Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Crowding Out the Truth.

Today’s publication of the latest World Pre-Trial Imprisonment List from the International Centre for Prison Studies puts UK jail problems in perspective. Its data shows how prisons in the poorest countries and those emerging from conflict largely are involved in locking up people on remand. In Bolivia, Libya and DR Congo more than four fifths of prisoners are awaiting trial. Many stay in detention for years in congested conditions where corruption, violence and disease can be life threatening.

Remand detainees represent less than 15% of prisoners on any one day in England and Wales, a low rate due to a comparatively efficient criminal justice process, and relatively generous provisions for bail pending trial.  The conditions in which they are held are immeasurably better than those in most low income countries. But can the prison conditions in which British prisoners are held be fairly described as overcrowded?

Earlier this week the UK Parliament heard Justice Secretary respond to an urgent question from the Opposition by asserting that “we do not have a prison overcrowding crisis”.  Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan accused him of breath taking complacency, quoting Wandsworth prison in his constituency, “which should have 943 inmates, currently has 1,597” and has been asked to provide even more spaces.

The politicians were not for the first time talking at cross purposes. Khan is right that the Certified Normal Accommodation (CNA) -the number it was designed to hold- in Wandsworth is 943. But for more than twenty years, the prison service has measured overcrowding not in relation to CNA but to what they call Operational Capacity. By deciding that most single cells could accommodate two prisoners, prison capacity was at a stroke almost doubled- in Wandsworth it is currently 1628.  Grayling could therefore claim that pressures on the prison estate are little more than business as usual.

It is that business as usual which is the greater scandal , not that more doubling up may be needed until new prison places come on stream. There is an underlying acceptance by the political class that large scale overcrowding and enforced cell sharing is inevitable. Almost a quarter of prisoners –half in local prisons- are held in accommodation units intended for fewer prisoners. Not only does this impact on the quality of life of prisoners, but it limits the prison system’s ability to respond to unanticipated pressures as seems to be happening now.

The Conservatives recognised the problem when in opposition, arguing that “overcrowding has dramatic consequences both for prisoners and for the operation of prisons. Living and working conditions, the ability of prison officers to work effectively, inmates’ access to educational and training programmes, the success of and access to mental health, drug and other vital rehabilitative programmes, are all affected”. Plans to take total capacity to over 100,000, significantly reducing overcrowding and formally ending it by 2016, were  scaled back even before the 2010 election.  After it Kenneth Clarke’s efforts to reduce demand for prison places were also ditched when he was, producing the political and policy failure highlighted by the Chief Inspector of Prisons at the weekend.

It is drastically reducing prison numbers through sentencing reform and justice reinvestment that holds the key to a sustainable penal policy. But this must be complemented by specific  legislation to prevent overcrowding. After the 1990 Strangeways riot , Lord Woolf recommended a  new Prison Rule that no establishment should hold more prisoners than its CNA, with provisions for Parliament to be informed if exceptionally there is to be a material departure from that rule. It was not accepted but something similar is required today if we are to avoid the kind of disaster that gave rise to the recommendation.


Saturday, 14 June 2014

An Inspector Calls

The death was reported today of actor Sam Kelly who played a relatively minor role in TV sitcom Porridge; (the slow and gullible “Bunny” Warren). The show may well have provided the great majority of people in my generation who have never been near a prison, an idea of what life inside is like. It’s misleading of course in all sorts of ways, not least in underplaying the pains of imprisonment – it is a comedy after all. But the sketchy knowledge that the public have about places of detention make it all the more important that we have access to a true and honest picture of the reality of what goes on inside them.

Fortunately we have such a picture in the detailed findings from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, currently Nick Hardwick, who regularly visits and reports on all of our prisons. And we are lucky too that we have a government, which according to its website at any rate attaches great importance to the Chief Inspector’s role “in order to provide the public, parliament and government with an objective and authoritative assessment of the conditions in prisons”.  

There our luck runs out. This morning, Radio 4 Today programme listeners were treated to a cavalier dismissal of Nick Hardwick’s views by the Justice Secretary. Chris Grayling went on to make highly misleading statements about the degree of overcrowding in the prison system and the extent to which it provides work opportunities for prisoners.   Grayling then sought to blame any shortfall in resources on prison governors and staff who he suggested happily offered up the cuts in staffing when faced with mass privatisation.

While there may be no votes in prisons, Grayling has a duty of care to prisoners and the very least we can expect from him is what he expects from us- honesty.  The truth is that he has been far too ready to make spending cuts without wanting to cut prison numbers. Thank goodness Nick Hardwick had the courage to say so and  let’s hope he sticks to his guns when he’s hauled in by Grayling on Monday morning and asked to clarify his remarks.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Are the wheels finally coming off at the Ministry of Justice?

Like the Spanish football team, is this the week the wheels came off the coalition administration? It’s one thing for Cabinet ministers to bicker publicly about who is to blame for extremism , another for their departments to fail to carry out their basic responsibilities whether it is monitoring what happens in schools , providing passports or benefits with a modicum of efficiency.

But it may be the Ministry of Justice where things are starting to go wrong most seriously. Litigants no longer able to obtain legal aid are causing problems for the courts, probation officers are struggling to operate a new twin track service and today it is reported that 40 jails , many already overcrowded,  are being required to take yet more prisoners to cope with what we are told is an unexpected surge in numbers.

Just as it seems the Home Office knew full well that passport applications in the UK would rise once   overseas processing centres were shut, so the Ministry of Justice were warned that closing thirteen of its more costly prisons over the last three years could leave it short of capacity. Today’s confirmation that it has done is not only embarrassing for Chris Grayling. The Public Accounts Committee recently concluded that the management of the prison estate is a best practice case example in achieving cost reductions, which HM Treasury should ensure is disseminated widely across Government. Perhaps the other departments’ failings flow from following Margaret Hodge’s foolhardy lesson that you can cut costs without incurring consequences.

The consequences in prisons may be far more dangerous than a missed holiday. The establishments being forced to increase capacity include three which have recently been inspected; at Durham inspectors found virtually every cell holding more prisoners than it should, at Wandsworth too many prisoners required to share a cell and at Leicester a degree of overcrowding they considered unacceptable. These and other prisons are having to face increasing demands while making yet more cuts. The governor told an inquest this week that reduced staffing levels are compromising the safety of prisoners at Woodhill. The Coroner will be writing to Chris Grayling asking him to review those levels in order to prevent further deaths.

“Good luck with that” one is tempted to think.  Grayling has long been committed to making prisons cheaper not smaller and is now more bullish still, making "no apology that we are sending more criminals to prison" because "that's what the public want". Public attitudes are actually a good deal less punitive than he makes out and there is surely in any event more to being a Justice Secretary than acceding to populist demands. Providing the resources for the prison system to be run in a safe and constructive way for a start.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Goodnight Probation or Au Revoir?

 Despite the predictions of many (myself included) that the ill thought out and high risk reforms to the probation service would collapse under the weight of their internal contradictions, so far they have not. This week they moved to a new stage with the splitting of the service into two. The majority of staff find themselves working for Community Rehabilitation Companies which are in the process of being sold off. Is the headlong rush to privatised rehabilitation services now a done deal?

Not necessarily. Labour have hinted that that they will undo the changes if they can afford to. But Chris Grayling will be as keen to get the new contracts with private providers signed as soon as he can as was Michael Howard with the controversial Secure Training Centres in the run up to 1997. There are rules about entering commitments too close to an election but if the Coalition stays the course, Grayling probably has nothing to fear.

Except perhaps from his own civil servants. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) managed to get the Permanent Secretary at the MoJ to commit “to only proceed at each stage of the {TR} programme if it is satisfied it is safe to do so and that value for money will not be jeopardized.” The PAC need to hold the mandarins feet to the fire on this.

They can start on Thursday when they see the Head of the Major Projects Authority. This is the body that oversees high risk governemnt initiatives and periodically publishes a "Delivery Confidence Assessment" (DCA). In its latest report published last month, 19 Ministry of Justice projects are described. Four are rated amber/red which means that “successful delivery of the project is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible”.

Given what the PAC and Justice Committee have said about the risks in the Probation reforms, one might have expected Transforming Rehabilitation to be one of these. It is not. TR is exempt from a DCA because of possible prejudice to commercial interests. The test for this is the Freedom of Information Act which allows exemptions  if disclosure   would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding the information). Guidance from the Major Projects Authority says that exemption can include time sensitive instances where disclosure would undermine the confidence that investors or suppliers may have in the project or threaten the ability of the government to attract market finance. But exemptions should be made sparingly and reviewed periodically.

It looks very convenient to prevent us knowing what a body designed to reduce financial risk to the taxpayer makes of Grayling’s reforms. After all some basic questions have been raised about their affordability. And if I were a director under an obligation to promote the success of my company, wouldn’t I want to know about the risks too?