Friday, 17 July 2015

Fine Words Better No Prisons

Prison reformers are almost by definition optimists but the expectation placed in Michael Gove by those of us who want to see a better prison system seems to be in danger of becoming distinctly Pollyannaish.

Yes he (or more likely George Osborne) has knocked the absurd Secure College on the head.  And his talk about prisoners as assets rather than liabilities, and the importance of redemption mark a welcome shift in philosophy from his predecessor’s obsessions with making prisons cheaper and less comfortable. Gove’s gone out of his way to praise the Prison Service and today he floated a number of ideas for improving its effectiveness.

Some of these were interesting, though reheated. Enabling prisoners to earn release through involvement in education, giving prison governors more autonomy, and selling Victorian prisons to fund a modern estate were all proposed in the 2008 so-called Conservative Green Paper Prisons with a Purpose. Gove made clear these are ideas to which he is attracted rather than firm policies. Some may be sensible, others less so- all are technically difficult to implement. I’m not sure I’d like to stay in prison longer because a Governor has not provided the opportunities for me to undertake the courses need to qualify for early release. The POA and others are surely right to be a little sceptical. We all heard Ken Clarke five years ago promising that prisons would be places “of education,hard work and change”.  To coin a phrase, "Fine words better no prisons".

It’s what Gove didn’t say that is the problem. It’s easy to point at the disgusting conditions at Pentonville as emblematic of the challenges facing jails but that’s only a part of it. As the Justice Committee , HMIP and Lord Harris have pointed out a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes. With more cuts looming what is Gove planning to do?  How can he in good faith promise “an end to the idleness and futility of so many prisoners’ days” when he knows he will have significantly fewer resources at his disposal.

The obvious measure is to cut prison numbers or as Nick Hardwick put it “match the demand for custodial services to the resources available”.  As Gove will know by now, this can’t be achieved through tougher alternatives alone. Cutting sentence lengths is the most direct way of doing so but perhaps unsurprisingly there was nothing from Gove on this.  Reviving interest in Justice Reinvestment in which local agencies benefit from savings that accrue from reductions in prison admissions might be more palatable. But there was no reference to that either. Developing a more appropriate approach to young adults could also produce dividends in terms of reduced prison numbers just as it has with the under 18’s. But there was no mention of that and rumours are that the YJB may shortly be for the chop.

So despite his flowing rhetoric Gove's problem is more prosaic -not so much finding treasure in the heart of every man, but getting enough cash from the treasury to run a safe and decent system. Or shrinking the system so that it is.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Commercial Misjudgement?

In May, I raised concerns about an income generating scheme established by the Magistrates Association (MA) which involves private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC’s) investing in the MA Education and Research Network. I argued that the MA -which represents the 23,000 lay justices who deal with 90% of criminal cases in England and Wales- should not put itself in a position where the content of any guidance, information or advice it produces could be seen to be influenced by commercial considerations.

Yesterday the Network was officially launched at the Supreme Court. A brochure describing the plans for the Network does little to allay those concerns.

It is not a problem with research itself. The MA’s Royal Charter specifically permits the organisation to “promote or undertake study or research and disseminate the results of such research”. It is the invitation to become an affiliate of the Network which raises a potential conflict of interest for the MA.

Affiliates are offered- presumably in return for funding - a variety of benefits. These include:

* A conduit for valuable research information which may assist in the “development of affiliate businesses or organisations”
Networking with other affiliates leading to information exchange, “helping to identify commercial trends”
 The ability to commission additional research projects “and own the results” and
*   Opportunities to host seminars or functions in Association with the Network “to promote your organisation”.

I understand that at least two CRC’s have become affiliates. It is easy to see why they and other private sector organisations might have an interest in doing so. Only five years ago, the House of Commons Justice Select Committee reported that “the Magistrates’ Association raised concerns about the impact that introducing a profit motive for reducing re-offending may have on meeting the core aims of the criminal justice system”. The MA’s then Chair had given evidence that sentencers must have confidence that the sentence will be properly and effectively delivered and they “did not believe it should be driven by profit”.  What better way of winning round a sceptical stakeholder than helping to fill a hole in their finances?  

Moreover in order to help ensure a prosperous shape for future criminal justice developments, under what better auspices could private companies showcase their technological innovations – the focus of the Network’s first year’s work?

The MA will no doubt claim that the research undertaken through the Network will be independent and rigorous and will test the claims for these and other products, programmes and measures. Indeed, the Network has an impeccable academic consultant.  She will presumably ensure that the Network’s research will in all cases be peer reviewed and published, (even when the results are “owned” by the commissioning affiliate). Otherwise we may be in in for the kind of controversy seen in the pharmaceutical industry about access to data and research producing negative as well as positive outcomes.

The MA will claim too that the Network is an independent company and it is- a wholly owned subsidiary of the MA set up, in part at least, to raise funds for the association.  The Network is chaired by a former MA Chair and the Company Secretary is the current MA Chief Executive.

The objects for which the Magistrates Association is established and incorporated are to promote the sound administration of the law, “including, but not restricted to educating and instructing Magistrates and others in the law, the administration of justice, the treatment of offenders and the prevention of crime”.  Its Charter makes clear that the income and property of the Association, however derived, shall be applied solely towards the promotion of those objects.

These provisions may provide the legal wriggle room for the arrangements that have been put in place for the Network. But one is left wondering if the MA has really considered that it looks to be lending its name to the expansion of business opportunities for private companies in criminal justice?  

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Unchanging Prisons, Losing Lives?

Changing Prisons, Saving Lives, the report of the independent review of self- inflicted deaths by young adults in custody gives a refreshingly honest if depressing account of the realities of prison. It rightly damns “grim environments, bleak and demoralising to the spirit”, questioning whether penal establishments need to be as harsh and comfortless as young people find them to be.

Rightly the report argues that life in prison should approximate as closely as possible the positive aspects of life in the community but it confirms the yawning gap (illustrated in most Inspection reports)  between what is supposed to happen and what actually does. In one symbolic respect, even what Prison Instructions require - that prisoners are afforded a minimum of 30 minutes in the open air daily- fails to meet the best known  international norm of an hour’s fresh air a day -something which is managed in many much less well-resourced prison systems around the world.

So what are the prospects of Harris's 108 recommendations being accepted and then implemented? Originally the intention was apparently to publish a government response alongside the review report but its easy to see why that option was ditched. At least one of the MoJ ministers Dominic Raab wrote in 2011 about the unwelcome belief that prisoners should be treated in prison in a way that reflects the normal life of freedom that all citizens generally enjoy. He and his co-authors of were “not ashamed to say that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places”. If Gove or Andrew Selous shares those views, they would have been given more than a pause for thought by the recommendation that following each self-inflicted death in custody, the Minister for Prisons should personally phone the family of the prisoner who has died to express their condolences on behalf of the State and to promise that a full and thorough investigation will take place, and that any lessons from the death will be studied and acted upon to avoid similar deaths in the future.

Even if Gove took a more sympathetic stance, many of the recommendations have pound signs all over them and with the MoJ looking to find another £250 million savings this year, the calls for more and better trained staff will be seen as unaffordable.  The report is right to say of course that a reduction in the prison population will enable prisons to provide better conditions and regimes. But Gove is probably aware of what happened to Kenneth Clarke when he sought to bring the prison population down. He went down with it.  The MoJ will consider the recommendations “carefully and respond to the report in the autumn”.

What’s the likely outcome then? In a chapter in a forthcoming book on the management of change in criminal justice, I look at the impact of three previous inquiries- Woolf’s Strangeways report, Lord Keith’s inquiry into the murder of Zahid Mubarak  and the Corston review of women’s imprisonment. The conclusion was that they all resulted in important improvement but in each case the most important recommendations were not accepted. In the case of Woolf , the government refused to place strict  limitations on prison overcrowding; in Keith , the prison service never properly reviewed whether the advantages of holding young offenders on the same wing as adult offenders outweigh the disadvantages; and  Corston’s radical vision for small prison units for 20-30 women  was never taken up . Nor was her call for prison to be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public. I argued that without these central recommendations, the chance of radical change was scuppered.

If the Harris review goes the same way, we may well see action on many of the welcome technical recommendations for preventing and reducing self- harm and suicide and even some changes to inspection and monitoring. But the two central arguments may not find favour; first that more vulnerable young adults should be kept out of prison and second that we need a new statement of purpose emphasising the centrality of rehabilitation. Without these, it will be a case of unchanging prisons and losing lives.