Sunday, 26 January 2014

Seven Days in Tamimi

While Tamimi may conjure up images of a pacific island paradise, the bleaker reality is one of two United Nations compounds in the heart of Baghdad’s Green or International Zone (IZ). It is home to more than a hundred staff from the UN mission in Iraq (UNAMI) plus burgeoning numbers from an alphabet soup of international agencies. Members of the multinational teams whether working to inoculate children against disease, to settle and feed people fleeing from Syria and Anbar province, or to strengthen Iraq’s fragile system of governance, stay in pre fab containers alongside the security staff who protect them and the contingent of Fijian soldiers who guard the compound. Some of the staff have been there years, (with monthly breaks), others like me come for a few days for specific assignments.

Within hours of arriving, not so distant booms were followed by a loudspeaker instruction to stay indoors until further notice. An email reported an ongoing wave of explosions in the Baghdad area, small arms fire and movement of security forces. It was left to CNN to break the news that one of the targets was a juvenile detention centre with two guards killed and more than twenty escapes.

The attack cast a shadow over our planned visit to Rusafa prison, intended to form part of a five day training workshop organised for the Iraqi Correctional Service . Prisons have been targeted by Al-Qaeda across the region since last summer. While the Rusafa prisons are in the highly fortified perimeter of the Ministry of Interior, crucially they are in the Red Zone- a short drive but a world away from the eerily empty IZ , the  ghost town that is home to the international community of diplomats, aid workers and contractors , but it seems scarcely anyone else.

Venturing into the Red Zone requires close protection officers and an armed convoy and with limited resources support for missions has to be rationed. VIP visits and a long range mission meant our visit could not be supported until well after the workshop had finished.

Difficulties of international staff getting out of the IZ is matched by the problems Iraqis face in getting in. The stringent security meant the fourteen participants in our workshop could not arrive before 9.15 a.m. and had to leave by 2p.m. Bussed in and out of the IZ and checked numerous times, they reached the workshop venue not a little dazed and perhaps embarrassed by being on the receiving end of procedures they are more used to applying to others. Disappointed by the UN’s inability to authorise our visit to one of their prisons, the ICS staff none the less worked hard in the classroom at developing plans to bring their institutions into line with international standards. UNAMI’s human rights monitors may be able to check whether plans become reality, but their visits to prisons, like all missions into the Red Zone are severely restricted both in terms of time and place.

The technical limitations on UN activities are coupled with a political reluctance to embrace international norms. On the first day of our workshop, 26 death sentence prisoners were hanged - just a week after Ban Ki Moon had urged the country to suspend executions during his visit to Baghdad.

While security restrictions may frustrate the ability of agencies to do their work, they also shape everyday life at Tamimi and in the IZ. There is a curfew for staff and walking and cycling in the IZ  is prohibited at any time of day.  The UN’s Security Chief, visiting while we were in Baghdad, was told about the inhibiting impact of the regimen,  but given that the UN’s measures  are considerably less stringent than those operated by some other embassies, the deaths of UN staff in Kabul last weekend  and the upcoming elections,  any relaxation seems unlikely.

With a curious symmetry, on my last night  , the tannoy again instructed us to stay indoors,  this time to avoid some celebratory shooting – not it seems marking the successful end of the workshop but of a football match. Shortly after the all clear, staff descended on the bar where mysteriously free drinks were on offer. This came as a surprise to the visiting Security Chief next to me at the bar but was none the less a welcome one to everyone else. 

Friday, 17 January 2014

A Secure College misses the chance for really radical Youth Justice Reform

What is it that lies behind the desire of every generation of Tory politicians to invent new forms of institutions for juvenile delinquents? Sometimes it's political calculation; in the 80's, Willie Whitelaw needed short sharp shock detention centres as a tough counter weight to his controversial early release scheme for adult prisoners.  For others, it’s a genuine if misguided belief in the effectiveness of closed establishments. Kenneth Clarke arrived at the Home Office in 1992 with plans to revive approved schools to set straight the unruly youths who, the Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire told him, were responsible for most of the area’s offending. These morphed into Michael Howard’s Secure Training Centres which would take persistent young offenders off the streets as part of his 27 point plan to address “the tidal wave of crime”. But with crime nowadays much lower down the list of public concerns and with   huge financial pressures facing his department, what‘s driving Chris Grayling’s proposal for a new secure college?

Almost certainly his plans for the 320 bed “fortified school” in Leicestershire and enhanced educational provision in the Prison service Young Offender Institutions (YOI’s) spell the end of the road for secure children’s homes (SCH’s). These small, mainly local authority run facilities provide very good quality care for highly troubled children but at considerable cost.  That their role for young offenders is to be wholly or partly phased out is suggested by the admission that while the new Secure College will serve young offenders from the Midlands and the East of England, “offenders from other areas could also be taken”.

Grayling’s overall approach is to make the penal system cheaper not smaller so it’s perhaps no surprise that the SCH places costing more than £200,000 per year have caught his attention.  SCH’s are unlikely to have crossed his radar previously because by and large they work well with a vulnerable and volatile population. Whatever the rhetoric about combining security with an increased educational focus,  a single large cheaply run facility is likely to be fraught with difficulty. Recent French experience with "√Čtablissements p√©nitentiaires pour mineurs", run jointly by the prison service and social workers does not inspire confidence in such a hybrid model.

Improving access to education in the YOI’s is of course welcome but can that on its own solve the fundamental inappropriateness of prison settings for juveniles.. NOMS has reportedly recommended that for every 12 young people there should be one officer as the minimum staffing standard which means a reduction in some establishments.   The new ratio emerged from a staffing review prompted by the large and welcome fall in the number of under-18s in custody in recent years.  But with more and more young offenders managed in the community, those who are locked up are the most damaged and demanding young people, requiring more generous not more restricted staff numbers.  
Arguably, the falling juvenile custodial population has brought the MoJ the economies it needs and opens an opportunity for a much more radical overhaul of  youth justice than the one announced today.  

First, reshaping the Detention and Training Order so that very short periods of detention can be followed by a longer spell of training in the community could perhaps halve the number of custodial places currently required. It would better meet the requirement of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child   shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.

Second local government could be made responsible for meeting the costs of these orders. Devolving funds could stimulate the kind of creative alternative provision that over time would take the place of imprisonment. In this way prison custody could be phased out for 15 year olds perhaps within a year, 16 year olds within two, and 17 year olds within three. 

Finally,  Mr Grayling should be looking to shift responsibility away from his department. If he is serious about educating young offenders,  it’s a job for the Ministry of Education, not for him.




Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Another Step towards the Strange Death of the Probation Service

Today will almost certainly see a further nail being hammered into the coffin of the probation service as the Offender Rehabilitation Bill reaches Third Reading and Report stage in the Commons. Twenty or so amendments have been tabled, most of which are last ditch efforts to save the service, delay its demise or failing that, instil greater health in the new bodies which will replace it.

The most radical “wrecking” amendments would keep the new statutory supervision of short term prisoners with the existing Probation Trusts or at least the National Probation Service, thereby seeking to undermine what passes for the Government’s rationale for the changes. They will at least provide an opportunity to press Ministers on the proposed system for allocating cases between the NPS and the new companies, previously described as straightforward but looking anything but.

“Delaying” amendments would make the restructuring of probation dependent on parliamentary approval separate from the Bill itself; or on the independently evaluated results of a piloting process; or on a review of the prison service’s ability to implement the Transforming Rehabilitation changes.  The Opposition front bench will be pressing the first two of these, but it is only the piloting option which might produce sufficient delay to enable a new labour Government to call the whole thing off next year.  The Justice Secretary was famously quoted as saying that you don’t pilot a revolution, so a change of heart seems unlikely.

Gaining parliamentary approval from both houses would be a headache for the government but probably not the 16 month migraine needed to prevent contracts being signed before the election.   Although the Commons are unlikely to pass the amendment requiring such approval today, the Lords will have a chance to do so when the Bill goes back there.  They are likely to back down in any resulting ping pong since the reforms could be seen to be part of a manifesto commitment.

“Improving” amendments   would regulate more tightly the new providers of probation services requiring greater transparency about contracts and performance and require certain programmes to be provided. These may have the best chance of success given the growing concerns about outsourcing and the commitment the Public Accounts Committee extracted from four big private providers to show more openness about government contracts.    But they would be scant consolation for those who see the Government’s plans as fundamentally misconceived, ideologically driven and very likely to fail.


 In a recent paper for the World Bank, Paul English and I argued that   “the starting point before the consideration of private sector involvement in prisons must be a full analysis of the infrastructure and processes required by a country in its criminal justice system in order to meet international norms and standards”. The same is every bit as true for Probation. British MP’s should be asking whether such an analysis of Probation has been carried out, before they vote this afternoon to dismantle it.