Saturday, 30 April 2016

Prison Musings 2

It's becoming clear that the forthcoming European Referendum has induced complete paralysis within government, with the result that pretty much nothing is happening, and that includes any serious moves in relation to prison reform. To say the least this is somewhat regrettable because the situation is deteriorating fast. This from the Independent:-

UK prison system 'in total meltdown' as sexual assaults and violent crimes soar in jails

An alarming rise in the number of murders, sexual assaults and attempted hangings has sparked warnings the prison system is on the "verge of collpase". Damning figures released by the Ministry of Justice have revealed that violence has increased in the past 12 months and, in some cases, is close to double rates from 2010 before the Coalition government came to power and began controversial reforms.

Campaigners, MPs and former prisoners have told The Independent that the prisons system is in "total meltdown" following staff shortages, overcrowding and funding cuts.

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of sexual assaults recorded has more than doubled from 137 incidents per year to 300. In the same period, the number deaths in prisons has risen from 198 to 257 per year. Self-harm and suicide attempts have also risen at an alarming rate.

Recorded incidents in which someone has attempted to hang themselves has spiked from 580 to 2,023 while the number of attempted overdoses has risen from 1,414 to 2,523. The number of recorded incidents of prisoners cutting themselves has risen from 15,159 incidents in 2010 to 21,282 incidents in 2015.

Other concerning figures include the number of people recorded as suffering from a serious bite wound as a result of an attack in a prison more than doubling from 89 in 2010 to 209 in 2015. The number of people sustaining an injury after being attacked with urine or excrement has increased nine-fold in this time frame from 20 attacks to 180 per year.

The data has been released by the Ministry of Justice as part of its annual Safety In Custody figures. Shadow Minister for Prisons Jo Stevens told The Independent: “These shocking figures have blown the lid off Michael Gove’s claims that he is the man to deal with the worsening Tory prison crisis. Now we know that the Government’s own statistics reveal that rates of self-harm, homicides and serious assaults on staff have surged.

“This paints a picture of a system in total meltdown and on the verge of collapse. How can it be right that hardworking prison staff are expected to put up with such a toxic workplace environment? David Cameron’s Government must immediately act to address the prison crisis which they have caused through their failure to deal with staff shortages, overcrowding and a complete breakdown of any sense of safety in our prisons.”

Campaigners and experts say staff shortages and over-crowding were resulting in chaos and undermining the wellbeing and safety of prisoners and staff. “These shocking statistics spell out the scale of the problems in a prison system that is failing after years of rising numbers, chronic overcrowding and deep staff cuts," Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said.

“We are hearing a lot of fine talk from the Government about how things will be put right, but at the moment there appears to be no action. Meanwhile, people are dying. How many more people will die before something is done?”

Peter Dawson, Deputy Director of the Prison Reform Trust, backed calls for reform saying the figures highlighted that the "need for reform is urgent."

Commenting on today's findings, Prisons Minister Andrew Selous said: "These figures demonstrate the very serious challenges facing the prison service. They show how badly prison reform is needed. We must do better at reducing violence and preventing drugs entering prison. We must do more to help prisoners with mental health probles. We have to ensure prisoners can be rehabilitated so they are no longer a danger to others.

"We have secured £1.3 billion to modernise the prison estate and we will put governors in charge. These reforms will ensure prisons are places of decency and improve public safety by reducing reoffending."


There doesn't seem to be an area of prison operation that isn't currently causing concern and I note Ian Dunt has picked up on the extraordinary goings-on with the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Hollesley Bay. This extract from the website:- 

Targeting the whistleblower: Prison critic fights for her job

There is now just one member of the independent monitoring board of Hollesley Bay prison. Last Tuesday, the board wrote to their chair, Faith Spear, telling her that either she resigned or they did. She didn’t resign. So they did.

Spear’s crime was to write an article in the 2016 edition of the Prisons Handbook, using a pseudonym, in which she issued several complaints about the way the the boards operate. These strange little groups, which are supposed to scrutinise prisons, use a baffling recruitment process to recruit an army of wealthy retired people to monitor prisons full of people whose lives they will never be able to understand. Why, Faith asked, was the secretariat for the boards literally in the Ministry of Justice and entirely dependant on it for funding? Why were they discouraged from speaking to the press, or conducting night-time visits?

These criticisms did not go down well.

"I had a call from my vice chair saying I’d been identified as Daisy Mallet [the pseudonym the article was written under]," she says. "She said I had to prepare a statement for the annual board meeting on the 19th and to state in it that I was the author of the piece."

Spear prepared her statement, went to the board meeting and delivered it. What she didn’t know is that they had already met and prepared questions for her.

"One by one they all fired questions at me," she says. "For 50 minutes I was bombarded. The venom in some of those people was unbelievable. Every one of them. Then I was asked by the vice-chair to leave the room while they deliberated. On what? I didn’t know because no one would say anything."

They told her to go home and come in again tomorrow to hear the outcome, but she refused. Instead, she went and sat in her car for 40 minutes. Then a member of the board came out and took her to meet the vice chair.

"They sat me down and said there’d been a unanimous vote for me to step down as chairman," she says. "I had no clue that was what they were doing. I said: 'I won’t make that decision right now'. They said if I didn’t, the whole board would refuse to work with me. I would receive a formal letter in the post."

The letter came. She sent one back refusing to step down. So now Spear is, to all intents and purposes, the one and only member of the monitoring board.

Spear’s article was critical of the boards, but it was hardly man-the-barricades stuff. The reaction to it suggests a culture which is desperate to shield itself against criticism. And for good reason, because in a justice system which blocks almost all forms of scrutiny, many independent monitoring boards are failing to hold prison authorities to account.

There are three parts to the prison scrutiny system: The press, the inspectorate and the monitoring boards. The first part is useless. It’s very difficult indeed for journalists to access prisons. And even if they could, most couldn’t care less, outside of a couple of shrieking tabloid headlines about Playstations. There is almost no media scrutiny of the way prisons operate.

So a lot of responsibility is left to the chief inspector of prisons. The outgoing inspector, Nick Hardwick, has proved hugely impressive and, consequently, ended up at loggerheads with former justice secretary Chris Grayling, who tried to get him to take out criticism of government policy from his annual report. The chief inspector is appointed by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and reliant on it for his budget, setting up a rather unhelpful dynamic given he’s supposed to be scrutinising the results of its policies.

And then there’s the monitoring boards. These are small local groups made up of volunteers who will very often make daily trips to the prison. In a way they’re more useful than the chief inspector - or they could be - because they know the place inside and out.

But there’s a fundamental problem with their purpose: no-one knows exactly what it is. They are, on some level, meant to be the eyes and ears of the justice secretary, sending him reports about how the prison and its governor are doing. But in fact those reports take a route through the governor, even though there are rules about how much they can influence it.

On another level they are plainly scrutinising MoJ policy, because most things going wrong in prison are as much a reflection of the orders that came down from Whitehall as they are the behaviour of the governor. For others they’re not a scrutiny body at all, just a sort of administrative organisation helping connect prisoners with services. Although that being said, many prisoners have never heard of the independent monitoring boards.

In short, it’s a mess. The first part of the prison scrutiny system is useless, the second part is in an MoJ headlock, and the third part isn’t sure what it’s supposed to be doing. This is why, incidentally, penal reform groups like the Howard League are so crucial: their contact with prisoners and their families, even when hamstrung by the government, is invaluable.

You can see this discrepancy in the work on the monitoring boards. You really never know what you’re going to get with their reports. Take the 2014-15 report into Long Lartin. It is absolutely brilliant, particularly on the issue of education, where the board highlighted the insanely counter-productive practice of actually stopping prisoners from receiving education past basic skills.

"Men who have these basic skills, whether acquired in prison or without, continue to seek what Education can provide," the report says. "This is particularly true of those who face many years in custody. Education offers them stimulus and challenge, engagement with a wider world and a framework for reflection. If imprisonment is to work it has to hold the possibility of individual development.

"It is frustrating to long term prisoners – and galling to the board – when they find that success at City and Guilds Level 2 or its equivalent disqualifies them from further formal study. In a broad sense it is opportunities for rehabilitation which are being lost; underlying this is a denial of something which our society claims to value. More immediately, it is a neglect of opportunities to contribute to the stability of the prison."

Clear-sighted and very useful. Now compare that to the 2012-13 report for the Serco-run Thameside prison, where the board appears to have gone native. The report came just after a damning assessment by the inspectorate, which said the "prison’s regime was one of the most restricted we have ever seen". (continued)


Despite the paralysis, there's no shortage of advice regarding what needs to be done, as with this piece from the Guardian:-

We should assess prisons by what happens once offenders are released

The prime minister’s vision of autonomous prisons is ambitious. He has called for prisons to “be held to account with real transparency over outcomes”. But the current metrics for prisons are a long way off doing that. It will require a step change in how performance is measured, but getting it right has the potential to transform the prison estate.

Official performance measures at the moment focus on evaluating what goes on inside prison walls, but fail to focus on the long-term outcomes that really matter, such as reoffending or sustained employment. Whilst the Prison Service’s mission statement says that it should help offenders “lead law-abiding and useful lives … after release”, no accountability system has been put in place to make sure this is realised.

Failing to include reoffending in prison performance measures ignores its cost to society. The National Audit Office estimates that reoffending costs the economy between £9.5bn and £13bn a year. Offending also disproportionately impacts disadvantaged communities, which for a government committed to improving life chances should be of particular concern.

Reform’s new report, Unlocking prison performance, sets out a new way for measuring performance. One that not only takes into account what happens within a prison but that also looks at what happens once offenders are released. In doing so it provides a blueprint for producing the performance league tables the prime minister has pledged to introduce – and the Ministry of Justice is yet to provide a model for.

The report paves the way for an increased understanding of what best practice looks like in the prison system. It finds a wide variation in performance both in terms of what happens within and outside of a prison’s walls.

Even when using the comparator groups developed by the National Offenders Management Service, wide variations remain. Some prisons clearly outperform their “peers” in providing, for example, courses addressing offending behaviour or substance misuse – interventions that are likely to reduce an inmate’s chance of reoffending. Closing the gap between the best- and worst-performing prisons, therefore, presents a sizeable opportunity to deliver greater value for money.

The diversity and quality of current data, however, presents a major obstacle to really identifying best practice. Better data would mean a more accurate and meaningful understanding of performance at a prison level, which in turn would enable greater accountability. For example, measuring whether a prisoner has accommodation on release is an inadequate outcome metric. It fails to differentiate between those offenders who have a place to call “home” and those who have just secured housing for one night. Better measures of reoffending are also needed, and Reform has recommended comparing proven reoffending rates with a particular prison’s predicted rate.

Exposing both successes and failures should, ultimately, lead to better prison outcomes. The prize is not just better value for money, but improved lives and safer communities.

Eleonora Harwich is co-author of Unlocking Prison Performance, published by the public services think tank Reform


Finally, it's probably just as well that we don't get too starry-eyed with Gove's big ideas and here's why spelt out out by Will McMahon on the Justice Gap website:-

Treating prisoners as ‘assets’ – and the real reason behind Gove’s prison reforms

When given time to prepare, politicians can demonstrate exceptional presentation skills. Astute political communication often rests on the ability to craft messages to engage the chosen audience on their preferred terrain and to develop a narrative that gives the listener reasons to support the policy proposals being suggested.

Using this technique it can be possible to develop broad coalitions to support ostensibly simple policy platforms with radical implications, even though the different audiences might be listening from very different standpoints. Being ‘tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime’ is perhaps the most well known example of this technique in the field of criminal justice policy.

Who could possibly disagree?

Yet, despite being lauded by much of the liberal reform sector for this engaging couplet, the concrete outcome of Tony Blair’s prescription was a rapid expansion in prison numbers and the staffing and operations of criminal justice as a whole. Many, frankly desperate to see the end of Conservative rule, had a valence to hear the message they wanted to hear, ‘tough on the causes’, rather than to look at the policy in the round. When Tony said he was going to be ‘tough on crime’ he meant it, but that was the message heard by the other side of the grand coalition that was ‘New’ Labour.

This experience needs to be considered when appraising the recently announced prison reform policy.

Assets, not liabilities

Michael Gove has been busy in delivering messages aimed at corralling the reform movement behind the government’s prison transformation programme, with an emphasis on the closure of old prisons, the opening of new estate more able to deliver on rehabilitation, and the idea that prisoners should be seen as ‘assets’ rather than liabilities.

This approach has received a more than warm reception from parts of the reform movement. Rather than despairing about the overall lack of efficacy of the reform strategies since the early 1990s, and the burgeoning of prison numbers, there is an understandable desire to focus on the positive presentational messages that appear to reinforce and reinvigorate reformist ambitions.

Yet, if we listen from a different standpoint the messages being delivered can take on a different hue. It is no secret that the present government is committed to both reducing the size and scope of the state and believes that private delivery of most services should be the preferred policy option. Indeed, over the last generation more and more services, including those for vulnerable groups, such as the frail elderly and children in care, have been transferred to the private sector.

So those in the business of private provision will have had their ears cocked during the various announcements unpacking the prison reform programme to hear what opportunities might be arising. From this standpoint, the government will have left them hopeful that the prison service as a whole is to be opened to full-scale privatisation.

Preparing for market

Localism is usually thought of as a common good. Indeed, local prisons for local prisoners that family members can be more easily reach is often thought to be a sine qua non of a genuine commitment to rehabilitation. Yet, local management of prisons does not in and of itself promise this and is in fact quite a different proposition.

Its real effect may be to break the existing state-managed system into smaller units that are much easier to contract out or privatise. Creating a market in prison provision requires the break-up of the system, otherwise what is regarded as the necessary competition to produce more effective outcomes will not take place – a public monopoly will just be replaced by a private monopoly.

In his Policy Exchange speech on prisons, the Prime Minister made reference to prison regulations allowing prisoners to have only a certain number of underpants and jigsaws and no more than 12 sheets of music. This can be heard as a call for the relaxation of certain onerous and unnecessary aspects of the punishment regime and a welcome liberalisation. However, from the perspective of a private investor, this is a signal that an over complex regulatory regime is to be curtailed, with the effect of creating cost savings for any entrepreneur wishing to invest in the prison reform programme. As in other areas of the government’s programme, the emphasis is firmly on a ‘bonfire of the red tape’ with a purpose, the simplification of service delivery processes to allow for the creation of a viable space for market profit to be realised.

The promise to introduce league tables for locally managed prisons creates the impression that prisons will be measured on outcomes for individual prisoners. However, as with school league tables, rather than measuring outcomes for individual students so that parents can judge which school to send their child to, the underlying purpose is to measure one institution against another so that market information can be created that allows competition to be in some way meaningful.

Markets in punishment and education do not arise as a result of everyday life, the conditions need to be created for them to develop, the ground has to be prepared for their construction. Localism, league tables and deregulation were the tried and tested processes used to the break up and pass into private hands of much of the primary and secondary education system and prepared the way for forced academisation – there is little reason to suppose that a similar method will not be used for the prison system.

The reader may, or may not, be in favour of private investment in education or the prison system, that is beside the point; what is crucial in politics is that governments will often offer ‘a reason’ or a series of ‘reasons’ in order to draw a coalition behind a policy that has a desired outcome for the policy objective – the ‘real reason’. In the case of prison reform, the real reason may be a long-held government ambition, the delivery of a privatisation programme that began with British Aerospace in 1981 and has been a core purpose of Conservative policy ever since the Ridley Report was drawn up in 1977 in the policy aftermath of the Heath Government.

It is to be expected, as part of building a coalition for the full privatisation of prisons, that government will dress the policy to make it as palatable as possible for the prison reform sector. Talk of belief in redemption, combined with the clothes of localism, an end to over controlling prison regulations, and new prisons offering greater promise of rehabilitation, and the almost subversive comment that prisoners should be seen as ‘assets’, is the type of astute political packaging and communication that is aimed at neutralising opposition to the real reason for reform.


  1. Faith spear did the right thing and her treatment was appalling. This is clear evidence of corruption. Whistleblowers should receive protection because how else can we encourage people to speak out? The inspectors of prisons should be truly independent and should include a variety of backgrounds including ex prisoners. I spoke to a woman whose partner went to prison and 2 days later he was dead! There must be so many more incidents like this. A father called me recently after his son was remanded and said ' well at leadt i know he is safe and will get some help there' . I didn't have the heart to contradict ., i just hope he is ok!

  2. And to think the NPS wants all pre release offender management to be completed by prison based probation and prison officers. Because of the above historically and increasingly bad state of prisons this is why prisoners are allocated community based probation officers at start of sentence. Why the NPS and MoJ want to change this with their silly little E3 project is beyond me.

  3. Same mistake as having PSR authors who never have to supervise anyone on an orde. We soon forget how it all hangs together

  4. Whatever happens prisoners will be at the end of the queue.... Just as the prison Categorisation system, e.g. A,B,C and D is applied on the basis of the potential harm done to the public should they escape;so the primary function of the prison's is to keep the public, those on the other side of the wall safe,rehabilitation will always be the poor relative and the demand on an ever decreasing workforce render innovation and opportunity a pipe dream.Incidentally this idea of PO's doing the work is a smokescreen,as far as I can see crafting in 2-3 PO's will not not cut it, as I was one of about 10 I a local jil in 1999 and it was, struggle to get every sentence plan out for everyone, and do all the parole reports, and of course oral hearings were a bit of Novelty then, whereas now they are frequent occurrances!

  5. The prisons are fine.This is all lies

    1. Chris, you've got a new job now - that nice Mr Cameron sent you to the retirement home for failed politicians, naming you Leader of the House of Commons. You don't have to keep peddling the same old tired horseshit any more

    2. Horse-shit is useful and serves to nourish plants!

    3. If the prisons are fine then how come an inmate at hmp bristol severed his own penis whilst using mind altering drugs that should not be available in prison? Another inmate slashed his own throat, again on spice and two more at another prison also using spice and managed to get on the roof and were masturbating up there for hours!

  6. Have you been inside one recently 14.06? Thought not!

  7. Hahahahaha! It just total bollocks from prison, TTG, Probation etc etc what a pile of rubbish. 20 yrs in its worse than it ever was. We are not doing anything that assist anyone except the stats for NPS & CRCs. Total Crap Service !,,,,

  8. Working in a prison, trust me, the whole system is a complete shambles. Targets mean more then the rehabilitation of offenders, severe lack of staff and morale extremely low. Prison and Probation Officers are being asked to do more and more on a shoe string budget and deal with contractors who you can never get hold of or get the "computer says no (cough)" answer. The poor offenders who are genuinely trying to change and comply are being overlooked because time is spent with the problematic ones due to lack of staff and resources. The whole system is on its knees. Absolutely shambolic.

  9. "If he isnt diagnosed and prescrbed before he comes in here, he wont get nothing" I was told, as apparently the prescribing of meds in the privately run prison costs the providers, so the doctors inside are pressured to not diagnose. Jeez. Not only is this a human being in need of medical attention, it is risk related. Of course he wasnt ruddy prescribed, he was out of his trolly on heroin and robbing. Rehabilitation my arse

  10. Further to above, its these brick walls we are met with all the time. Its bloody frustrating when you are trying to work alongside and rehabilitate when you yourself are also fighting against constant resistance from all angles which are target and/or cost related. Absolutely had enough.

  11. Frontline NPS staff got a whole new world of hurt last week with the guidance on what they should or shouldnt commission from the CRC's

    1. We were told that at the same time as commissioning CRCs, NOMS also commissioned their own education training and employment services to "fill in the gaps" they assumed would be there following privatisation of probation. Are all NPS being instructed to use these instead of paying for CRC services?

  12. I didn't realise that the prescribing in prisons was privatised. I suppose i just thought it was still paid for by nhs. If the doctors are being pressurises not to diagnose then this is truly scandalous. This will be contributing to the sudden spike in self harm and suicide in prisons, also violent deaths. Someone needs to lift 5he lid on this . One of the problems is that the general public don't care what goes on in prison because they see it as part of the punishment and think the prisoners get what they deserve. The truth is that many people in prison have mental health problems and many have also been in care and there is a downward spiral with maybe drugs also being a factor. No one deserves to die in prison because they are seriously depressed or even psychotic. If this is what is going on then please speak out. Tell your po / pso for starters. Some of us do care and i for one try to pass information on, at the very least via this blog ( i mentioned the serious self harm incidents above ) if we all pool the information it will be hard for people to deny it is happening.remember when the lid was lifted on winterbourne view carehome near bristol? Vulnerable people being abused by sadistic staff? That had massive publicity and everyone in the care sector still aware of it. That is what is some covert filming inside some of these private prisons. Let't get it out in the open. This blog has a pretty large audience and the policy makers will be looking at it once in a while. Would be good to have some ex prisoners views. Do we want this to be something that is investigated in 20 years time and deemed to be a national scandal whilst we have sat tapping away and covering our arses on a computer? How many probation staff have worked with service users who have been the victims of intitutional care? I can count maybe 20 that spring to mind. Seriously damaged men who don't always recover. Now how many have worked with the victims of institutional abuse in prisons?? Hmmm, not so sure now! Remember the days when the community po used to do prison visits and someone disclosed or was covered in bruises? What did you do? Did you speak out or just put it down to the price you pay? If we ignore these things we are complicit. So next time someone comes out of prison and tells me something i am going to suggest they make a complaint and i will help them to do this and if someone wants to try to silence me so be it but at least i can go out with my head held high and not someone who stuck my head in the sand.