Wednesday, 14 February 2018

What To Do About Prisons?

Lets take the opportunity of a pause in probation news and return to the equally thorny issue of our prisons. Thanks go to the reader who pointed me in the direction of this article from the FT recently:- 

Momentum stalls on UK’s private prisons

It was a totemic change but it passed almost without notice. In 2016, Serco, the outsourcing group, quietly issued prison officers at five of its six private jails with extendable batons for their personal protection. “We don’t tend to use them, they are more there for deterrence and reassurance,” said Craig, an officer at one of the company’s prisons, of his shiny new baton. “Sometimes it’s enough to extend them and they make this clicking noise and the prisoner backs off.” 

The company had understandable reasons for introducing the defensive weapons. At a time of growing unrest and crowding, officers were calling for better protection. Assaults on staff across Britain’s 140 prisons rose by a third in 2016. But by arming their guards with nightsticks, Serco removed one of the symbolic features that made private prisons distinctive. Batons may long have been a feature of life in public sector jails, and remain standard issue for patrolling officers in those institutions but for many years, Britain’s 16 private prisons prided themselves on doing things differently.

It was part of their selling point: not relying on traditional coercive methods but on clever innovation, technology and a more humane approach. That record is now under scrutiny as the government considers whether to extend competition further or to abandon plans for privatisation. Four giant new jails are being built to cope with a predicted 2,000-inmate rise in the prison population by 2022. But the government is yet to decide whether to offer them to private operators such as G4S, Serco and Sodexo, the trio that currently dominate the privatised prison estate, or keep them in state hands. 

Many would welcome the exclusion of the private sector. “The idea of the private jailer rightly makes people uneasy,” said Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, who worries that private investment can distort public policy against more lenient sentencing and discourage moves to prevent reoffending. A poll in 2012 by Populus for the anti-privatisation Howard League, revealed that 49 per cent of the public described themselves as uncomfortable with private prisons, with only 37 per cent saying they were comfortable. 

The limited privatisation of the prison sector, beginning with HMP Wolds in 1992, was driven by necessity. Prison numbers were rising fast as the then Conservative government stiffened sentencing policy and there was not enough room in the existing estate. A series of violent incidents culminated in a three-week riot at Manchester’s Strangeways prison in 1990 that left one prisoner dead and 47 injured.

“It was really a way to get more cells built quickly,” said Julian Le Vay, a former finance director of the Prison Service, who has written a book on prison privatisation. “The public sector was hopeless so they gave private companies a chance.” Today, 15 per cent of Britain’s 86,000 prisoners are in private institutions, under contracts with an aggregate value of some £4bn. Only Australia has a bigger proportion of its prison population in private jails. New buildings, properly designed and with better sightlines, have safer conditions and lower staffing levels, offering the chance for efficiency gains and savings. 

Privatisation led to lower prisoner costs, with private contractors charging about 11-15 per cent less than their public-sector benchmarks, according to a late 1990s study of four privately contracted jails. With new jails came a new cadre of officer. This was not a smooth process, and many jails saw high staff turnover. “You got people who’d worked in Wetherspoons thinking ‘I’ll give that a whirl for the extra few grand’, and finding it was much more challenging than they were prepared for,” said one prison boss. 

But the new staff were not imprinted with the harsh conditions then endemic in Britain’s cramped, largely Victorian prison estate, and this led to a new distinct and perhaps more positive culture. “It is easy to forget now how nasty the old [public sector] Prison Officer’s Association (POA) was in the 1980s, the contempt they showed to prisoners, and the fairly brutal regime where every other word was ‘f***’,” said Mr Le Vay. “The new prisons had their own atmosphere, and one where officers had a more respectful attitude towards the prisoners,” he said. Inmates responded to a regime that gave them longer hours outside their cells and better living conditions.

There are still signs of that enlightened thinking. For instance, Parc prison in Wales, a private facility that opened in 1997, runs a family intervention unit where prisoners are encouraged to maintain family bonds, which both help rehabilitation and lessen the damage done to children while parents are inside. In 2011, the Ministry of Justice endorsed the benefits of private sector prisons in driving positive change across the public estate, noting that “competition in offender services has been shown to be effective at encouraging the management and workforces of existing and future providers to improve services and deliver more innovative models of service delivery”. It announced plans to press ahead with rolling out competition to the rest of the prison system.

But since then, a series of events has dented the momentum. In 2013, G4S and Serco were caught overbilling the government on electronic tagging contracts, including for offenders who were already dead. This self-inflicted wound seemed to confirm fears about self-interested private corporations abusing their position. It damaged public trust and forced the government effectively to blackball them from new contracts for a period. In turn, that exposed the lack of competition in the market. “With Serco and G4S offside, the government’s only option would have been to give everything to Sodexo which would have been ridiculous,” Mr Le Vay said. 

Meanwhile, austerity has seen budgets cut, construction slow down, and a return to overcrowding and riots. The pressures were exacerbated by a sharp fall in staff numbers. During the past five years, these have fallen by more than a quarter across the whole estate, although they have fallen less in the private sector than in public jails. As a result, say experts, prisoners are being kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, a recipe for boredom, frustration and violent conduct. 

While the problems affect the whole estate, there has been a focus of attention on the private sector. An undercover documentary shown on the BBC’s Panorama programme last year portrayed HMP Northumberland, a large jail managed by the French outsourcing group Sodexo, as a chaotic institution, with failing alarms, prisoners bossing the warders around, and a serious drug problem stalking the wings.

Serious order problems have fallen no less heavily on public sector prisons, and the private side does often measure up favourably. Following a recent highly critical report of “cockroach infested” and disorderly HMP Liverpool, the prisons minister Rory Stewart compared it unfavourably with nearby private HMP Altcourse, which he said was far better run. But like Serco and its batons, many of the things that once distinguished private prisons from public ones have become harder to detect. Costs of construction and operation have fallen, to levels where the private sector offers little perceivable advantage. “Market testing” no longer means an automatic flip into the private sector. 

The return of two contracted prisons to public hands — including the pioneer, HMP Wolds, in 2013 — suggests that the public sector has responded and become more competitive. Qualitative judgments are hard to formulate. But since 2009, regular Ministry of Justice ratings have shown that private and public prisons deliver broadly comparable results on a range of measures, including prisoner surveys and inspectorate reports. Private prisons feature among some of the best and worst in the country. “There is relatively little correlation,” said Tom Gash of the Institute for Government. “Public or private, both can be terrible or good.”

Mr Le Vay believes that the twin track system, with tension between public and private, has led to higher standards across the board, and worries that this may now be lost. “The government appears to have lost interest in market competition, which is a great shame because it is actually a positive story,” he said. After a period of cross-party consensus, support for private prisons is fracturing, while budget cuts make it less likely that the sector can offer the returns to attract new entrants. 

Entering the market is costly and difficult. Contracts in Britain are designed to allow margins of between 5 and 8 per cent, but insiders say the actual figures are lower. “I would be surprised if we didn’t get the opportunity to bid for at least one of the new private prisons,” said an executive at one prisons operator, who argued that the private sector does a good job. 

The Ministry of Justice has said it expects the private sector to play a role in running prisons in the future. But in the wake of the collapse of the outsourcing group Carillion, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attacked the outsourcing for leaving public services “struggling after years of austerity and private contractors siphoning off profits from the public purse”. In the early days of privatisation, the government targeted getting 25 per cent of the sector into private hands. Without a renewed push, that target looks unreachable, an outcome that worries Mr Le Vay. “Neglect the whole process, and the private sector will simply lose heart and move on,” he said. “Then we’ll spend the next 20 years relearning the downside of self-serving union-dominated public service monopolies.”


With so much 'kicking off' recently, I've been waiting for a suitable opportunity to draw readers attention to this interesting blog post by Rob Allen from a few weeks back. As always, a thought-provoking piece:-

Prisons - Solution to Crime or Part of the Problem?

“Prison can become a ripe place for criminal education, serious and organised crime, and radicalisation, rather than rehabilitation”. Not the words of the Howard League, or Prison Reform Trust but, surprising as it may be, of Chief Constables. The National Police Chiefs Council’s (NPCC) latest strategy on charging and out of court disposals shows how positive interventions with offenders and victims can be effective alternatives to prosecution or even prison sentences. The Police are right of course. The surprise is only how long it’s taking for a consensus to emerge that the epidemic of drugs, violence and debt within prisons makes them part of the crime problem and seldom the solution to it.

The NPCC strategy echoes much in Transform Justice’s 2017 report “Less is More” which highlighted the declining trend in the use of out of court disposals to deal with low level offending and made recommendations about how to reverse it. As the Police Chiefs say “anything which can be done to prevent reoffending and increase victim satisfaction is vitally important.” What they call "a whole systems approach" is needed to tackle the mental health, alcohol and drug problems which underpin so much offending behaviour.

The strategy provides an opportunity to breathe fresh life into the moribund “rehabilitation revolution”. Not however in prisons struggling to provide basic and decent care. Or in a probation system on the verge of going bust. But in what the NPCC call early intervention pathways. Conditional out of court disposals, it claims, “can provide rehabilitative opportunities without the significant cost of court time”. There’s an emerging body of evidence to support that claim, from pilot projects in the West Midlands, Durham and Hampshire. And a good case for working particularly hard to keep certain types of offender out of court and out of jail. In addition to children under 18 for whom diversion has long played a central role, the strategy argues for more alternatives to prosecution for women, young adults and military veterans. As the strategy says, “prison can be a place where there is exposure to more hardened and accomplished criminals.”

The case for diversion is arguably strengthened too by another round of court closures in the offing. Victims and offenders require speedy, local mechanisms for resolving low level incidents. And the police need to free up their investigative capacity to deal with the most serious harms and threats including terrorism, and sexual crime.

The NPCC points out that there’s no new funding for rehabilitation courses or treatment programmes so forces will implement the strategy “when it is operationally and financially viable”. On resourcing, Transform Justice recommended a justice reinvestment approach which uses the savings diversion brings to police, prosecutors and courts to fund local programmes designed to further reduce crime and prevent offending. But some up front funds will be needed to kick start the process - from the Home Office, PCC's and MoJ.

Reducing demand on the courts should form part of a wide ranging new approach to people in conflict with the law. The Sentencing Council should be recalibrating the going rate for certain offences to address the inflation in sentence length that has taken place in recent years.

It’s both right and necessary that prison numbers are brought down. The Justice Committee has commenced an inquiry into the subject. New ministers at the Justice Department should do so as well, looking at all the levers at their disposal to make the system of criminal justice in England and Wales more effective and sustainable.

Rob Allen


  1. A study found that when the police wore body cameras, complaints fell by 93%. A camera is a better means of achieving peaceful outcomes than a clicking baton.

    1. Police equipped with body-worn cameras receive 93% fewer complaints from the public, according to a new study that suggests the technology helps to cool down potentially volatile encounters.

      Academics at Cambridge University, whose research looked at nearly 1.5m beat hours across more than 4,000 shifts by officers in the UK and California, claim their findings suggest the cameras herald a “profound sea change in modern policing”.

      Lead author Dr Barak Ariel, from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, said: “The cameras create an equilibrium between the account of the officer and the account of the suspect about the same event – increasing accountability on both sides.”

      Body-worn cameras have been increasingly used in both Britain and the US in recent years in response to a perceived crisis in police legitimacy and disproportionate targeting of ethnic minorities.

      A report last year called for London’s Metropolitan police to use cameras during all stop and searches, amid persistent complaints that the force disproportionately targets young black men. In the US, the epidemic of police shootings of black people has raised similar concerns.

      The Cambridge study, conducted during 2014-15 across seven trial sites that covered a population of more than 2 million people, set out to investigate the difference made by the cameras, which are usually attached to the top half of police uniforms.

      Throughout the year-long experiment, researchers were said to have randomly assigned about half of the officers starting their shifts with cameras. All officers in the forces taking part worked with cameras at some point, the researchers said.

      During the 12 months before the study, a total of 1,539 complaints were lodged against police in the areas examined, amounting to 1.2 complaints per officer. By the end, the number of complaints had fallen to 133 for the year across all sites – 0.08 per officer.

      The researchers were surprised to find that there was no statistically significant difference between the number of complaints received by officers wearing cameras and those without, a result they said may be a result of “contagious accountability”.

      Co-author Dr Alex Sutherland, of Rand Europe, said: “It may be that, by repeated exposure to the surveillance of the cameras, officers changed their reactive behaviour on the streets – changes that proved more effective and so stuck.

      “With a complaints reduction of nearly 100% across the board, we find it difficult to consider alternatives, to be honest.”

      The findings come with an important caveat, which is that the behaviour changes appeared to rely on cameras recording throughout encounters with the public, and officers explicitly warning that they were on, the researchers said.

      Early findings from the study, published earlier this year, suggested that violence actually increased if a camera was switched on in the middle of an interaction, a move that could be interpreted by both sides as an escalation.

      Ariel said that verbal reminders that encounters were being filmed encouraged participants “to think about their actions more consciously. This might mean that officers begin encounters with more awareness of rules of conduct, and members of the public are less inclined to respond aggressively.”

      The study’s findings are published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behaviour.

    2. Cameras do not work either and prisons already have cctv. The police were more mindful of their behaviour because they knew they were being cctv monitored.

  2. Yes because the police were more mindful of their behaviour because they knew they were being cctv monitored.

    Ask any prison officer, unless you’re Bruce Lee, a clicking baton doesn’t do much against in terms of instilling fear or protection. Let’s see the figures in a year from now as to how many officers have been beaten with their own baton.

    What works is staffing, resources, humane treatment and rehabilitation. Actually scratch that, why not the officers guns and then we can really join USA at the bottom of the barrel.

  3. I really worry about culture of video recording absolutely everything I really don’t know where it will lead. People tend to jump on the bandwagon until it’s them that are bing recorded. I seriously doubt many probation officers would be that keen on all their sessions and interviews being recorded.

    1. Probation staff would not take kindly to body-worn cameras, but then probation, unlike the prison and prison service, does not have a history of being assaulted or doing the assaulting. Cameras make a positive difference and they need to be body-worn because there are too many blind-spots with CCTV as undercover journalists have documented when exposing abuse in different types of institutions. Whenever there is a suspicion by relatives that a loved -ones are being mistreated by a car worker, the first steps is always covert cameras. Cameras have been trialed in many prisons and they improve behaviour.


  4. The MoJ have today responded to the prison inspectors new urgent notification powers raising dire concerns over HMP Nottingham.
    One of the actions taken is to remove 50 18 to 21 year old from the prison and locate them elsewhere.
    That actually equates to the loss of 100 places for operational capacity. 50 places not being used at Nottingham and 50 places having to be found to accommodate those being moved.
    With an overflowing prison population already that's a sore loss for the prison service, and it won't take many more decisions like it before the prison estate is housing prisoners in police cells once again.


    1. Immediate improvements made after ministers and inspectors demand action

      Prison improves mental health services, boosts anti-violence measures and repairs the estate

      Justice Secretary makes clear there is more to be done, and will use this process to get the basics right at Nottingham and across the prison estate

      Building on improvements made at the prison last year, care for the most vulnerable offenders will be dramatically improved, with NHS England supporting HMP Nottingham with an additional £200,000 to improve mental health services.

      Specialist healthcare staff will now spend additional time with those most at risk of self-harm, and more detailed mental health assessments will be completed by trained professionals.

      A local suicide prevention policy has also been launched, providing additional staff training in managing vulnerable offenders, and the prison will continue to work closely with the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman to make sure all recommendations on deaths in custody are implemented.

      Justice Secretary David Gauke said:

      I’ve been absolutely clear that conditions in some of our prisons are unacceptable, and I will not stand for them.

      We’ve already taken immediate action to address failings identified by the Chief Inspector, but this action plan is only the beginning.

      The most troubling and tragic of the problems at HMP Nottingham is the unacceptable level of self-harm and deaths. To address this, we have established a new suicide prevention policy, boosted the mental health assessment and referrals process, and got extra support from the NHS.

      But we can’t stop there and I am committed to getting the basics right at Nottingham and across the estate. We must stop the drugs, violence and self-harm, and clean up our prisons so we can focus on making them safe and secure places for rehabilitation.

      The plan also sets out how HMP Nottingham has:

      carried out a full review of safety and violence, with body worn cameras now fully operational and staff receiving additional conflict resolution training
      committed to recruiting 100 new officers to boost the prison’s frontline, as well as increasing mentoring for new recruits and less experienced staff
      completed over 800 maintenance tasks, including repairing windows and damaged cells, with monthly inspections resulting in significant improvements to cleanliness

      This action plan comes after ministers introduced the Urgent Notification process last year, meaning prisons that require urgent attention will have 28 days to introduce tough measures that will drive improvement. Last month, HMP Nottingham was issued with the first ever Urgent Notification by the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

      Since then, the prison has taken wide-ranging action to address the concerns of the Chief Inspector, building on improvements already made prior to the Urgent Notification being issued.

      Today’s action plan comes in advance of the final inspection report into HMP Nottingham, which is due to be published later this year.

  5. There are supposed to be 2200 new beds at HMP Berwyn but they are sending prisoners out to other gaols.
    What’s going on there?

    1. What's going on at HMP Berwyn?

    2. Police have been called to Wrexham’s super-prison on average more than 13 times a month since it opened.

      There have been up to 170 incidents that needed police calling, including 67 so-called ‘at height’ incidents which include anything from getting onto a cell block’s suicide prevention netting to accessing the internal roof.

      There have also been 17 fires, six cases of “concerted indiscipline” and three dirty protests.

      The figures were revealed by justice under-secretary Phillip Lee in a written answer to a question by Liz Saville Roberts, MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Plaid Cymru spokeswoman for home affairs.

      Dr Lee also revealed that there have been 626 adjudications at HMP Berwyn since it opened.

      They involve district judges or deputy district judges visiting the prison to hear cases against prisoners deemed to be sufficiently serious.

      Prisoners found guilty can be given additional days in custody. The most serious offences are referred to the police.

      In his answer to Ms Saville Roberts, Dr Lee said: “Discipline procedures are central to the maintenance of a safe, decent and rehabilitative custodial environment.”

      He also revealed that the London-based Gold command suite, which would be called to deal with the most serious incidents, has not been opened for any incidents at HMP Berwyn.

  6. Maybe we should have a 'dirty protest' ourselves...right outside houses of parliament! Bus CRC staff in from all over UK, large bowl of all bran on the way and job done! Slogan would be 'TR stinks and so do the Tories'.

  7. Brilliant - nothing to loose. If ppl put a fiver in each bus can be hired. NAPO could get some credibility back for organising something like that. I would join in

    1. Yeah, me too..but maybe we could just carry 'slop' buckets instead to reprasent the disgusting state of prisons and TR combined. A joint venture with prisons maybe?