Wednesday 25 April 2012

The Unattractive Face of Drugs

What is it about any discourse on drugs recently that brings out so many unattractive characters? First we had the Guardian-inspired debate between Virgin boss Richard Branson and former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair, both very irritating in my view. The former, supposedly self-effacing and shy, a member of a UN commission on drugs, argues for a more caring approach to drug dependency. On the face of it what could be wrong with that? The trouble is I can't help thinking there might just be a wee bit of self interest involved as his Virgin Health Care moves inexorably onto the ground currently occupied by the NHS. And then there's that other irritating character Ian Blair who as an ex-copper is unsurprisingly still wedded to the War on Drugs and thinks we should just throw more money at it. 

This all happened about a month ago and to be honest it made me so depressed I wasn't going to bother commenting. But then yesterday we had the circus at the Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee presided over by the supremely pompous Keith Vaz. The irritating comedian and former drug user Russell Brand made the most of his appearance by a masterful show of irreverence and sartorial indifference whilst arguing for abstinence treatment, but not legalisation. And to round things off the unspeakably irritating Peter Hitchens plugged the case and his forth-coming book for the need to get tougher on all illegal drug usage, FFS!

Sadly, I don't think any of this has served to shed light on the issue, or move us forward towards a sensible drug policy. As evidence I would cite this piece in the Telegraph by Daniel Knowles. Whilst attempting to argue the case for legalisation, he says:-

"If we are to treat drug use as an addiction, then we must accept there will always be drug addicts." 

This one small sentence amply demonstrates a true ignorance of the subject. There have always been, and always will be, users of controlled substances that do not develop 'addictions' and are able to lead perfectly normal lives, holding down good jobs and without committing other criminality. It also completely ignores the analogy provided by a legal drug called alcohol. As I can attest through personal experience, not everyone that imbibes has an addiction. 

Monday 23 April 2012

Just So Much Crap

In recent years politicians of all persuasions in this country have clocked up an unenviable record for talking crap when venturing into the field of criminal justice. I suppose it's understandable as they're only seeking to gain votes, rather than contribute towards a meaningful debate and understanding of serious social issues. The latest in a long line is Nick Herbert the policing minister who is currently in Washington, giving an assembled throng of experts the benefit of his wisdom on how to tackle youth crime. 

In an article in the Guardian he suggests that under Labour we acted too much like a bad parent:-

"When cautions are handed down repeatedly, fines aren't paid, or community sentences aren't rigorous, a damaging message is sent to offenders. The state too often acts like a bad parent, neglectful in repeatedly tolerating bad behaviour, then inevitably harsh. Like the good parent, the state should set clear rules and boundaries from the start, dealing with transgression swiftly and surely to prevent escalation."

There must be consequences for offending. "The first instances of wrongdoing – very often nuisance or antisocial behaviour – must be dealt with effectively," Herbert writes.
The state should not be afraid of punishment though treatment is often needed, Herbert says as he calls for a "smart" approach to crime.
The minister writes: "Offenders with mental health issues should be identified as early as possible. Those with substance misuse problems should be put on courses which clean them up rather than just maintaining the habit.
"Being smart on crime does not mean being soft headed. Crime should never be excused and offenders should not be treated as victims. Getting them back onto the straight and narrow should be a rigorous task where we demand results, not a misplaced act of compassion."

According to Herbert, it's all pretty straightforward - a 'smart' approach. First sign of wrongdoing - deal with it effectively. On drugs - get 'em cleaned up. Commit offences - get 'em back on the straight and narrow. From service providers - demand results, not misplaced acts of compassion.

I have to say that this level of analysis and understanding from a Minister of the Crown makes me want to weep. Of course none of this half-baked rhetoric means anything because the issues are far more complex and require skilled interventions by well-trained, professionally-qualified staff in publicly-funded Youth Justice and Probation Services.

In this instance, reliance on alternative Payment by Results contractors will merely lead to widespread fiddling of the books and huge profits for the companies involved - in fact just like A4E and others involved in the governments' Work Programme.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Parallel Universe

On occasion you hear or see something that doesn't quite equate with your normal experience and as a result, just for a moment possibly, you begin to wonder if you've accidentally entered some sort of parallel universe. I got the feeling recently whilst visiting Westfield, the vast new shopping centre at Stratford East London, cunningly designed to make sure that every visitor to the Olympic Stadium did their duty and purchased loads of shit either on the way in, or on the way out.

In the twilight, just for a moment, I thought I had been transported to the mad urban environment featured in that stunning sci-fi film Bladerunner. (If you find this far-fetched, I suggest you give it a visit.) Equally surreal is that I noticed trains from Stratford International do not seem go beyond the Kent coast.

But surely we really are entering a parallel universe when I read that Durham Tees Valley Probation Trust is joining forces with Interserve in order to make a bid to run HMP Onley? Now unless I'm mistaken, this prison currently nestles in the English county of Northamptonshire, a good 150 miles or so down the A1 from Teeside. Actually they're not stopping there, but making a bid for HMP Wolds in Lincolnshire, as well as HMP Durham, a bit nearer to home admittedly. But this a National Agreement for goodness sake. They could be making a bid to run anything, anywhere!

What on earth is going on? We already know that South Yorkshire Probation Trust have jumped into bed with G4S in order to bid for running HMP Lindholme, along with HMP Moorland and HMP Hatfield. You will recall that for their pains the governing Governor threw all the probation staff out due to a 'conflict of interest'. I wonder what will happen to probation staff at Durham prison? And if they win the bid, what will happen to probation staff currently employed by other Services at all the prisons involved?

According to Jonathan Ledger, NAPO's General Secretary, Durham Teeside felt it better 'to jump rather than wait to be pushed' as competition is 'inevitable.' What a dogs breakfast this is all turning into. No longer a unified Service, but everyone for themselves! 

Friday 20 April 2012

Office Duty

I guess some regular readers might be pondering why this blog seems to have dried up of late? Have management caught up with him? Has there been a dreaded SFO? Has the computer comprehensively crashed? Well, I've been pondering the question too. As has been discussed before, I might have just run out of things to say and a natural end been arrived at. I certainly feel as if I'm repeating myself on occasion. But on the other hand new stuff comes along fairly regularly and someone has to comment on it....However, I think the truth is I've become depressed about the way the job is going and anyone with experience of depression will know that it tends to incapacitate to varying degrees.

So, why have I become depressed? An accumulation probably, but neatly illustrated by this. Several weeks ago I found myself having reason to visit a Probation Office in a far-flung town. In such circumstances I always find it fascinating to read the various notices put up for the benefit of clients in the waiting room. In amongst all the usual helpful ones about services available in the locality there were rather stern ones about behaviour, reporting procedures and the bus fare reimbursement policy, but the one about Office Duty particularly caught my eye.

Now, ever since I first set foot into a Probation Office many years ago, there has always been a Duty Officer available to see any client that turned up at the door unexpected and when their Officer was not available. It was a responsibility that all Officers were expected to undertake regularly on a rota basis. Personally, I always enjoyed the opportunity of meeting clients belonging to colleagues and the buzz from being put on the spot by the inevitable crises that clients always seem to have in their lives. It was just part of the job and part of the service which we offered. So imagine my surprise to be reading that such a facility was only available for one hour daily at this particular office.

I know each office has a slightly different approach to Office Duty nowadays, but I found myself pondering on the notion that our often chaotic clients had to be sufficiently well organised to be able to plan crises around this one hour of availability of a Duty Officer. If anything was likely to further aggravate and inflame clients negative views of the Service, it was surely this? I know it would seriously piss me off.

I recall from personal experience how extremely annoyed I became when my local GP's surgery unilaterally ended the time-honoured practice of an 'open' surgery from 8 till 9am six days a week. Under the new system it's now impossible to get an appointment on the day and more time off work has to be arranged in order to attend a fixed appointment at a future date. It has never been adequately explained to me how this is an improved service for patients. For years I had been willing to queue from 8am in order to be seen before setting off to work and there was never any issue of patients missing appointments, as now of course.

So, just grumpiness or depression? The borderline must be narrow and the latter seems to creep up insidiously. Happily for me, it eventually seems to pass.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Go to Prison : Try Drugs

I have been stirred from my recent sojourn by the recent report on HMP Durham by Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. He confirms what we've all known for ages, namely that significant numbers of people go to prison 'clean' and come out addicted to drugs. I suspect Durham might well be worse than many prisons, but then it's long been an over-crowded, run down Cat B 'local' struggling to cope with huge demands placed upon it by virtue of having to serve as a remand prison.

We know that sadly some prison staff in all establishments play a significant part in drug smuggling due to the vast profits that can be generated. And in the case of Durham, we can only speculate about the current state of staff morale at a time when NOMS is putting the jail through compulsory competition with the private sector. In reaching the current sad state of affairs, it's also worth remembering the part played by former Home Secretary Michael Howard who introduced mandatory drug testing within the prison system.

One of the unintended consequences of this action was to introduce a perverse incentive for prisoners to move from their regular cannabis habit to that of heroin as they soon discovered that traces of the former stayed in the body much longer than that of the latter substance. So, in one simple administrative, but politically-expedient step, we moved from a situation of relative toleration of cannabis use, which many prison officers felt kept things calm on the wings, to an explosion in heroin use and associated violence within prisons.

I notice that Nick Hardwick still clings to the naive belief that the problem can be solved by increased security. So, yet another example of the Establishment hanging on to the view that the 'War on Drugs' can be won if you chuck more resources at it.