Saturday, 22 October 2016


This comment piece from the Guardian is yet more evidence of a system in crisis, largely as a result of politicians of both the left and right having used the criminal justice system as a political football for decades. Now it's all going wrong, they have no answers and whereas the probation service would at one time been part of a solution, daily we see that falling apart as the Grayling TR omnishambles approaches its end game.

This killing in Pentonville lifts the lid on the crisis in our prisons

Murder behind bars – it’s a story that was already written. In fact I could’ve written most of this article months before Tuesday afternoon, when a 21-year-old father lost his life. All that needed to be filled out were the particulars – the names of the prison, the victims and the assailants. The victim was Jamal Mahmoud, who was, according to his friends, not as bad as his conviction for firearms offences suggests. The location: G wing in HMP Pentonville, known as the Gaza Strip among inmates.

To be honest I wouldn’t have been surprised if this had happened while I was locked up in Pentonville in 2011. I saw some nasty stuff, including an east v south London gang fight between 30 people. Occasionally there was blood, or “claret”, splattered on the wall. A guy had boiling water poured over him. But I’m even less surprised that there is bloodshed now because prison standards have slipped since then. They will slip still further unless drastic efforts are made by politicians to challenge the two-dimensional fallacies spread by those who’ve never experienced life behind the wall. We can’t begin to address the problems in our prisons until we have a realistic sense of what they are like.

There is violence, but it is important to understand that life behind bars is nothing like Hollywood’s bloodbath portrayal. On my release, my mind was damaged, but my body was unscarred, principally because I was not involved in the areas that cause the majority of violent incidents – drugs, gangs and severe mental health issues. From the little we know, at least some of these may have played a part in this week’s killing.

The continuing tragedy is that our prisons need not be like this. Gangs are manageable when you retain experienced staff, but we’ve seen valuable personnel demoralised and replaced by lower-paid equivalents in a short-sighted attempt to save money. The older officers I saw knew who was in which gang, and had a chance of keeping things in check.

But when you have a 21-year-old inexperienced prison officer from the provinces trying to cope with inner-city gang feuds, who can be surprised that things go wrong. The drug problem is also preventable with front-end investment. Think rigorous checks on staff and visitors, sniffer dogs, nets that stop drones and packages full of heroin being thrown over the fence. But in the absence of that, one failure begets others. Failure to tackle drugs leads to exacerbated gang problems. The drugs and gangs are interlinked and both cause violence.

The prevalence of drugs also results in countless people being released with addiction problems that they didn’t have when they entered the system. Each day, on leaving my cell, I saw people sprinkling heroin into roll-up cigarettes.

And then there’s mental health. If we lock up people with a clear need for psychiatric care for 23 hours a day, the result is surely predictable. I would hear people wailing and kicking their doors until 5am. One guy would spend each night screaming “ET take me home”.

So much could change if we were more clear sighted. With a relatively small amount of money well spent, the prison system could exponentially reduce all of the causes of violence.

What’s happening in our prisons is less the biblical battle of good and evil that is commonly portrayed, more a matrix of complexities both good and bad. Liberals argue that prisoners are victims of the system; reflexive rightwingers say criminals are completely capable of making decisions and should therefore suffer harsh consequences. Both are right and wrong.

Both fall victim to the lure of easy answers, when the real solutions – with potential for rehabilitation and the prospect of alternative constructive punishments – require time and concentration.

We need a clear-headed conversation that involves inmates and moves away from the old muddled narratives. We have seen this week what happens in prisons when they are starved of resources and run on the basis of politics and prejudice. No one is reformed, no one is protected, no one wins.

Carl Cattermole


  1. The Care Act 2014 places responsibility on local authorities to ensure the social care needs of prisoners are met. This is an historic change which came into force in April 2015. Can and should Adult Safeguarding Boards do more to ensure the safety of prisoners? Perhaps.

  2. Appalling. 21 year old Somalian stabbed through the heart with a hunting knife and repeatedly stamped on by a group of inmates even though he was already dead. Another man needing 100's of stitches after being repeatedly stabbed. Gang warfare and violence is ripe within these failing prisons. Weapons and drugs are flowing in unchecked. There needs to be a public enquiry and urgent measures to increase staffing and prevent drugs and weapons from entering. It is the same in almost every prison including the women's prisons. Drugs bring violence due to in fighting over dealing and the physical and mental effects of using them. Things are deteriorating rapidly and not long before someone gets hold of a gun and further multiple killings or riots. Prisoners and staff are increasingly at risk.

  3. prisoners coming out of HMP Liverpool saying that inmates are forcing people to move cells and staff having no part in it. Wings with 2 staff and lawlessness - weak inmates being falsely accused by other inmates and forced to pay-up and intimidation rife. HMIP needs to start from scratch with the prison system as it is broken. HMP Kennet closing so cram those prisoners in already over-croweded establishments.

  4. Knowing this is happening should probation staff be recalling to prison those who fail to comply with their licences ?

    1. In my area recall is the last resort when all else fails but I agree that the stories. Owning out of prisons now make me dread having to consider recall Prison just doesn't seem to be working for anyone

  5. If you have serious concerns about someone being risk to general public or known potential victim then you have a duty to recall in the right circumstances. I think we need to use our discretion. The problem is we rely on having the right tools for the job and yet we know offenders we supervise will be at increased risk both personally and in terms of further criminal associations from going into custody. At CRC it is further frustrated because we don't write PSR's when someeone re-offends and rely on NPS to reflect our views.I did what I could to argue a case for keeping one young woman in the community following harassment offences but they sent her down. Not doing well emotionally or physically and unlikely to reduce her risk once she comes out because no one is working on her issues in custody. What we need are stronger more effective community sentences. My seeing someone once a week for an hour at most will never be enough. We need multi disciplinary working with a team including probation officers, police, mental health, social workers,IDVA, housing, education..women's centres and men's centres, effective groups in the locality. What we could do with effective services and funding yet we are being reduced to a handful of de-moralised po and pso's in offices not fit for purpose. We know what we need to do to make a difference but we are ignored and decisions made by people who have never worked with offenders or disadvantaged groups. We could fund this by reducing prison numbers and moving funds over to community supervision. Also more approved premises instead of prison.prison is extremely expensive and de-humanising. It is not about simply putting a tag on someone, however, and off you go but really being creative and understanding what package would work for each individual.

    1. Didn't we have all of that before the split called IOMs Intergrated Offender Management Teams. We even had a prison officer from the nearby prison seconded to the team. Guess what IT Worked!!

  6. 10.31 Exactly! But we need to make a case not to 'bring it back because it worked' but allow an egotistical politician or MOJ big-wig to call it something different and announce it as their latest knee jerk light bulb moment written on the back of a beer mat or inscribed into a satsuma! Then hey presto!

  7. Violence in prisons is of course a very real and major concern for the CJS. However, the lack of access to health care and mental health services, addiction services etc should warrant just the same level of concern.
    The whole system is in such disarray that decision makers should surely face prosecution for their failings.
    Corporate manslaughter? Health and safety legislation? Failing in duty of care?

    This also caught my eye this morning.


    1. Absolutely agree Getafix the whole system has been dismantled but they've (successive govts) have knocked down a couple of load bearing walls ( Prison & Probation) and now it's collapsing around them!, Another analogy comes to mind Cons fiddled while CJS burned! The first one in the dock should be Grayling!

    2. A coroner has hit out at ‘huge failings’ after a prisoner hanged herself behind bars the day after she was separated from her newborn child.

      Michelle Barnes, 33, was found dead in her cell at HMP Low Newton last December, just days after giving birth.

      The prison failed to make proper arrangements for the birth and what would happen afterwards, Senior Coroner Andrew Tweddle said.

      He slammed the prison’s birth plan and ordered the prison authority to be better prepared in future.

      Of the birth plan Mr Tweddle said: “If ever there was a document that didn’t do what it said on the tin that was that. It was confusing, inadequate and not fit for purpose. That was a serious failure.

      “The prison didn’t even have a breast pump. Was there a plan? It appears to me no.”

      The most senior governor at the prison, Alan Richer, said that Low Newton had no mother and baby unit.

      Around 200 babies born to inmates every year in the UK but there are only five jails with mother and baby units in the UK, the inquest heard.

      Michelle who was from Cumbria, had a history of mental health problems and self-harm, and she found out she was pregnant when she was at Low Newton serving two-years for drug offences.

      Mr Tweddle said: “There needs to be a clear birth plan to deal with pregnant women leading up to delivery, during delivery and what happens after. The evidence I have heard shows huge failing in that regard and therefore there is risk of further fatalities and it needs to be properly considered by the authorities.”

      He went on to say that the prison relied too heavily on social services to deal with the situation and saw the outcome of the baby being taken away as inevitable, despite Michelle’s solicitor believing she had a good case.

      The inquest heard that when in hospital Michelle had been “the proud mum of a new born baby” and had been determined to keep herself clean and fight for the right to care for her child.

      However, Cumbria County Council’s social services said it made it clear from the start it would oppose her stance and within hours of the baby’s birth applied to the Family Court for an interim care order.

      A lack of mental health support for Michelle “probably contributed” to her death, the jury found on Friday after hearing evidence for three and a half days.

      The coroner criticised how the prison delivered the news she would be unable to visit her baby.

      Two prison officers who did not know her personally were tasked with passing on the message. Giving evidence earlier in the inquest one recalled how Michelle had sat on her bed with tears streaming down her face after being told the news.

      Mr Tweddle said: “The witness made it clear she was uncomfortable as Michelle sat there sobbing. If the officer felt uncomfortable imagine how Michelle must have felt hearing that information from someone, who for all intents and purposes, was a stranger.”

      The prison service, G4S, Cumbria County Council and Durham and Darlington NHS Trust all had representatives at the hearing.

      The coroner said there must be “harmony” between all providers working with prisoners and that without joined up work “there could be cracks and things could fall between them.”

      He added: “The governing governor is in charge of the prison and the buck stops with him.”

      Highlighting a “series of very serious matters” Mr Tweddle said rarely as a coroner had he seen a case with so many causes for concern.

      After deliberating for five hours the jury concluded that Michelle Barnes deliberately hanged herself but at the time she did so her intention was unclear.

      Jurors agreed on the balance of probabilities the fact Michelle wasn’t on a self-harm care plan known as ACCT, that she had been told the day before she would no longer be able to see the baby and the lack of input from the mental health team at the jail all contributed to her death.

  8. Just read the news article in the northern chronicle about the levels of violence, drugs, bullying etc going on in HMP Northumberland. Napo Northumbria branch raised this with the local media and MPs in 2014 and warned it would get worse. What a shock we were right! The contract should be taken off Sodexo. How can a company be awarded the contract for providing prison services and also the contract for super img released prisoners. Can we ask Mr and Mrs Paul McDowall both working for Sodexo but prior to that NOMs employees and then so called independent Probation Inspector it all stinks!,

    1. Indeed it does (stink). Same Mr Paul McDowell now works for MTC novo , London CRC.

  9. Sorry spell check should read supervising prisoners in the community.

    1. If you're still receiving performance bonuses for failing, what incentive is there for trying to succeed?

    2. Let's ask Lord John Reid 'consultant' for G4S previous labour Home Secretary ????

    3. Managers at G4S-run Medway youth jail paid bonuses despite failings

      Senior managers at a privately run children’s jail received bonuses this year despite the prison being taken out of their hands following allegations of abuse.

      The managers received performance-related pay awards in April, weeks after the chief inspector of prisons said that “managerial oversight failed to protect young people from harm at the jail”. Eight former staff currently face criminal charges.

      In January, the BBC’s Panorama programme showed an undercover reporter working as a guard at the G4S-run Medway secure training centre (STC) in Kent. The film showed children allegedly being mistreated and claimed that staff falsified records of violent incidents. No senior managers were disciplined or dismissed.

      In February, a Guardian investigation revealed that, in 2003, whistleblowers had warned G4S, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Youth Justice Board (YJB) that staff were mistreating detained children. Their letter, sent by Prof John Pitts, an expert on youth justice, was ignored.

      Just before the Panorama programme was broadcast, the YJB, which oversees youth custody in England, stopped placing children in Medway.

      Also in January, the prisons inspectorate carried out a snap inspection of Medway. Inspectors reported that a small group of detainees said some staff used insulting, aggressive or racist language and that they felt unsafe in areas not covered by CCTV.

      Inspectors said the concerns raised were consistent with evidence presented by Panorama “which showed targeted bullying of vulnerable boys by a small number of staff”.

      They added: “A larger group of staff must have been aware of unacceptable practice but did not challenge or report this behaviour.”

      In an earlier Ofsted report on Medway, inspectors said staff and middle managers reported feeling a lack of leadership and having “low, or no confidence in senior managers”.

      The then chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, said: “Managerial oversight failed to protect young people from harm. Effective oversight is key to creating a positive culture that prevents poor practice happening and ensuring it is reported when it does.”

      The Guardian has learned that senior managers at Medway received performance-related pay awards in April amounting to between 10-25% of their annual salaries, according to seniority.

      In February, G4S announced their intention to sell off their UK children’s services arm of the business, including two secure training centres. In May, the MoJ said the National Offender Management Service would take over the running of Medway. In July, Noms formally took control of the STC.

      Lela Xhemajli was detained at Medway in 2009, aged 15. She says she was unlawfully restrained numerous times in the 18 months she spent at the STC, including one occasion in which her face was repeatedly slammed into icy ground. Now in employment, having “turned [her] life around”, she says she was angry when she heard about the pay awards to managers.

      “I assumed the senior management team would be sacked after what was revealed in the investigations. But now it looks like they have been rewarded for allowing children to be abused in prison on their watch,” she said.

      Former Labour MP Sally Keeble, who has highlighted alleged G4S abuses in children’s secure training centres for more than a decade, said: “This is people making personal profit out of tragedy, and it is completely unacceptable. Given the government’s expressed concern about the need to protect vulnerable young people, I would hope that justice minister Liz Truss would intervene and make sure these bonuses are not being paid by a Ministry of Justice contractor.”

      A spokesman for G4s confirmed that no senior managers at Medway were disciplined or dismissed following the Panorama and Guardian investigations. He said two duty operational managers had been dismissed.

    4. One thing that has bothered me about work surveys is the lack of attention that is paid to the workplace culture in the questions that are asked. I remember a presenter / consultant at one of our County Management Meetings stating that if you ask the right questions you will get the right answers. I took this to mean a form of spin. Do we really ask the difficult questions?

    5. Probation Officer23 October 2016 at 10:47

      Staff surveys, absolutely pointless for the staff and nothing changes. Don't waste your time, it's better if not a single staff completes one as that's very hard for the management to explain.

  10. I think this same thing about staff surveys and about service user surveys. That the questions we are asked do not give us the chance to say what we want to say. And I am doubly reluctant to take part in staff surveys when there is management pressure to complete them. They want us to utter their lies for them.

  11. Probation Officer23 October 2016 at 10:43

    Sadly the way it works is that somebody has to die for changes to be made. HMP Pentonville is a public sector prison but look how much around it has been privatised and sold off. Of course people in prison and on release are going to kill and be killed when they're caged like animals for the period of sentence and then released to hardly any support from probation, social service, housing, mental health, and so on. Outsourcing plus cuts has led to this current disaster where CJS and public sector services are designed to be useless and the buck stops at the offices of the meerkat-looking Justice Secretary and the Thatcher-wannabe hag of a Prime Minister, and we have no idea how Brexit is going to affect it all.

    In 2013 I read this in the Guardian:

    "What happens when these firms, with their inexorable expansionist logic, bite off more than they can chew? We pay anyway. We paid G4S; we will pay it again when its prisons catch fire. We will pay A4e when it finds no jobs, we will pay Serco when its probation services fail. We will pay because even when they're not delivered by the public sector, these are still public services, and the ones that aren't too big to fail are too important. What any government creates with massive-scale outsourcing is not "new efficiency", it is a shadow state; we can't pin it down any more than we can vote it out. All we can do is watch."

  12. Ah Brexit - have just come back from 5 days in Italy. As I joined a very short queue (4 or 5 people) at Fiumicino Airport designated EU passport control station, someone commented that the Rest of the World' passport control queue (snaking round and round) was currently taking an hour to get through. So that'll be us then - post Brexit.