Friday, 6 May 2016

Prison Musings 3

I suppose we should have realised what Wednesday night's ITV documentary on HMP Norwich was going to be like given the enthusiasm with which it was plugged by Andrew Selous and the MoJ publicity machine. I couldn't help noticing that there appeared to be a healthy number of staff present at all times and a twitter comment drew attention to the new clothing that seemed to be available from stores. 

Surely it would be far too cynical to suggest that the whole programme was stage-managed by NOMS, including the police raid on the visitors car park, in order to highlight the problems of drug-smuggling? Any casual viewer might be forgiven for appreciating that in fact there is a massive issue with prison staff bringing drugs, phones and simcards in. Anyway, as prison documentaries go, I found it pretty dull and as a bit of MoJ spin to convince us there's no crisis - well, it was unconvincing. There's a report here in the Daily Mail. 


Despite the impression created by the film in HMP Norwich, here's yet another article on our prison problem in the Guardian yesterday:- 

Tough talk on crime has led to a crisis in Britain’s prisons

Britain’s prison population has gone beyond 90,000. This is a massive increase since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister three decades ago. In fact, in the 45-year period 1950 to 1995, the numbers in prison doubled, before doubling again in less than half that time. Meanwhile, over the last 15 years, Britain has increased the lengths of its prison stays by 33%. Now, one in seven prisoners serves more than 10 years, while the number of lifers and other long termers has doubled to 18% of all prisoners. Lifers’ and other long termers’ average lengths of stay have risen from 13 to 17 years in little more than a decade.

These are familiar problems to me: I used to run the New York City jail system. The United States incarcerates a larger proportion of its residents than any country on Earth. Almost 2.2 million people are locked up today, an almost eightfold increase from the 295,000 who were in jails in 1970. That’s almost 700 per 100,000 people. At the opposite pole are Finland and Sweden, with rates of 57 and 55 per 100,000.

How did we get here? We “got tough” on crime. So tough that over the last four decades sentences were dramatically increased and long prison terms required for hundreds of crimes; discretion was removed from judges; “second” or “three-strike” laws were mandated, so that decades or life in prison had to be served for second or third convictions, even non-violent ones. But we also got here by ignoring every piece of evidence about what did and didn’t work to reduce crime.

I recognise that some people pose a threat and need to be removed from society. But in the US we default to prison for terms so long we now have geriatric prisons for people who cannot go to the bathroom by themselves, much less pose a safety risk.

Today an almost universal academic and expert consensus has been reached that our policies regarding “mass incarceration” have failed. And it is not just progressives who have come to that conclusion but conservatives too.

So what can Britain, or any country for that matter, learn from us? Above all: don’t even think of doing what we did. It is wasteful, unjust, hugely expensive, inefficient and diverts funds from other essential areas of government such as social services, health and education – all of which can have a far greater public safety benefit than more prisons. But, sadly, Britain is repeating our disastrous, harmful and failed experiment.

Britain now incarcerates growing numbers of people at a cost of almost £3bn annually. No good can come of it – neither for public safety nor for crime control. Indeed, 46% of those who leave British prisons are reconvicted within a year of their release because incarceration has not remotely addressed issues that got them there in the first place – and in all likelihood made them worse.

Yet there is no “easy” solution to downsizing. British prisons will not get back to Thatcher-era population levels without tackling the issue of sentencing reform and length of stays head on: prison numbers cannot be meaningfully reduced merely via simple, politically safe policies such as diverting low-level offenders (who stay only briefly and take up little space).

In addition, the Ministry of Justice’s plan to significantly reduce the prison population by a reduction in reoffending has almost no chance of success. Most research indicates that even the best designed and implemented re-entry and rehabilitation programmes achieve only 10-15% reductions. This is important and worthwhile but would only reduce the reoffending rate to 41%. In the face of the rapid prison growth and increased sentence lengths, such a reduction will not have a large impact on numbers.

British prisons are now seriously overcrowded, operating at 111% of certified normal capacity on average – some at over 160%. Alongside this there have been huge cuts in prison officer staffing and, most disturbingly, suicides in prisons in England and Wales have skyrocketed, along with rates of in-prison homicides and assaults.

The number of suicides is a hugely important indicator of the health of any prison system. One with a high rate of suicides invariably manifests problems that go beyond the suicides. And suicides in English and Welsh prisons have almost doubled in just three years.

These statistics are shocking. Both the size of the increase in such a short period and the number itself – there were 100 suicides during the 12 months ending March 2016, compared with 52 for the 12 months ending March 2013 – means that there is a suicide rate of 117 per 100,000 prisoners, one of the highest rates in the world. The comparable rate in the US – hardly known for its progressive prisons nor for its low number of mentally ill prisoners – is 15 per 100,000. India’s rate is 18 per 100,000, and Canada’s 22. The number in England and Wales suggests a system in massive distress, and conditions of confinement that are badly deteriorating.

I am sure Britain’s prison governors and staff are valiantly trying to deal with all of this: but the Ministry of Justice’s plan to build prisons to ease overcrowding will not happen fast enough. As we in the US well know, you simply cannot build your way out of this problem. The US tried that and failed miserably.

In one way, it is too late: Britain has started down this road. But in another, the scale of imprisonment is geometrically lower in Britain than the US and, in a broad historical sense, you are just at the beginning of the failed journey we started over 40 years ago. If there is to be a course correction in Britain, now is the time.

Michael P Jacobson is a former NYC corrections and probation director and currently a professor at the City University of New York. He is the author of Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration.


Alan Travis in the Guardian reveals that things have been so bad at the Medway Secure Training Centre that the MoJ will take direct control:-

Justice ministry to take over Medway child jail from G4S

The Ministry of Justice is to take over the management of a G4S-run child jail in Kent that has been at the centre of allegations of abuse and use of excessive force by staff, the Guardian has learned. The Medway secure training centre, which has been run by G4S since it opened in 1998, is to be taken over by the National Offender Management Service, which runs public sector prisons and probation services.

The decision, due to be announced next week, comes in advance of publication of an improvement board report for justice ministers that was expected to be published later this month detailing the future options for the child jail. Four members of staff were arrested on charges of child neglect after undercover filming exposed staff appearing to use excessive force to restrain youngsters, children being bullied by staff and officers lying when reporting incidents.

The private security firm announced in February in the wake of the allegations that it was selling its UK children’s services business including two secure training centres, at Medway and Oakhill, and 13 children’s homes. G4S’s existing contract to run Medway had been extended to July while the improvement board reported to justice ministers. The Ministry of Justice confirmed in April that G4S would not be taking on the new contract to run Medway that it had previously been awarded.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Our priority will always be the safety and welfare of young people in custody – that is why the justice secretary set up an independent improvement board to examine the running of Medway STC. This sits alongside a wider review of youth justice, led by Charlie Taylor. We are considering a range of options and will announce the next steps in due course.”

A G4S spokesman said: “The behaviour of some of our staff at Medway revealed in January was completely unacceptable. We have given our full support to the review being conducted by the ministry’s improvement board and will consider their findings carefully when they are published.”


Finally, but off the topic of prison, I notice that the MoJ still have a major problem with the interpreter contract. This from the Guardian:- 

Thousands of court cases adjourned due to failures in interpreting services

More than 2,600 court cases have been adjourned over the past five years because of failures in the interpreting service, according to figures released by the Ministry of Justice. The extent of the problem was confirmed as doubts emerged about the viability of the troubled contract for interpreting services after the outsourcing firm Capita declined to bid for its renewal in October.

A war crimes trial at the Old Bailey collapsed last year and has had to be rescheduled because of problems over the quality of interpreting offered to the defendant, a Nepalese army officer. The figures for the number of cases rescheduled since 2011, when the new contract paying lower rates came into effect, have been provided by the justice minister Lord Faulks.

In the magistrates courts, 2,524 trials have had to be adjourned because of the lack of an interpreter over the past five years. In the crown court, where costs are far greater, 137 trials have had to be adjourned because of interpreter difficulties. The cumulative expense of the adjournments was not recorded.

Commenting on the failures, the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesman, Lord Marks QC, said: “It goes without saying that every time an interpreter fails to turn up, either injustice is done, because the case goes on without one, or the case has to be adjourned, leading to delays and a waste of everyone’s time and costs.

“Even with improvement against targets, the number of court cases adjourned owing to the lack of interpreters has remained stubbornly high. As one judge put it, the only just target is 100% attendance. With the next contract the government must ensure effective and efficient attendance of high-quality interpreters at court to enable justice to be delivered.”

Capita, which has held the contract to provide interpreters in England and Wales for the past four years, has been heavily criticised in the past. Last year it was ordered to pay £16,000 by the most senior judge in the family courts for its “lamentable” failure to provide interpreters seven times in the course of a single adoption case. In 2013, the justice select committee described the manner in which the court interpreting service was privatised as shambolic.

Asked why it had decided not to bid for the main contract after being shortlisted, a Capita spokesperson said: “We took the decision to bid solely for Lot 2 [the more predictable ‘written translation and transcription’ service]. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”

Geoffrey Buckingham, an executive member of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association, said: “The available pool of interpreters is already limited, and the word is that many now have enough experience to move on to better-paid work. If borne out, then quality will continue to fall.

“The MoJ has not learned any lessons. The team names have changed, but the process is so flawed that one of those shortlisted in December has walked away. Capita Translation and Interpreting recently wrote to their interpreters saying they had taken the ‘strategic decision’ to withdraw from the procurement [process].”

Following Capita’s withdrawal, the two remaining bidders for the main contract are the Leeds-based translation company thebigword and the US firm TransPerfect. Earlier this week, thebigword won a £15m contract to provide telephone and face-to-face interpreting and translation services to UK central government organisations.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are absolutely committed to improving performance and ensuring the highest standard of language services for those who need them. “Our latest figures show a 98% success rate in 2015 – the highest since the interpreting contract began – with complaints about the service at a record low, down 30% on last year. Since this contract was introduced, we have also spent £38m less on language service fees.”

Interpreters are self-employed and under no obligation to accept job requests. A boycott by interpreters three years ago, in protest at low pay rates, failed to persuade the government to abandon the contract.


Stop Press 10.25am Photo from Howard League - staff at HMP Wormwood Scrubs have walked out over safety concerns at the prison.


  1. Have staff at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs walked out over health & safety fears?

    1. I have just read about this! A legal rep was trying to visit with a parent because their son didn't feel safe. Got there to find staff had walked out for the same reason. This is a farce of astronomical proportions.

  2. I listen to what the prisoners being released tell me and that is how i gain my knowledge, not moj whitewashing. If it's just one comment you could discount but when you are hearing the same story from multiple ex prisoners you develop your own impression. I always discuss this with ex prisoners and they have always been only too happy to divulge. What i am being told is that the situation is getting much worse. The availability of spice seems to be the no. 1 problem , followed by the atmosphere of fear it creates. Minority of staff being accused of assisting to get drugs in or turning a blind eye to it. when i called a prison recently to express concern for a vulnerable young man with pre existing head injury. Was told by officer who would only give first name, ' well we can't stop them using it'. This is a terrible admission. Would i say 'well i can't stop your children smoking spice when they come to visit my house'.that would be a criminal act would it not?'

  3. I've witnessed an Offender Supervisor tell the Parole Board that they were not recommending open conditions because of the amount of new psychoactive substances available there and that the prisoner would be better off being released.

  4. I have just watched the panorama programme about the abuse of chidren by staff in medway secure unit. It is truly awful! Damaged children being bullied and pysically abused by sadistic staff and others covering up for them. I have worked with children who display extremely challenging behavours and we were taught that restraint is an absolute last resort. If a child was being aggressive we would clear the room and make them safe rather than man handle them which only makes matters worse. The staff (some of them were very good we are told) who abused and bullied clearly enjoyed doing so. The children,such as billy, had become habituated to being abused. A very dangerous recipe. A child could eadily have died in an illegal choke hold. Appalling. Thank goodness panorama exposed this and put a stop to it.

    1. In the mean time though, how many of those children have received convictions for assaulting staff in response to being treated like this? Should those convictions now be overturned?