Monday, 16 May 2016

Prison Reform at Last?

With just two days to go before we learn for definite what's in the Queen's Speech, the expectation for prison reform, first stoked-up by David Cameron himself barely a couple of months ago, couldn't be higher. The scene was set by Michael Gove's speech 'Making Prisons Work' last week to senior prison governors in which he signalled yet more rowing-back from the disastrous decisions made by his predecessor Chris Grayling. This from the Telegraph:-  
Michael Gove boosts prison early release scheme despite 'Skull Cracker' scandal

A controversial scheme allowing prisoners out of jail which was curtailed after the “Skull Cracker” scandal is to be boosted by Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary. He said “release on temporary licence”, or ROTL, which sees offenders let out for short periods before the end of their sentences could be “successful” and “safe” despite high-profile failures two years ago. In May 2014 the violent armed robber Michael Wheatley, dubbed "the Skull Cracker" raided a building society after absconding while on release from an open prison.

Mr Gove also backed prison governor Russ Trent who earlier this year was mocked for introducing “touchy-feely” policies at Berwyn prison in north Wales, such as requiring warders to knock on cell doors before entering. “When it comes to governing prisons, Russ’s instincts are absolutely right,” said Mr Gove. “Because the principal purpose of prison is rehabilitation.” He added that knocking on a cell door was a “basic courtesy”.

Mr Gove, in a speech to prison governors, said allowing a prisoner out on ROTL was “not a soft option. Mistakes in the past led to an understandable tightening-up of the rules. When individuals abuse freedoms, regimes will be tightened,” he said. “The number of prisoners to benefit from ROTL has fallen by 40 per cent since 2013. So I think now is the time for a change.

“After careful consideration, we have decided to give governors more control. Although it will take time for confidence in the system to return fully, I believe that it would be wrong to allow a very few high-profile cases, appalling though they were, to distract us from the long-term advantages for society of ROTL. With the help of careful assessment processes, I am confident that our reform-minded governors can identify the most promising candidates for a successful, safe, ROTL.”

Mr Gove also announced that Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences introduced by labour a decade ago will be reviewed amid concern inmates serving them are getting trapped in the system and unable to secure release. “We must not compromise public safety but there are a significant number of IPP prisoners who are still in jail after having served their full tariff who need to be given hope that they can contribute positively to society in the future,” Mr Gove said.

He said he had asked Nick Hardwick, the new Parole Board head, to help “develop an improved approach to handling IPP prisoners” to give “hope and a reason to engage in rehabilitative activity” to non-dangerous offenders.


As I have previously highlighted, I find it astonishing that Michael Gove did not mention probation once during this speech and yet our expertise will be required both in relation to ROTL assessments, Parole Board reports for the progression of IPP prisoners, together with general supervision and encouragement of rehabilitation. Probation is an essential player in any plans by Gove to try and reduce the prison population and bring about reform, so why is he conspicuously ignoring us? 

But the situation in prison is getting much worse by the day and there's an avalanche of reports indicating a serious situation needing urgent action that can't wait for legislation. The latest from the House of Commons Justice Select Committee could not be much more blunt:-

Prison safety: action plan urgently needed to reverse rapid deterioration
Scope of the report

The most recent safety in custody statistics and the data for the previous quarter show higher rates of self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and assaults than in the corresponding previous 12 months, and ongoing significant growth in the number of assaults and self-harm incidents:

  • Assaults rose 20% in the 6 months to December 2015 compared to the preceding 6 months. There were 2,690 assaults against staff in the six months to December 2015, an increase of 18% compared to the previous 6 months.
  • Since January 2015 each quarter there have been over 150 serious assaults between prisoners. A prison officer working for Serco, Lorraine Barwell, tragically died in July 2015 after being attacked by a prisoner she was escorting from court.
  • In the 12 months to March 2016 there were 100 self-inflicted deaths – up from 79 in the previous year.
  • According the Prison Officers’ Association, deployment of tactical intervention teams from the National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) – which attends incidents at height, incidents of hostage taking and incidents of concerted indiscipline – have reached “unprecedented levels” of 30 to 40 times a month.
  • There were 1,935 fires in adult prisons and young offender establishments in 2015, a 57% increase on 2014.
In addition to the influx of new psychoactive substances, which has had a significant impact on the working of the prison economy, Mr Selous, the Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation, attributed the decline in safety to a more challenging mix of prisoners, and a higher than anticipated prison population at a time when staffing numbers had been reduced.

These factors were already present at the time of the previous Justice Committee’s inquiry into prisons: planning and policies in 2014-15, so may not fully explain the ongoing and significant deterioration in safety.

Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service

The MoJ and NOMS have sought to improve prison safety through a wide range of legislative, operational and staff recruitment measures, including the creation of new offences of possession of new psychoactive substances and knife possession in prison and action to address violence through the use of body work cameras and to improve safeguarding procedures. But despite these efforts, and those of staff in prisons to keep prisoners and themselves secure and unharmed, overall levels of safety in prison have continued to fall.

Justice Committee Chair Bob Neill MP said:

"The Ministry hoped that prison safety would stabilise. In reality it has deteriorated further and continues to do so. This is a matter of great concern and improvement is urgently needed. We will examine the details of the Government’s ambitious penal reform agenda in due course. But this cannot wait. It is imperative that further attention is paid to bringing prisons back under firmer control, reversing recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and disorder. Without such action, the implementation of these wider reforms will be undermined."
Staffing levels

On the basis that prison safety is reliant on dynamic security—staff-prisoner relationships—our predecessor Committee believed that the key explanatory factor for the obvious deterioration in standards was that a significant number of prisons had been operating with staffing levels below those needed to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes. Minister Andrew Selous confirmed to us that the 2,250 extra prison officers recruited when the Ministry went “full throttle with a major recruitment programme” in 2015 had resulted in a net gain of only 440 officers but was unable to tell us how far short of a full complement of staff public sector prisons were operating.

Thirty-nine percent of those who left in the past year resigned, suggesting a continuing problem with retention.

The Committee received evidence from the Prison Officers’ Association, which does not believe that recruitment has kept pace with demand or need. Noting that there were 7,000 fewer officers than in 2010 when the prison population was 2,500 lower, the POA believes that budget cuts and resulting reductions in staffing are intrinsically linked to the increase in violence, deaths and suicides.

Bob Neill said:

"There is a serious and deep-rooted issue of staff retention by NOMS. The factors underlying this issue are we suspect not fully understood by NOMS and are clearly not being adequately addressed. It is vital that they get a grip of this urgently to prevent further waste of resources on large scale recruitment drives."

The Committee recommends that the MoJ and NOMS together produce an action plan for improving prison safety, addressing the factors underlying the rises in violence, self-harm and suicide, and including both preventative measures and punitive ones. The plan should also set out the action NOMS is taking with regard to recruitment and retention of prison staff as well as the implementation of the Corruption Prevention Strategy to address the apparent lack of observance of professional standards by some officers

The Committee also wishes to receive quarterly reports from the Government over the remainder of this Parliament, reporting on progress against the action plan and including for the purposes of greater transparency other key indicators of prison disorder not currently included in those statistics—in particular on volumes of emergency responses and serious and potentially serious incidents—as well as more timely prison performance data.

Having heard at HMP Wandsworth that prisoners are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day the Committee further asks for the number of hours each day prisoners spend locked in their cells on average at each prison.


Lord Falconer, Shadow Justice Secretary, has weighed-in:-

Prison reforms doomed unless Government takes heed of damning safety report

Today the Justice Select Committee, a cross-party group chaired by Tory MP Sir Bob Neill, publish their report into safety in prison. It highlights the full extent of the challenge facing Justice Secretary Michael Gove as he prepares to give us more detail about his proposals to reform our crisis-hit prison service.

We know already from the Government’s own figures that staff shortages, overcrowding and a rise in general violence have left many of our jails ungovernable and simply out of control. Self-harm and suicides are now at record levels and serious assaults on hardworking prison officers have surged.

Use of the prison riot squad has reached unprecedented levels with “Tornado Team” officers deployed almost daily to deal with serious incidents such as hostage situations, fires or even riots. Legal highs, psychoactive substances and other contraband seems to be smuggled in almost at will. But despite all this, that almost every indicator in prisons is getting worse and worse, Michael Gove refuses to address the elephant in the room; the rise in the prison population.

The current prison population sits at 85,381. This is nearly five thousand higher than when David Cameron took office. The rise in prisoner numbers and the reduction in prison officers has led to many members of staff concerned that they simply do not have the time to monitor the increased number of prisoners which increases the risk they face.

The weekend before last prison staff at HMP Wormwood Scrub, a jail consistently rated as one of the worst in the country, walked out citing serious risks of health and safety. Two days after the walkout two officers were hospitalized after an attack by a prisoner. We simply cannot go on like this. It is time for action and Michael Gove must now bring forward serious and radical proposals in the Queen’s Speech this Wednesday. Some of what we have heard from Gove is positive. I welcome his pledge to review the situation regarding IPP prisoners.

His proposals to give prison governors more autonomy are also welcome but this report is another reminder that he will achieve nothing if the basics are not right - and the most basic of basics is proper protection for prison officers and prisoners, and reasonable levels of discipline. That is why until he addresses the issues raised by the Select Committee then his reforms are doomed to fail.


Finally, there seems to be a plan to put most of the blame for the present prison crisis on the amount of drugs, especially NPS, now flowing freely on the wings thanks to the efforts of visitors, drones and corrupt staff. I think it's much more than that though and connected to the little respect and dignity afforded to prisoners, a situation made considerably worse as a direct result of policies introduced by the dreadful former Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling. 

It's not just those concerning books, ROTL, Earned Privileges, parcels etc, etc either, but the accumulated effect of staffing reductions, quality and quantity of food, dreadful cheap prison-issue clothing and abysmal nature of the decaying physical fabric that send out such poor signals to often emotionally-damaged people and do nothing to foster dignity, a sense of pride and responsibility, all essential elements for successful rehabilitation and re-integration into society. 

I don't think there's any doubt that Gove 'gets' this, hence his enthusiasm for the regime planned by the Governor at the brand new HMP Berwyn, so we should count our blessings that the right man appears to be in the right place, but has he got time?         


  1.,Uk's blog today has a good piece on prisons today albeit with the standard invisibility of probation.

    "Lock-em-up brigade have created a prison crisis"

    I am sorry Corbyn gave Falconer the Justice job - Falconer seems to be playing pure political games as he reminds of the increase in prisoner numbers since Cameron came to power - and omits the many times greater increase during the Labour Party's thirteen years in government. He also comments on staff shortages and does not mention the actual staff cuts,signifying that he does not have a plan to reverse the cuts beyond reversing the shortages of the current vacancies whilst not cutting the numbers of prisoners. He also misses an opportunity to comment on the plan regarding the over tariff IPPs (imprisonment for public protection) which Gove has dumped at the door of the chair of the parole board rather than years after Kenneth Clarke introduced legislation to make emergency releases possible, proposing a labour scheme.

    He also ignores probation!

  2. As with the lack of clarity around the various interpretations of TTG, in 21.C new justice-speak we find NPS = national probation service, non-prescribed substances & new psychoactive substances... It all gets very confusing!

  3. Hardly a mention of probation even though we'll be the ones expected to carry out the ROTL checks and compile the reports for the IPP hearings. I don't know what Gove "gets" as if he had any brains he'd put the National Probation Service at the forefront of rehabilitation for all offenders and end this sordid affair with private rehabilitation companies and prisons.

  4. My theory for why probation isn't mentioned in the ROTL guff above? Because we'll be Probation officers directly employed by the prison rather than the NPS

    1. I also believe the fallacy that NPS do risk while CRC provide rehabilitation will have stuck within another 3 or 4 years. By which time there will be no argument or political will to oppose PO'S being employed directly by courts, as well as prisons, and deployed to police IOM teams.

  5. 20:47 think your spot on . PO's will become part of the prison service because they really have no idea about rehabilitation!

    1. That seems possible but Gove and Theresa May do have a published plan to put probation under the auspices of the police and crime commissioners. So far they have given no details of the expected governance arrangements. Maybe we will learn more after the Queen opens parliament on Wednesday.


  7. slightly off topic but interesting no the less

    1. A crackdown by the Department for Work and Pensions against its own employees’ trade unions has been declared unlawful by the High Court.

      The DWP had scrapped the “check-off” system for collecting union subscriptions – which previously allowed employees to pay their dues through their salaries without extra bureaucracy. But the scrapping, described by PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka as “vindictive”, was ruled unlawful at the High Court on Friday.

      Judge Elisabeth Laing said DWP staff had a contractual right to have their subscriptions paid by check-off and it should not have been scrapped without agreement.

      The department scrapped check-off a year ago along with HM Revenue and Customs, Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Defence.

      In 2013 a similar ruling prevented the Department for Communities and Local Government from ending the system. At the time of that judgement the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said there was no fiscal case for scrapping the policy and that doing so would not save any money.

      Ending check-off has however cost trade unions significant amounts of money in direct debit fees – opening up the possibility that the PCS could be awarded damages for loss of income.

      Mr Serwotka said it was “scandalous” that the Department was spending money on legal fees to defend the scrapping. “It has always been clear that the political decision to remove check-off was unnecessary and vindictive, and we have comprehensively been proved right,” he said.

      “This is not just a defeat for DWP, it is a victory for all unions over a major injustice. And it is scandalous that taxpayers again face huge legal bills because Tory ministers have an obsession with trying to undermine trade unions in the workplace.”

      The Government’s Trade Union Act had originally included plans to scrap check-off across the civil service but in April the Government backed down on the policy at the law’s Bill stage after opposition in the House of Lords.

      The latest court judgment is the latest in a string of legal setbacks for the DWP. The controversial “bedroom tax” was branded “discriminatory” and “unlawful” by a court in January of this year.

      In March the DWP also lost a legal challenge to keep problems with universal credit under wraps after a freedom of information request from campaigners.

      At the end of last month benefit sanctions handed out to thousands of people were also declared unlawful by the Court of Appeal.


  8. "Many staff described de-skilling and ‘deprofessionalism’ since the service split and the TR reforms"

    1. Conclusion
      The NAO report points to an extremely worrying situation in which the government and the public are unable to understand how well probation services are performing, and hence less able to hold them to account. Napo’s research however reveals the experience of staff at the frontline of the government’s TR reforms, showing the extremely negative impact of outsourcing and privatisation on progress on gender equality, working conditions, workplace culture and a whole range of workplace and service quality issues. Both the NAO report and the independent research commissioned by Napo also reveal the very significant problems stemming from the split in the probation services.

      While the government’s reforms are destroying a public service and a profession, with mounting evidence of serious and negative impacts on services provided, it is important to restate that there was no evidence for the reforms in the first place. Despite this, as well as clear evidence at the time of implementation of serious safety concerns, the government pressed ahead. We also find that the CRC’s have less work than anticipated, which has fueled attempts by some CRCs to cut staff as well as terms and conditions. The tragedy continues, as CRCs are incentivised to focus on seeking payment for particular activities rather than to actually reduce reoffending.

      The research by Gill Kirton and Cécile Guillaume found that the reforms have proved “particularly demoralising” for staff precisely because they are “professional workers trained to and committed to working in the interests of clients and the general public.” Though the unions have been marginalised in the reform process, the research points to organised resistance by Napo’s members and a dedicated network of activists in the context of widespread discontent among probation workers. As Kirton and Guillaume conclude:

      “The study provides evidence that an independent collective voice for probation practitioners is needed more now than perhaps ever before.”

      The Speak Up for Justice Campaign calls for an integrated, publicly owned, accessible and accountable justice system. The campaign is led by the TUC together with trade unions in the justice sector, including FDA, GMB, Napo, PCS, POA, UCU, UNISON and Unite.

  9. The police want the IOM's and the Mappa Cat 1's but not the Cat 2's and non-Mappa. Prison governors don't really want expensive probation officers unless they can double up as prison officers. The alternative solution would have been a merge with social services and YOT's to come under local authority control. There wasn't enough brain cells at the MoJ to decide the best direction for probation so they sold it off instead!