Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Young Offender Institutions and Inspections: Models that Do Not Work?

Prisoners having to pay for their beds – either to other prisoners or corrupt officials is not uncommon in many countries I’ve visited where jails are effectively under the control of the convicts. But I was shocked by today’s revelations from the Chief Inspector in England and Wales not just of ‘unofficial rent’ for cells being demanded by some young prisoners from others at Glen Parva Young Offender Institution but at the lack of action taken to address it.  With the prison "not on top of" the availability of legal highs,  widespread disregarding of its policy on offensive displays in cells and the poor example set by the behaviour and offensive language by some staff, we get a picture of an establishment almost out of control.  Without control -alongside security and justice, one of the three pillars of a successful prison identified by Lord Woolf in his Strangeways report- high levels of violence, self- harm and institutional failure are almost bound to result. As indeed they have.

What’s surprising about Glen Parva is that only two years ago the same inspectors thought the Governor and staff could be proud of the progress achieved since their previous inspection in 2009. In a good, if not glowing report of an inspection in August 2012, Nick Hardwick concluded that the prison was making sufficient progress in ensuring that prisoners were held safely, treated with respect, and engaging in positive activity.  Moreover, In a report covering the year up to November 2013, - only four months before Hardwick’s team arrived in March this year - the local Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) took the view that  Glen Parva was a well-run establishment, providing a safe and respectful environment. What on earth has gone wrong?

Clearly the reductions in staff numbers will have had an effect, with prison officer grades falling from 250 in 2010 to 160 to 2013 according to the Howard League’s recent briefing. It may be that the loss of experience rather than just the numbers has had an impact. The greenness of the staff is suggested by the IMB’s report that there was to be “training in recognition of cannabis following false suspicions caused by new leather furniture. The smell of the new furniture was mistaken for cannabis.”

Budget reductions will have had other impacts. Leather furniture notwithstanding, the latest inspectorate report found many cells lacked basic amenities such as curtains, a toilet seat, chairs and lockable cabinets. Failing to provide such basics is unlikely to enhance the prisons legitimacy in the eyes of the young men or to encourage respect for property or the people around them.

It’s also possible that there has been a change in the profile of prisoners. Although there were fewer prisoners in 2014 than in 2012, the IMB noted that many prisoners in the establishment were “a long way from their normal abode. This can pose many difficulties for families trying to maintain relationships, impacting on prisoners and their families alike.” It can also add to the stress experienced by young people for whom contact with loved ones is immensely important.

Fewer staff, worse conditions, prisoners more distant from home- these may explain the deterioration at Glen Parva but it’s surely important to identify more precisely how the YOI has gone so far downhill so rapidly. 

Nick Hardwick thinks that his report- coming after similar indictments of Feltham, Brinsford, Aylesbury and Isis means this is a model of custody that does not work. He may be right. But perhaps it is the model of inspection that does not work either.

With hindsight, the IMB report for 2012-13 looks naïve and complacent in equal measure, explaining away the apparently high rates of violence by reference to the fact that “the prisoners are adolescents, with some suffering mental illness or substance abuse.” The IMB reported that staff had been made aware of new ‘legal high’ drugs such as Black Mamba and that whilst none had been found in the Prison, “officers are prepared”. HMIP reported that legal highs were becoming more prevalent in the prison; “not all managers were properly sighted on this issue and staff awareness was poor.”

Hardwick’s report , while thoroughly documenting failings , leaves some key questions unanswered- most notably  about how things went wrong since he was last in Glen Parva and how they could be put right. Some of his recommendations are simply truisms such as the suggestion that the tackling antisocial behaviour system should provide effective support to prisoners at risk from others and challenge perpetrators of bullying and violence.  He has failed to tackle head on the question of the adequacy of staff numbers.

But the biggest problem for both HMIP and IMB’s is that even for an unsafe prison like Glen Parva, there is no formal mechanism –a notice to improve or special measures – to ensure that remedial action is taken- at the prison, by NOMS or where necessary by the Ministry of Justice. It’s not even clear whether recommendations made have all been accepted.  Some structural refinements are surely needed to give the findings of monitoring bodies greater clout. One simple one might be to get the IMB to follow up on the most urgent  recommendations on a week by week basis.


During their inspection, HMIP inspectors were told that the basic items missing in cells- toilet seats et al -were on order and would be in place within the next few weeks. Is there any way of knowing if they are?

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