This week I was sent information issued by Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) Head of Policy and Communications Sarah Clifford, to IMB Regional Reps, Chairs and Vice Chairs detailing guidelines for all Board members.
“Following the Prime Minister’s announcement last night, Boards should not visit the establishment they monitor for any purpose and should move fully to indirect monitoring. This includes serious incidents, during which Boards should arrange to be kept in contact with the command suite via telephone. We will review the position if the Government’s approach changes following the initial three-week lockdown period.”
Indirect monitoring? There is no such thing.
Board members will now have to rely on the prison staff to pass on information, further removing any semblance of independence it ever claimed to have had.
“It is important to maintain active contact with the establishment by phone, email and other electronic means. As a minimum, Boards should ensure that every member is receiving the daily briefing from the establishment and, for prison Boards, any updates to the regime management plan”
Keeping IMB up to date
Whereas it is essential that individual boards are kept up to date indirect monitoring will, at best, be from the prison’s perspective and biased as a consequence. Very little can be verified when you are outside a prison.
On 25th March, all members were sent a comprehensive letter from the IMB Secretariat. In that letter, under the heading “Impact on prisoners/detainees – reporting mechanism”, there was this statement:
“We will be gathering Boards’ serious concerns about deteriorating conditions and treatment for prisoners/detainees caused or significantly exacerbated by the Coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak so we can bring these to ministerial/senior level attention”
How on earth are monitors meant to collect and collate information such as this if Board members cannot go into prison for their own safety?
Indirect monitoring is complete nonsense.
Under the heading “Board meetings via teleconference/videoconference” the letter stated:
“Boards now each have dedicated teleconference lines to enable meetings to take place by phone. Please note that only Skype has been cleared by the MoJ for use for Board business”
I have been informed that dedicated teleconference lines are completely different technology to Skype, which uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) running over the public internet and which is susceptible to hacking. Confidential information of a serious and official sensitive nature should not be discussed using Skype.
Posters have been issued to be stuck onto IMB application boxes showing inmates the changes in dealing with their applications. One notable detail is this:
“We will still get daily updates from senior managers, so we know what is going on in the prison”
In other words, senior managers will tell IMB only what they want them to know.
IMB boxes will be emptied by IMB clerks (MoJ staff) or prison officers (MoJ staff). The IMB clerk or member of administrative staff will scan the application and email it to the prison’s IMB who will investigate concerns.
Responses may be emailed to the IMB clerk or member of administrative staff and delivered in an envelope or it may come direct from the IMB in an envelope. But not all Boards have access to a clerk.
Many members of the IMB may be in the high-risk category due to their age, others may have children to look after. Therefore, it is inevitable that changes will need to happen to safeguard prisoners, detainees, staff, and IMB members to minimise the risk of spreading infection.
Although the situation is changing daily, I think it’s safe to say:
All scrutiny of prisons is lost for the foreseeable future
The IMB has placed itself in an impossible position; the failure of the Secretariat to assure a sufficiently diverse membership is only one of a set of longstanding issues which the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing in the full glare of public attention.
IMB National Chair Dame Anne Owers, who holds ultimate responsibility for the organisation, must urgently rethink how the IMB is to fulfill its statutory obligation to provide monitoring of the prisons in England and Wales.
UPDATE 3rd April 2020
According to www.imb.org.uk. the message has now changed:
“Dame Anne Owers, IMB National Chair, has today (30 March) written to stakeholders to update them about monitoring of prison and immigration detention during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 epidemic:
Given the significant health risks for prisoners, detainees and staff during the current COVID-19 crisis, and following the Government advice issued this week, direct monitoring activity in prisons and immigration detention has inevitably been restricted.
Boards will be able to carry out some limited on-site work where it is safe and feasible to do so. However, we have also developed remote methods of providing some independent assurance at a time of heightened concern for prisoners and detainees. This is a fast-moving situation, but we have advised Boards as follows:..
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affecting prisons, a change of direction such as this raises serious questions. How is it safer than a week ago for Board members?
Photos of Dame Anne Owers by Paul Sullivan. Used with kind permission.