I saw the following comment on twitter the other day and it certainly makes you think:-
Extremely, extremely worrying... It is the deepest irony that a sociopath has ended up in charge of our prisons.
Extremely, extremely worrying... It is the deepest irony that a sociopath has ended up in charge of our prisons.
With only days before privateers fully take over the majority of the probation service and the Offender Rehabilitation Act comes into force, chaos continues to reign in every part of Chris Graylings empire. I note Napo have recently written to Dame Ursula Brennan at the MoJ in the following terms:-
Last Friday, we had a meeting of the Probation Consultative Forum (NOMS/NPS and the unions). This is a regular meeting chaired by Colin Allars at which we raised the issue of the implementation of the two new significant sentencing elements, namely a new Community Order requirement known as the Rehabilitation Activity Requirement which replaces the existing Supervision Requirement. It is very different and in essence is aimed at freeing up the way the new (outsourced) CRC's provide supervision.
The other new sentencing element is that which effectively introduces post-custody supervision for those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody. Both of these provisions are scheduled to come into force on the 1st February. As at last week a Commencement Order has yet to be laid and we were told that you in your role as Permanent Under-Secretary will decide, in effect, whether the Department are ready to go with this regime sometime between now and 1st February.
It appears to us that these provisions are not ready to run but that the MOJ are under pressure to meet this deadline because the Department have always insisted that the plan was on track; indeed the Departments own evidence to the High Court to this effect said this in support of the rebuttal of Napo’s JR application. Given the above we are obliged to make the following observations:
• Despite being told by Colin Allars at the PCF that training for magistrates and judges was 'under way' we are deeply sceptical of this being so. One of our members at the meeting on Friday pm, who is also a magistrate, certainly had not received any training.• We were assured that the IT (case management systems etc.) were ready to record these new ‘orders of the court’. Again we cannot prove that this is not so, but again we are deeply sceptical.
• These new ‘orders of the court’ also require some actual paperwork (forms) to be available in courts. Has this been implemented?
• It is evident from preliminary discussions with some of the new CRC owners that they do not have a clue about how these new provisions will operate.
• What we are certain about is that Probation staff (both NPS & CRCs) are not ready to operate these new provisions, nor are the (NPS) ready to propose them in reports to the Court; this latter point is very important since this could all happen in courts around the country on February 2nd – offences having been committed the day before – the first day when the new provisions would be applicable to offences committed.
The HMI report on Sodexo-run HMP Northumberland proved as damning as expected and Frances Crook of the Howard League had this to say:-• At last Friday's PCF we were told the training guidance was still ‘being finalised’. We are aware that training is planned but there is no way that all staff around the country will be trained before February 2nd. What we believe will happen, from the 2nd onwards, and increasingly as that week progresses, is that perplexed sentencers and court clerks (presupposing they have had any training in the RAR) will look to Probation for advice over these provisions and Probation staff may well be unable to offer assistance. As you might have expected, we registered our concern that implementation on February 1st of these provisions would be highly risky and likely to cause chaos. This was duly noted but we now wait to see what will happen next. we raised this issue in general terms at yesterday's meeting of the TRCF but were assured that everything was in hand.
Northumberland prison: A ‘national resource’ that is failing miserably
“Northumberland prison is supposed to be a ‘national resource’ to help turn around the lives of indeterminate-sentenced prisoners and those serving time for sex offences. But this report shows it is failing miserably. This is a prison where prisoners get drugs and alcohol easily but find support and preparation for release harder to come by. The number of assaults is high and rising, and inspectors found some prisoners had sought sanctuary in the segregation unit because they felt unsafe. We have become used to reading critical reports on overcrowded public-sector prisons which have seen deep cuts to staff and resources. Northumberland is neither publicly run nor overcrowded. What is Sodexo’s excuse? It is extremely worrying that Sodexo runs the prison with so many problems and has also been handed the contract to run community sentences from next month. This is another example of the shambles created by the privatisation of prisons.”Chronic staff shortages in the Prison Service, largely brought about by Chris Grayling, suddenly leads to the closure of well-performing HMP Blantyre House and the Prison Governors Association are furious:-
The Prison Governors' Association (PGA) is surprised to learn this morning that NOMS are to temporarily close HMP Blantyre House in Kent. The PGA has not been consulted on this decision and it leaves us with some major concerns as to the under-usage of the capacity within the open estate. We are led to believe that this decision has been borne out of the inability to recruit enough prison officers into some of the prisons in the South of England, and in particular the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, which has been widely reported by most media outlets.NOMS have previously stated there would be no further prison closures in this Parliament and therefore the PGA will seek assurances that this is just a temporary measure and there are no further planned temporary or permanent prison closures.Meanwhile the Justice Secretary continues to desperately try and shift any responsibility for creating dangerous chaos within the prison estate. He recently gave a speech blaming the increase in violence and suicides on drugs of all kinds, as outlined here in the Guardian:-
Legal highs and prescription drugs face ban in English and Welsh prisons
The justice secretary will be able to ban any legal drug inside prisons, including prescription drugs and “legal highs”, under a crackdown to start this week. Chris Grayling linked the rising use of “legal highs” behind bars to more cases of assault and self-harm in jails in England and Wales. In a speech at the Centre for Social Justice thinktank on Monday, he said: “We will take a zero-tolerance approach to stamping out their use.”
The move came as Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone asked MPs on Monday to back the banning of two new psychoactive substances used as legal highs. They are the drug 4,4’-DMAR, known as Serotoni – which has been linked to 37 deaths in the UK, mostly in Northern Ireland – and MT-45, a synthetic opioid not currently available in Britain but linked to deaths in Europe and the US.
The Ministry of Justice is to send guidance to prison governors on Tuesday, requiring them to extend their mandatory drug testing to uncontrolled substances. Those who fail the drug tests can face a range of penalties, including prosecution, up to 42 days added on to their sentence, segregation in their cells for up to 21 days, strictly no contact with visitors – known as “closed visits” – and forfeiting their weekly prison earnings for up to 12 weeks.I'll end this roundup of bits and pieces with two worrying stories that should concern us all, first a press release by NCIA making it plain that as charities take over yet more public services, they are being effectively muzzled:-
Charities told to keep quiet or lose government contracts
New research reveals that charities and other voluntary groups are often absent from campaigns to tackle the root causes of poverty. A report released today shows that voluntary groups, especially those under contract to government, face threats to remain silent about their experiences and many are fearful to speak out in case they lose their funding or face other sanctions.
The findings show a climate of fear and threats to free speech. They follow on the tails of a Charity Commission investigation into Oxfam after the charity warned of the “relentless rise of food poverty” in the UK. The Commission's investigation was instigated after a complaint against Oxfam by Tory MP, Conor Burns. It adds to fears raised by the ex-Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, who said this week that charities and campaign groups have been "frightened" into curtailing their public work by the new Lobbying Act.
The report, Voluntary Services and Campaigning in Austerity UK: Saying Less and Doing More, is written by Dr Mike Aiken, a specialist in the voluntary sector and is published by the National Coalition for Independent Action (NCIA), a network of people working in the voluntary sector. The NCIA report states that “voluntary services are confronted by implicit, or explicit, pressures to ‘say less and do more’; they face gagging clauses in contracts which threaten to stop them advocating and campaigning; the provisions in the so-called Lobbying Act, passed in January 2014, create an atmosphere in which it is difficult to speak out”. The research highlights the attempts to muzzle charities and shows who is refusing to stay silent:Finally, I had no idea the benefit sanctions saga is becoming quite serious, as discussed here on the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website:-
- A voluntary organisation engaged in welfare services faced “subtle and menacing” bullying on more than one occasion from significant political figures to “do” and not “say”’
- Voluntary groups under contract can be obliged to keep information or observations secret even when insights from their day-to-day work might help improve the service or conditions for local communities and individuals facing poverty and destitution.
- Charities which undertake significant government contracting work devote few funds to campaigning. In the case of Shelter this appeared to be less than 10% of its income.
The report suggests that the situation for charities is getting worse just at the point when it needs to get better - in order to give a voice to those most affected by austerity. It notes that the injunction to silence the knowledgeable voluntary organisation from talking about its experiences would be quite at home in any totalitarian regime that seeks to crush independent or divergent voices. The report concludes that funding can, and does, act as a brake on the ability to campaign and asks: if the campaigning role is stifled who will provide the evidence to those in positions of power to effect changes; and who will support disadvantaged communities to have their own voice? It predicts that if this trend continues voluntary organisations look set to be ‘saying less’ in austerity UK.
- Despite attempts to silence voluntary groups, some still speak out (eg Trussell Trust), refuse to take government money (eg. World Development Movement) and join with campaigners to right wrongs (eg. Keep Volunteering Voluntary, a campaign against workfare). One such charity speaks plainly: “it is a democratic country...we are saying what we see…we have evidence…it’s is about being courageous and speaking out…. so you can put things right”
Benefit sanctions: Britain's secret penal system
Few people know that the number of financial penalties (‘sanctions’) imposed on benefit claimants by the Department of Work and Pensions now exceeds the number of fines imposed by the courts. In Great Britain in 2013, there were 1,046,398 sanctions on Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants, 32,128 on Employment and Support Allowance claimants, and approximately 44,000 on lone parent recipients of Income Support. By contrast, Magistrates’ and Sheriff courts imposed a total of only 849,000 fines.
Sanctioned benefit claimants are treated much worse than those fined in the courts. The scale of penalties is more severe (£286.80 - £11,185.20 compared to £200 - £10,000). Most sanctions are applied to poor people and involve total loss of benefit income. Although there is a system of discretionary ‘hardship payments’, claimants are often reduced to hunger and destitution by the ban on application for the first two weeks and by lack of information about the payments and the complexity of the application process. The hardship payment system itself is designed to clean people out of resources; all savings or other sources of assistance must be used up before help is given.
Decisions on guilt are made in secret by officials who have no independent responsibility to act lawfully; since the Social Security Act 1998 they have been mere agents of the Secretary of State. These officials are currently subject to constant management pressure to maximise penalties, and as in any secret system there is a lot of error, misconduct, dishonesty and abuse. The claimant is not present when the decision on guilt is made and is not legally represented. While offenders processed in the court system cannot be punished before a hearing, and if fined are given time to pay, the claimant’s punishment is applied immediately. Unlike a magistrate or sheriff, the official deciding the case does not vary the penalty in the light of its likely impact on them or their family. If the claimant gets a hearing (and even before the new system of ‘Mandatory Reconsideration’ only 3 per cent of sanctioned claimants were doing so), then it is months later, when the damage has been done. ‘Mandatory reconsideration’, introduced in October 2013, denies access to an independent Tribunal until the claimant has been rung up at home twice and forced to discuss their case with a DWP official in the absence of any adviser – a system which is open to abuse and has caused a collapse in cases going to Tribunal.
‘Sanctions’ are almost entirely a development of the last 25 years. The British political class has come to believe that benefit claimants must be punished to make them look for work in ways the state thinks are a good idea. Yet the evidence to justify this does not exist. A handful of academic papers, mostly from overseas regimes with milder sanctions, suggest that sanctions may produce small positive effects on employment. But other research shows that their main effect is to drive people off benefits but not into work, and that where they do raise employment, they push people into low quality, unsustainable jobs. This research, and a torrent of evidence from Britain’s voluntary sector, also shows a wide range of adverse effects. Sanctions undermine physical and mental health, cause hardship for family and friends, damage relationships, create homelessness and drive people to Food Banks and payday lenders, and to crime. They also often make it harder to look for work. Taking these negatives into account, they cannot be justified.
Benefit sanctions are an amateurish, secret penal system which is more severe than the mainstream judicial system, but lacks its safeguards. It is time for everyone concerned for the rights of the citizen to demand their abolition.