Monday, 6 February 2017

A Grim Statistic

This recent blog post from Frances Crook of the Howard League serves to remind us just how bad things have got in our prison system:-

Yesterday was a bad day. The Ministry of Justice admitted that 119 people had died by suicide in prisons over the last year. The figures of self-injury and assaults also published yesterday revealed the chaos in the system.

It happens that I had a meeting with the Secretary of State, Liz Truss, on Wednesday to discuss how she hopes to deal with prisons. There’s some hope on the horizon and her plans to increase staff numbers, invest in workforce development and improve activities inside prisons are welcome.

I remain unconvinced that this is enough. The problem at the heart of the prison system is that there are too many prisoners. Too many people go into prison, and too many stay too long.

Two-and-a-half thousand new staff will not make up for the many thousands lost. As Labour found in the 1990s, even if you throw money at prisons, they fail if they are crowded and purposeless.

If we could stem this tide of people back into prison, it would ease some of the pressure.

No politician, when in power, has had the courage to deal with the numbers issue head-on. Even Michael Gove shied away from saying there were too many people in prison. But, maybe there are chinks of light, just maybe.

Whilst there is not to be a public or legislative programme to curb the courts and reform sentencing, I think small measures could at least ease the pressure on the system.

I was particularly struck by the fact that the conversation with the Secretary of State came back to the issue of people being recalled to prison several times. This is something the Howard League is focusing on. Too many people are recalled to prison for administrative reasons.

In the 12 months ending September 2016, 22,094 people were recalled to prison. Of those, 7,752 had served sentences of less than 12 months, and 464 were IPPs. One thousand, three hundred and sixty-one women were recalled, 695 of whom had served sentences of less than 12 months.

It is clear that, if we could stem this tide of people back into prison, it would ease some of the pressure. I think there is now recognition that recalls without good reason create injustice, trigger incidents of self-injury and cause overcrowding.

I welcome that the Secretary of State is looking at this; I just hope she can do something about it quickly.

Frances Crook


  1. Speaking personally, I have never recalled any client for "administrative reasons", and I don't know of any colleague who has either. The number of hoops we have to jump through to get a recall agreed is such that - in my view, at least - any spurious application would quickly fail. I have a lot of respect for Frances Crook, but I think she is mistaken in her approach here. The number of recalls has escalated so dramatically because there are so many more people subject to sentences where they are liable to recall, and because community services of all types are so stretched that the task of rehabilitation has never been more difficult. Chiding probation staff for enforcing the sentence of the courts (normally where absolutely every other avenue has been exhausted) is inappropriate.

    1. I totally agree with you - there is a section in recall papers asking what you have done to avoid the recall - hence, where I have had to recall, maybe 3 times in last 2 years, 2 of which as a duty officer, there has been no real option and the commission of a further serious offence, increased imminent risk to a known adult/child or going awol, have left no alternative.

      I too respect Frances but I fear they have picked a subject which is complex - I'd rather they concentrated on the lack of hostel places, that can offer additional security/restrictions, so that more people can stay in the community; someone NFA whose risk is escalating is unlikely to garner favour with the ACO - as they are concerned with making defensible decisions. Whilst too many people are going into custody - there is an absence of any real rehabilitation interventions, only punitive interventions or electronic monitoring systems. Therefore, most licencee's, parolees and lifers are walking a tightrope in what is already a hostile and unforgiving environment/community.

  2. The extension of supervision to those sentenced to less than twelve months was an administrative decision. And we are now seeing this group adding to recalls.

    A fresh charge alone can trigger a recall – that's administrative if it not on compelling public protection grounds. Giving targets for breach was administrative. Toughening enforcement procedures was administrative.

    None of this is the fault of individual staff. The fault lies in how probation is administered.

    1. That's not what the Howard League means by administrative. The link refers to breaches of the requirements to keep in touch, and to reside as directed - the implication being, I think, that people are being returned to prison for missing or being late to a single appointment (the classic "I was breached for being 5 mins late" complaint that echoes round our local B Cat. I would guess that the reality for most of these breaches is that supervision has completely broken down, not just been missed a couple of times. There are clear incentives now to do anything and everything to avoid breach - not least because the non-compliant are simply going to be back on the 12 month merry-go-round within a matter of days.

    2. How can we account for the incredible increase in recalls? Over 4000 percent, as the link highlights:

      'In the last 20 years the number of people in prison due to recall has increased by 4,300 per cent. That is not a typo. In June 1995, on any given day, about 150 people were in prison because they had been recalled. By June 2016 this number had grown to 6,600. In the 12 months to the end of September 2016, 22,094 people were recalled to prison'.

      Is this increase due to changes in the behaviour of those supervised, or is it due to changes in the way probation behaves? Surely these figures reflect changes in the administration of justice. I would like to see executive recall powers severely restricted and a greater role for the court in determining who should be deprived of their liberty.

    3. The Courts already have too much say on who goes to prison - that is one of the problems. Magistrates should not have powers to send anyone to prison.

    4. 19.10. That's another story. i am talking about the power of government vis a vis the judiciary.

  3. At some point controlling the prison population must enevetibly focus on attempting to reduce the number of those swelling the prison population as a consequence of being subject to recall.
    I have no idea how many people are at any one time on licence and subject to possible recall to custody, but I'd guess now with the 12mth and under group, those who have a possibility of being recalled actually out number those actually in custody.
    That is a nightmare waiting to happen for the government.
    Reduce the number being recalled and non compliance with conditions will rise. Not wanting to be recalled is really the primary reason that those on licence comply with the conditions imposed on them.
    I think it would be a far more productive process to examine the reasons for sending an individual to prison in the first place rather then trying to work out what to do with them after they're released.
    I think there's a case for the courts to determine upon sentencing who should be subject to supervision on release. Then at least you could separate who's going to prison for rehabilitation and who's going for punishment.
    I know people say imprisonment should be both, but I don't believe that true in all cases, and I make this point.
    If a person with 36 previous convictions with 5 or 6 of them resulting in short custodial sentences is sentenced to 9mth imprisonment for his current offence, then the sentence must be solely punitive. There is no prospect that such a short sentence in those circumstances could even be seen as having a rehabilitating function. It maybe that such an approach may mean that not all offenders are released at the half way mark, but if you take the view as I do that a "one shoe fits all" approach doesn't work, then you have to be prepared to introduce different types of footwear.
    I'd like to see no prisons, and services like probation providing the services that its users need. But that's just a pipe dream.
    The CJS should work for everyone regardless of status, class, or political persuasion, and it won't get better whilst it's being used as an election winning tool.


  4. Guess what... No-one gives a flying f**k about individuals, the only concern is 'meeting targets'. I documented/recorded numerous concerns on crams & oasys about my concerns over recall, mental health & risk to others in a number of difficult cases not so many years ago. The cases were subsequently re-allocated & the case records amended. I reported the interference with my records & provided hard copy evidence of the entries but nothing happened; 'colleagues' refused to believe the hard copies were real. I challenged my employer further and soon found myself on long term gardening leave facing charges of alleged gross misconduct. I have since left (with all allegations totally dismissed) but it is clear to me that had they not been tampered with the records would have left someone in authority very exposed viz-the system holding clear evidence of vulnerability, explicit evidence of chronic mental health issues & risks of self harm. Luckily for them the records 'disappeared'. Such is the integrity of our justice system.

  5. I agree. There are far too many people who have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for non-violent offenses who end up far worse coming out of prison than they ever were before they went in. The answer seems to be rehabilitation, not ruining someone's life forever because of some youthful indiscretion or for a victimless crime.