Monday, 5 June 2017

Another One Bites the Dust

According to this article in the Guardian, it rather looks like the 'reform prison' idea, along with prison governor autonomy, has quietly bitten the dust:- 

HMP Wandsworth loses reform prison status

The future of the government’s reform prisons has been thrown into doubt after Wandsworth prison, seen as the flagship of the scheme, lost its status and reverted back to a normal prison.

The transition follows the unexpected departure of the Wandsworth governor in March and may signal the end of the trial which saw governors given sweeping new powers.

In his last email to Wandsworth staff, seen by the Guardian, former governor Ian Bickers said it had been an honour to have been asked to lead such an experienced group of staff and partners, but went on to say that Wandsworth’s reform team would now become part of the the normal work of the prison.

Reform prisons were initiated by former justice secretary Michael Gove, and six were introduced in the prisons and courts reform bill in May last year after being outlined in a major speech by David Cameron earlier that year. The other five reform prisons were Holme House in Durham, Ranby in Nottinghamshire, Kirklevington Grange in Cleveland, and Coldingley and Highdown, both in Surrey.

Under the bill, the six prisons’ governors were given control of their budgets, were able to generate contracts and retain their income. They could decide which education and rehabilitation services to use and could devise new regimes to suit their prisons. It was also announced that governors would be held accountable by a “new regime of transparency”.

The Prison Officers’ Association confirmed that Wandsworth had lost its reform status. Glyn Travis, who sits on the POA’s national executive committee, said Wandsworth staff were informed of the change in the e-mail sent to all staff on 22 March and that the changes were confirmed at a later meeting with union officials.

Travis said: “Wandsworth staff had bought into the reform process and worked well with the governor to implement the reforms. Now, the prison has lost its reform status and once again, staff and prisoners have been left high and dry as this government’s agenda seems to change at the drop of a hat.”

Bickers was the Wandsworth governor when it gained reform status. He was seen by prison reformers as a forward-thinking, innovative practitioner. However, in March a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesperson confirmed the departure of Bickers from the prison but said he was being appointed to a “more senior position” within HM Prison and Probation Service.

Bickers has since become director of immigration removal centres and foreign national prisons, and deputy director for public-sector prisons.

Andrew Neilson, the director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that the loss of reform prison status for Wandsworth did not bode well for the initiative in general.

He said selecting Wandsworth as a reform jail was a brave decision because it was a large overcrowded London local prison with a host of complex issues. There had been accusations that prisons were being cherry-picked and that only easy jails would benefit from the new reform status.

“Given Michael Gove was then moved to the backbenches, and there is every chance we may see further ministerial changes after the election, it is hard not to conclude that the reform prisons have withered on the vine. Ultimately, we are only going to see positive change if the government gets serious about easing population pressures on the system as a whole,” Neilson said.

The MoJ declined to comment, citing the purdah rules around the coming general election.


Another article from March gives the background:-

HMP Wandsworth governor leaves after failure of idea to give duties to prisoners

The governor of Britain’s biggest prison has left his job after the failure of radical plans to allocate some officers’ duties to prisoners, the Guardian has learned.

Ian Bickers had been the governor of Wandsworth prison, one of six to be selected by then justice secretary Michael Gove last summer for “reform prison” status. Three months ago Bickers told MPs about his plans to allow prisoners to be trained to deal with low-level administration work, leaving officers free for more important functions.

However, prison sources say that most of the “peer advisors” have been kept locked in their cells, and trainers from the charity St Giles Trust have been left sitting in empty classrooms as a result.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson confirmed Bickers’s departure from the prison but said he was being appointed to a “more senior position” within HM Prison and Probation Service and congratulated him on his new role. The spokesperson denied that his departure was to do with the fate of the planned changes.

Of the 50 prisoners recruited to be peer advisors – nicknamed “the purple army” after their purple tops – just 15 have been partially trained since September. Wandsworth staff say the problem is due to staff shortages in an overcrowded jail.

St Giles Trust acknowledged that so far it had encountered difficulties in gaining access to trainees. Chief executive Malcolm Walker described the situation as “challenging, with the focus on those prisoners we can access”.

Prison sources say the prisoners could not be brought for training because they were mostly located on the five main wings at Wandsworth, which are on virtual lockdown for most of the day.

Dave Todd, a member of the Prison Officers’ Association national executive committee for London and Kent, said staff were sometimes forced to curtail prisoner activities but only do so for safety reasons. He said Wandsworth was particularly affected by staff shortages and unavailability of existing staff through sickness.

“We need increased recruitment and retention of staff before we can properly deliver the service the prison system and the public deserve,” he said.

The staffing situation at Wandsworth has wider consequences for prisoners there. Documents seen by the Guardian show that the numbers of new prisoners at Wandsworth completing basic induction processes – including tests for basic maths and English – are falling dramatically, with the proportion completing the process dropping from 49% to 21% between last June and November, and further falls expected.

The prisoner-on-prisoner listener scheme, facilitated by Samaritans, is also affected, with many of the trained listeners located on the main wings where movement is strictly curtailed.


Update - this blog from Frances Crook of the Howard League:-

Reform prisons – just a title

There were reports in the media that Wandsworth prison has officially lost ‘reform’ status. Actually it never really had it. Neither did any of the other prisons that were given the title. For, title was all it really was.

Of course, there were also the highly paid additional governors who were imposed on top of the existing governors, thus downgrading experienced local people and diluting their powers. There was irony in the puff that governors would be given new powers, but in fact the reform prisons had super-governors imposed, which meant that, far from giving greater autonomy to real governors, it reduced their power.

In fact, the whole idea of ‘reform prisons’ was a bit of a publicity stunt as nothing much changed on the ground. When I visited the prisons I was shown a lot of things that were going to happen, but nothing much that had happened. The prisons never got a stand-alone budget and the power to buy in their services.

The Prisons and Courts Bill published in March this year indicated that all prisons would be places of reform but the main avenue to achieve that would be the creation of league tables. Despite some confusion about what this meant, it appeared that there would be no additional resources apart from the futile attempts to replace staff posts that had only recently been cut.

This is a pity, because giving back to governing governors their own budget and some autonomy to make choices according to local conditions and needs was a good idea. It still is a good idea. The problem was that trying to impose a system based on school management structures in a half-hearted way was just a mess.

Prisons are not like schools. Clustering prisons under super-governors who helicopter in occasionally makes the day to day staff feel under-valued and delays decision making. There have been lots of attempts to do this over the years, mostly just to save money, but they have never worked.

A prison needs a governor. Prisons work best when there is a clear line of accountability with someone who is known to staff and inmates. A prison is a living community that has to be fine-tuned daily to be safe and purposeful.

Since the election was called, little has happened in prisons and they continue to be crime-ridden, filthy, violent, drug-addled places of extreme misery and purposelessness. The incoming Secretary of State, whether the old one continues or a new person takes over, will have a gargantuan task on their hands.

Power devolution can inject some energy into the system, but it is not going to solve the intractable problems faced daily by staff and prisoners. The long-term solution must be to cut the population. But that will take a brave politician. I have my fingers crossed.

Frances Crook


  1. I doubt very much that the 'reform' aspect of reform prisons ever had much focus on the rehabilitation of prisoners. I think it was more focused on giving autonomy to half a dozen prison Governors in the hope that one or more might just come up with an operational model that functioned and could be rolled out nationally.
    Bickers decided to recruit prisoners to take on activities that normally be expected to be carried out by staff. Such a move would not be met well by existing staff calling for more officers on the front line, and would certainly have caused the POA to blow a gasket.
    Whilst I would be very supportive of more autonomy for Governors, it should be given only within the context of an overall national framework. Otherwise, a very fragmented system is likely to emerge, and the problems that could bring may be huge.
    Autonomy is good, but an overall regulated framework is required first.
    This news article from Scotland gives a flavour if the problems that may come with autonomy without some regulation.
    Great initiative on the face of it. But what if the Governor involved should find himself with a six figure salary in three years time in a senior position at Scots Rail?


    1. ScotRail want to use prisoners as free labour, union bosses have claimed. The train provider are in discussions with the Scottish Prison Service over day-release schemes for long-term convicts.

      Voluntary roles – including cleaning duties – would be built into the inmates’ training for freedom programme. Offenders recently released from custody would also be drafted in to the positions.

      But the Rail Maritime Transport (RMT) union say the under-fire rail operators should be hiring full-time staff for the jobs. They say there are up to 90 vacancies at ScotRail across areas such as on-train hospitality, sanitary and gate workers.

      The union also voiced anger at the number of agency staff being used as short-term cover for vacant positions. Inmates are due to take up posts at major stations including Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley. They will also be based at depots such as Eastfield in Glasgow’s Springburn.

      RMT Scottish organiser Mick Hogg said: “Agency staff are already being used to take up the slack. This is costing a lot of money as a short-term fix. It’s our belief the company have thought, ‘Using offenders could get us out of a hole over a three-month period.’

      “If that’s the reality, we will not stand for it. We believe if there’s a business case to use agency staff, there’s a business case for people to be employed full-time. We’ve demanded a meeting with ScotRail on this issue of vacancies and ex-offenders and are awaiting a response. We’ll also be raising the matter in parliament with the Transport Secretary and seeking assurances that vacancies will be properly filled as soon as possible. We would never criticise a scheme which helps ex-offenders back into work. But we’d be furious at the thought they’re used to backfill existing vacancies and are employed as free labour.”

      The ScotRail franchise agreement, operated by Dutch firm Abellio, outlines an obligation to provide training for Scottish prisoners.

      It states: “From June 1, 2016, the franchisee shall make at least two visits per year to Scottish prisons to provide recruitment and selection workshops. And they shall make available at least five work placements for newly released ex-offenders.”

      Hogg added: “We stress we have nothing against this in principle. But the idea that someone in this position could be lined up to temporarily fill a job currently lying vacant would be outrageous.”

      The Scottish Prison Service said: “Staff from Abellio ScotRail have been to some of our jails to speak to both male and female prisoners coming out of short and long-term sentences. Discussions have taken place about the potential for them to have jobs or training places. None have gone on placement yet.”

      ScotRail said: “The short, one-day-per-week placements have nothing to do with filling vacancies and everything to do with helping these individuals boost their skills, contribute to and integrate back in to Scottish society – and we’re proud of our contribution.”

  2. It just may be that progressive policy is not required in an institution where estate agents are preparing for it's sale?

  3. It does seem odd that this once often kicked political football is languishing somewhere in the undergrowth and which noone seems keen to retrieve and kick about anymore. I wonder why?

  4. Excellent article, Nandini Archer, Guardian 1/6/17

    "On Monday, Theresa May announced a domestic violence and abuse bill, which pledges tougher sentences for perpetrators of abuse. Given that 79% of survivors do not report domestic violence due to fear and a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, this bill is hugely misguided.

    What’s needed is funding for domestic violence services.

    May has failed domestic violence survivors.

    Despite promises to allow survivors to vote anonymously, these plans are not in place for this election. For fear of discovery from former perpetrators, domestic violence survivors must remain anonymous, [not] put at risk by being listed on the electoral roll.

    Two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner. Since 2010, the Conservatives’ ideological austerity has made it even more difficult for women to leave dangerous relationships. Thirty four specialist services have been closed since 2010, with four in five BME women now being turned away from refugesbecause of lack of space when they seek life-saving support.

    Sisters Uncut has reclaimed the visitors’ centre of the now-closed Holloway women’s prison site in north London in response to this crisis. We demand that the government uses the land to support survivors of domestic violence and the local community. We have transformed this space of state violence, holding a week-long community festival with activities and workshops.

    The visitors’ centre was secured by activists who entered via an open window, while several protested on the roof, and dozens rallied outside. After a 10-hour standoff with police, the centre was successfully occupied just after midnight on Sunday 28 May."

  5. Interesting overview GE2017 drug policy