Monday, 26 October 2015

Penal Reforms 4

Danny Shaw, the BBC's Home affairs correspondent, today outlining the growing crisis in our prisons and how Michael Gove is hoping the answer lies in tagging thousands of people. This has been mooted for a long time, but readers will recall that the MoJ/NOMS made a complete horlicks of the new tagging contracts (they usually do balls up contracts) and the technology doesn't work as a result. 

Gove eyes changes to prison governors' role

Prison governors are not a bunch of complainers.

In many ways, they, together with prison officers, are the unsung heroes of the criminal justice system, responsible for looking after some of the most dangerous and damaged people in society. But there is growing evidence the strain of having to fulfil their role with less money, fewer staff and more volatile offenders is beginning to tell.

A survey conducted on behalf of the Prison Governors Association, which has more than 1,000 members across the UK, suggests two-fifths will look for another job if conditions stay as they are. The study, conducted by Steve French, senior industrial relations lecturer at Keele University, was completed by 40% of PGA members, a high response rate, he says, for such a survey.

Of those who responded:
57.2% work, on average, between 38 and 48 hours a week
41.3% work more than 48 hours
82% have seen their workload increase over the past year
61% have suffered stress-related ill health

Cause for alarm

Mr French says: "The survey paints a depressing picture of increasing working hours and workload across the PGA membership, with few opportunities for PGA members to benefit from their increased productivity and an absence of effective mechanisms for members to be able to regulate their workload."

The findings would be worrying for any employer. For the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for prisons in England and Wales through its executive agency, the National Offender Management Service (Noms), they ought to cause alarm.

Not just because security, safety and rehabilitation might be compromised if prison governors are burned out, but because governors are at the heart of Justice Secretary Michael Gove's plans for prisons.

Michael Gove on prison plans

"One of the biggest brakes on progress in our prisons is the lack of operational autonomy and genuine independence enjoyed by governors," Mr Gove says. "Whether in state or private prisons, there are very tight, centrally set criteria on how every aspect of prison life should be managed."

The justice secretary says if governors have greater freedom, particularly over prison education, they could be "much more imaginative, and demanding in what they expect of both teachers and prisoners". He cites the "success" of foundation hospitals and academy schools, which are also freer of central control.

"Giving governors more autonomy overall would enable us to establish, and capture, good practice in a variety of areas and spread it more easily," Mr Gove says.

No cherry-picking allowed

The plans, though, are far from fully formed. As far as prison education is concerned, it will mean untangling a maze of complex relationships. For example, learning and skills for over-18s in custody in England is funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, co-commissioned between Noms and the Skills Funding Agency, and delivered by education providers via the Offenders' Learning and Skills Service.

The impact of the changes would be closely monitored to see if there was an improvement in the qualifications and skills acquired by prisoners by the time they leave, with incentives on offer for inmates - "earned release" - and for those in charge of them. As Mr Gove put it, "governors could be held more accountable for outcomes and the best could be rewarded for their success".

But any scheme of rewarding prison management will have to take account of the unique position jails are in - they have to accept who they are given: unlike a supermarket, restaurant or bar, the "customers" are generally people who do not want to be there.

It was a point highlighted by Noms chief executive Michael Spurr when he addressed the PGA conference this month - governors would not be able to cherry-pick the best prisoners to maximise results. There would remain a system of "mutual support" between jails, he said, where resources, expertise and staffing were sometimes shared, and prisons would have to operate within a nationally agreed framework. "We cannot afford to break the system down and end up with just complete competition," said Mr Spurr.

Detecting legal highs

Introducing a change as fundamental as governor autonomy would be tricky at the best of times. But these are not the best of times. Mr Spurr said the past five years had been "incredibly difficult", with:

the Noms and prison budget cut by 24%
savings in "real" terms of £890m
a reduction in prison officers and staff of 11,000

With the cuts has come an unexpected surge in sex offenders being jailed - 700 in the past 12 months - and a rise in serious assaults on staff and inmates, much of it fuelled by the availability of new psychoactive substances, known as legal highs, or as Andrew Selous, the Prisons Minister, labels them "lethal highs".

I have written about the problem of unrest in jails before - but Mr Spurr believes the prison service has now "turned a corner" following:

a recent recruitment drive
new laws to ban people throwing objects, including drugs, over prison walls
the prospect of improved tests to detect legal highs

Mr Spurr, who started out as a prison officer, gave a strong indication there would be no further reductions in prison staffing levels or resources for day-to-day running of jails, with little difference now in the cost of comparable private and public sector prisons.

But that does not mean the justice secretary will have the luxury of smoothing the path of prison governance plans with fresh investment. His department is "unprotected" from the austerity drive, and substantial savings will have to be made. Some of that will come from selling off older, inefficient prisons - but the pace of that change depends on stabilising or reducing the prison population.

'Get smart'

In his party conference speech in October, Prime Minister David Cameron dropped a hint as to how that might be done. "We have got to get away from the sterile lock-'em-up or let-'em-out debate, and get smart about this," he said, emphasising the importance of education and training to turn people's lives around - with more offenders possibly serving sentences in the community.

The Ministry of Justice is understood to be reviewing the use of tags, which are worn around the ankle. They can alert the authorities if someone is not at home when they should be. The latest satellite tracking technology, which is being tested, can monitor a person's precise whereabouts.

It is thought the most likely options for any extension of the existing tagging scheme, known as Home Detention Curfew, might involve defendants awaiting trial, more than 8,000 of whom are in jail, and offenders recalled to jail for breaching the terms of their release, of which there are about 6,000.

No plans have been confirmed - the last thing ministers want is a sudden exodus of offenders from the prison gates. But the party that prided itself on being tough on law and order is thinking about alternatives to imprisonment. That is quite something. And for prison governors, whose job involves managing prisoners in overcrowded conditions, that might be rather good news.


  1. People are rarely recalled for 'breaching the terms of their release'. There are many, many licence breaches that do not lead to recall and if the risk could be managed by a curfew, a curfew licence condition would be added. They are recalled because their risk of serious harm can no longer be managed in the community.

    1. Can you cite the evidence for your assertion that recalls are only triggered by serious risk of harm issues?

      The recall population grew rapidly between 1993 and 2012, accounting for 13% of the overall increase in the prison population. This reflected a higher recall rate
      caused by changes to the law making it easier to recall prisoners, and changes introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which lengthened the licence period for most offenders.


      Seems getting married can get you recalled to prison if you don't tell your probation officer. A failure to inform being regarded as 'deceptive behaviour'.

    3. A convicted drug dealer was recalled to prison to serve out his sentence – for not telling probation bosses that he had got married.

      Robert Evans had been wed for just five days when he was arrested and carted off back to HMP Altcourse at the end of February.

      He now faces languishing in prison until February 2016 because he “failed to notify” the probation service of the change in circumstance.

      In a letter to lags’ mag, Inside Time, Evans wrote: “I had been out on licence for approximately two-and-a-half months, impeccably behaved and had no warnings.

      “My offence was possession with intent to supply class B drugs (amphetamine). I have now been recalled to prison for failing to notify my Offender Manager (OM) of my impending marriage.

      “This, apparently, is classed as ‘deceptive behaviour’, the clause in my licence conditions that was referred to in my recall was – ‘Not to do anything that would undermine the purpose of supervision’.”

      Robert Evans' letter was the star letter in this month's Inside Time magazine. Evans, who called on the magazine to list the top 10 most ridiculous reasons for people being recalled to prison, added: “I had been married for a total of 5 days when the police rolled up and carted me off back to prison.

      “I now face the prospect of having to languish in prison for the next 11 months (at God knows what financial cost) until my licence expires in February 2016. “Naturally my wife and children are absolutely distraught about this. “I feel that probation have the power of God in respect of licence conditions and the ad hoc summary justice they are given carte blanche to mete out.”

      A Prisons Service spokesman confirmed that Evans had been recalled for breaching the terms of his release. A spokesman said: “Public protection is our priority and all offenders subject to probation supervision on release from prison have to adhere to a set of strict licence conditions.

      “They are subject to recall to custody if they breach their conditions or their behaviour indicates that it is no longer safe for them or for the public if they remain in the community.”

    4. What a pathetic response from the MOJ press office?

    5. Actually I don't buy this without knowing the full facts. There is no licence condition to notify of a change in circumstances. Was the condition to seek permission for any change in address, or to notify of a relationship? Did the new address or the marriage involve entering an exclusion zone or contact with a person where association is prohibited? We're there other concerns? There are so many unknowns with this. I don't buy that a person could be recalled under condition 3.i 'be of good behaviour' for intending to be married as that on its own could not justify recall or a prospect of remaining in prison until 2018.

      If I am wrong they why hasn't his solicitor fought his case at an oral hearing, and why no Secretary of State release?

      Ask most prisoners why they've been recalled and they'll claim it's because probation stitched them up. In most cases if you do a bit deep you'll find there was very clear grounds. Many recalls I come across are due to a variety of reasons and I'd think rarely happens to those that truly comply with their licence. Also there's figures showing most recalls are not based on new offences but these figures don't tell us that many of the recalls actually began with police intelligence, arrest, charge, but that the cases were later dropped or the person found not guilty.

  2. I have not yet heard that BBC Radio 5 investigation programme - but one write up quoted 5 anonymous probation workers.

    It is just so obvious that by reducing continuity of person to person contact as is inevitable by the TR Probation split that there is more chance of disrupted supervision with the consequences of people in stress being less likely to be dealt with by a person familiar to them - as Jim himself described recently, in a very understated way - how he was close enough to a family to be personally alerted when a situation became severe and how by dropping everything he was able to use his prior relationship and so a dangerous situation was probably averted, sadly anecdotes are not statistics.

    When I tried to see Ms Priti Patel my MP at the House of Commons in February 2014, she simply refused to listen and like most other Liberal Democrat & Conservative MPs voted for the Offender Rehabilitation Bill 2014 to be passed on the same day. Parliament having rejected amendments that could have allowed close examination of the consequences of The Split.

    So if statistically the situation has deteriorated since the split began to be considered and preliminary work put in place, (January 2013) it seems that Parliament ITSELF shares a large responsibility for the loss of life through unsatisfactory management of supervisees.

    Ps. if you doubt that a person familiar to another is more likely to calm a person in a state of distress - consider how it is with an infant child - the adult ex-prisoner/supervisee is just a different version of a human being who makes up the persona of a distressed infant.

    1. Continuity is vital to building relationships and most of us, I guess, want it in our GPs, dentists and so forth. In a bygone age it was the norm in probation, including resuming responsibility where there had been breaks in supervision and when it came to lifers these cases tended to follow the probation officer, if promoted or relocated in the probation area.

      But with the advent of case management, continuity went out of fashion and the client was passed between various specialist functions – drugs, programmes, employment, breach officers, whatever. And they were passed between case managers. In addition there was little time for engagement anyway as research showed that for 75% of the time staff were digitally chained to their desks doing risk assessments on those they barely knew.

      The reinvention of continuity through end-to-end management was more imagined than real.

      So continuity was lost long before TR arrived? It may become worse but we should not forget it was dead on its feet when probation was in the 'integrated' public sector. We can blame a lot on TR but when it comes to continuity it has a codefendant with a lot of form.

    2. Yes a fair point NetNipper. I suspect TR reinforced what had already increased, particularly - where I was then located from the arrival of ACR work - that is - early releases without an assessment of suitability and willingness to comply with supervision as prevailed from when probation orders began.

      Once TR and the split is in place it is inevitable there would be even less continuity of contact.

      I guess to some extent practitioners allowed it to happen by in part not sufficiently valuing its importance and then when continuity was threatened, we did not sufficiently use our professional 'voice' individually and collectively to challenge and campaign.

      After all we were a pushover regarding the ending of training altogether and then only having it reintroduced with the social work qualification excluded.

      My shame for being part of that is considerable.

  3. Second time in a few days when on a prison visit this morning I was informed that police in at least one area of the North West are stopping preparing ARMs reports due to the amount of time they're taking...yet we are still expected to undertake another hefty piece of work with no acknowledgement of the current workloads.....I don't know about the prison service creaking but I know that I am.....

    1. My understanding was that police are handing over ARMS to probation in all cases where the case has a probation officer. I thought it was national? You're right, we're told it won't effect our workload! Nor will the home visit forms... the personality disorder screening tools... the RSR... the CAS... and a million more things were being instructed to do but not being given any extra time to do. I'm exhausted!

    2. Yes ARMS will be completed by probation on all the RSO's we manage. A really badly designed 'tool' with little benefit for probation. We already put this information (actions) in existing assessments so I'm not sure what they (NOMS) were thinking when they decided it's for probation use. As usual those that have no idea of what probation is are dictating what probation work is. When they're not trying to align us to prisons they're trying to align us with the police. It's getting from bad to worse.

  4. ARMS took me ages when I took the test after the training

  5. When preparing a recall you have to explain what you have done to avoid recall, what contingency plans have been put in place, tried and failed, so the recall for getting married does not ring true! On the issue of continuity - last few oral hearings I've attended, I have been specifically asked by the PB what if any plans I have to leave! This is in stark contradiction to noms- telling us to use videos and telephones to conduct interviews and or attend oral hearings, and that we cannot now travel outside West Yorkshire without permission from our head of LDU, that's the ACO in old money, can't wait to hear why I cannot attend, in person, an oral hearing, or post programme reviews, to complete post life sentence reports and/or complete recall reports, all frequent and essential aspects of my NPS job! A joke, any iota of good practice lies with staff on the coal face, we need to resist the changes they, moj, noms and are trying to impose, if we value job satisfaction and gain the respect of our clients!

  6. All this madness is building up to a perfect storm!!

  7. Our divisional director dropped in unexpectedly the other week and held an informal q and a. She was open to any input and was inevitably asked about prison visits and attendance at oral hearings. She trotted out all the usual stuff about phone and video links being acceptable alternatives. It seemed apparent though that she, like me, didn't really believe it. What she clearly does believe is that having to live in the real world is our new reality. Like many of us I have thought about getting out and if a good enough opportunity became apparent it would be hard to say no. But I, and many like me stay. We stay to try to help new po's understand and embrace values that put people first, values that protect the public and values that will be needed when we achieve some sort of normality, whenever that might be. We are in a shitstorm not of our making and it is one that looks likely to carry on for some time. It's up to those of us who are in it to make the best of a bad lot. Not to moan about how awful it is or to hark back to some halcyon days that never really existed. Suck it up people and do what you can to help make our communities safer.

  8. We're a bunch of utter mugs & do ourselves no favours either. We do all the graft, all the legwork, all the preparatory work; and then someone else makes the call. If its a good call, they bask in glory. If it goes to ratshit, probation carry the can. For example, Recall Teams call the shots on recalls, probation simply submit a request for the recall to be considered; Courts sentence people, probation submit information which contributes towards that process.

    We lost control of our work & handed our trump cards in when we surrendered our previously high profile role in the courts & gave in to the notion of truncated, computer-generated rubbish.

    Still, there are some good things left in the world: the Colin Powell disclosure outing the BlairWeasel for the Uber-liar he is, and its been fascinating watching the Lords debate on tax credits today. The chamber was completely stuffed with the ancient, the feeble & the uber-rich, but they put up one hell of a show. I thought Campbell-Savours was dead but he rose to offer a vigorous speech. Bishop Sentamu was also impressive. I understand they've really put Osbourne's nose out of joint.