some – confidential phone calls between prisoners and at least 32 sitting MPs between 2006 and 2012. The justice secretary apologised to the Commons for the routine recording of confidential phone calls, which included “in a handful of cases” calls between inmates and their lawyers. Grayling has asked Hardwick to investigate the extent of the breach of confidentiality involved.
The chief inspector’s report, published on Wednesday, says that Elmley, which has 1,252 men packed into cells meant for 985, is, like many other jails in the south-east of England, struggling to deal with the pressures created by large-scale staff shortages. There have been five suicides at the jail in the past two years.
“This inspection revealed very serious concerns. At the heart of the prison’s problems was a very restricted and unpredictable regime,” says Hardwick. “Association, exercise and domestic periods were cancelled at short notice every day. We witnessed many examples of prisoners being turned away from education and work because prison officers were not available for supervision. About 15% of the population, or almost 200 men, were unemployed and they routinely spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells.”
The inspection in June found that 200 prisoners were being held three to a cell designed for two, while 416 were doubled up in single cells. While levels of violence at the jail were comparable to those at similar prisons, they were deteriorating quickly: “The overall number of fights and assaults had increased by 60% over the past year and the trend was upwards,” Hardwick reports. “Over the previous 11 months there had been 11 acts of concerted indiscipline when prisoners had refused to return to their cells. There had been none in the 12 months before that.”
Hardwick says that while the inspection team was inside the jail, plans were being made to introduce a much more restricted regime the following week until temporary staff could arrive to relieve the pressure. Michael Spurr, chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, said that 23 temporary officers were deployed to Elmley the week after the inspection enabling a fuller regime to be introduced: “Permanent recruitment is under way and Elmley will continue to receive support from other prisons until vacancies are filled to ensure that the prison can continue to operate properly and safely at all times.”
However, prison reformers pointed to two other reports, on Brixton and Bristol prisons, published by the independent monitoring boards on Wednesday that confirm that such staff shortages are endemic across the south of England. Bristol is described as being at “bursting point” while at Brixton the staffing levels “ignore the needs of running the prison safely and humanely”.Meanwhile, it's reported that the MoJ have prevented Sodexo from talking to local councillors about the situation at HMP Northumberland:-
Chiefs at firm running 'tinderbox' HMP Northumberland 'snub' councillors
Chiefs of a Northumberland prison have come under fire for “snubbing” local councillors after a spate of serious incidents. Sodexo’s head of operations Mike Conway was due to answer councillors’ questions about HMP Northumberland, in Acklington, this week. Northumberland County Council’s scrutiny committee set up a meeting to probe a series of incidents at the Category C jail, including a stand-off between officers and inmates in March and the discovery of a large stash of class A drugs last month, but the company decided not to go.
Sodexo says it is trying to organise a meeting with council representatives but chose not to go after speaking with Chris Grayling’s Ministry of Justice. A Sodexo spokesman said: “After consultation with the Ministry of Justice, we turned down a request to appear on the local overview and scrutiny committee formally. “However, we have extended an offer to brief the local authority on our activities at the prison. We have not received a response.”
Northumberland county councillor Scott Dickinson, said the move is unacceptable. It comes after people working for the prison and probation services spoke out about safety at the jail, which has seen staffing levels fall dramatically, with one prison officer describing the jail as “like a tinderbox”.The picture is the same everywhere. Napo Greater London Branch recently issued a press release detailing the situation in one of London's biggest jails, Worwood Scrubs:-
Today a Napo member who works as a probation officer in London reported the following experience.
I went to see a lifer at HMP Wormwood Scrubs (The Scrubs) who was recalled in my absence. This was no surprise as it was clearly on the cards. I knew he had relapsed back into drug use and we were attempting to deal with it in the community. However a new offence came to light and it was decided to recall him for this.
While I was at The Scrubs I was told that the prison is now operating under an ‘Emergency Regime’. There are simply no offending behavior programmes running whatsoever, that is no Narcotics Anonymous meetings, no support, a very small amount of drug and alcohol advice.
My client told me that someone was stabbed on a wing last week and following a ground search for the weapon a large package containing a number of weapons were apparently discovered - basically a lot of knives!!
The situation at The Scrubs is that most of our local gang boys are either serving sentences or being recalled to prison where they are now carrying on their feuds on the prison wing. With nothing to do all day - just engage your imagination here – the prison is in danger of spiraling out of control.
My client told me that The Scrubs has become a very dangerous place. He said that there is a noticeable lack of staff, no rehabilitation programmes, no education, you name it...it's not happening. What is happening though is increased levels of violence and rising levels of fear.In all this mess there is one bit of good news though. Chris Grayling has backed down on the book ban, as reported here in the Guardian:-
The situation with the Offender Management Unit is also of concern. If they are unable to complete their work with prisoners then there could be delays in either prisoner transfer or release which adds to existing tensions. Again the staffing ratio is dangerously low and they now have the added pressure of being asked to escort inmates around the prison. This used to be a prison officer's role due to the obvious safety concerns that exist but there are simply too few staff now.
I felt quite uneasy, as I was leaving the prison walking through the courtyard, if there were to be a major disturbance at The Scrubs, it will not be pretty. And Mr Grayling talks about improvements and opportunities in the resettlement prisons such as The Scrubs....dream on! The Scrubs is just a warehouse for prisoners....I’m sure there are now better facilities and care at Battersea Dogs Home than at The Scrubs. This is a national disgrace in a so called civilized society!”
Prisoners’ book limit scrapped
The cap on the number of books inmates can have in their cells has been scrapped following pressure from a campaign backed by leading literary figures. Prisoners are now allowed to keep more than 12 library books in their cell, at the discretion of prison governors, HM Prison Service said. The move follows months of campaigning from the likes of the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, as well as Booker prize-winning novelists Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan. But a ban on sending books into prisons remains in place and charities behind the Books for Prisoners campaign have vowed to fight on until the policy has been fully reversed.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which is leading the campaign along with English PEN, said lifting the cap on books allowed in cells was an encouraging step. “This is an important victory for our campaign. It is encouraging that the government has recognised the important role that books can play in rehabilitation,” she said.
“But the campaign does not stop here. Petty and counter-productive restrictions on sending books and other essentials to prisoners remain in place, and calls for the Ministry of Justice to fully reverse its policy are only getting louder against a backdrop of ever more overcrowding, growing unrest and an alarming rise in the number of suicides behind bars.”
The campaign – which is also backed by writers Joanne Harris, Mark Haddon, Salman Rushdie, Alan Bennett, David Hare, Jacqueline Wilson, Kazuo Ishiguro and Kathy Lette – continues to call on the Prison Service to allow relatives to send their loved ones books, underwear and other “essentials”.
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said: “Lifting this restriction is a positive step, but it does nothing to solve the underlying problem: how do prisoners get the books in the first place? “Access to prison libraries remains extremely limited, and the ban on family sending books directly to inmates is still in force. The Ministry of Justice must urgently rethink its incentives and earned privileges policy."