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My response to Dame Anne Owers
As it’s Independence Day (USA) I thought it would be fitting to take a few moments to consider the independence of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) which operate in every prison and detention centre in England and Wales.
Yes, I have mentioned it before, once or twice.
Pages 4-6 of the June edition of ‘Independent Monitor’ the journal of the Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards (AMIMB) carries an article bylined to the National Chair of the IMB, Dame Anne Owers. The article sets out her thoughts on the current state of the IMB’s and her vision for their future.
It focuses on the new Governance structure highlighting that it must enhance
- The Independence of IMB’s
- The Effectiveness of IMB’s
- The Impact of IMB’s
When a National Chairman has to say “It is important to be clear what we are independent of, and what we are independent for” it should immediately ring alarm bells. For an organisation that has existed since April 2003, surely this should have been established and implemented years ago.
She continues: “The IMB’s as a whole need to be, and to be seen to be, independent of the departments that sponsor them”.
So, by her own admission they are not independent then?
How an organisation with its headquarters on 9th Floor, Orange Core, 102 Petty France, London can purport to be independent is frankly astonishing.
When I have sent emails to the IMB Secretariat it has been the MOJ that have responded, and vice versa. Talk about living in each other’s pockets.
This has been my argument for a couple of years.
And another gem:
“…we are developing a framework agreement with the Ministry of Justice, to clarify our independent role, our relationship with the sponsoring department and ministers…”
What! after 15 years?
“Independence is an important touchstone for us all. But it exists for a purpose: to ensure that there is effective monitoring that has an impact on the conditions, treatment and outcomes for prisoners and detainees”
We have all seen the state of the prisons in England and Wales, the squalor, the fact that they are unsafe for both staff and prisoners and we have now have 11 prisons in special measures.
What does this say of the effectiveness of the IMB?
It is well documented in the public domain in reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, in local and national press, TV documentaries, hidden camera exposés, oral and written evidence given to various Select Committees, etc. that there very clearly is a unfolding humanitarian crisis in our prisons.
On the IMB website it states that for members “Their role is to monitor the day-to-day life in their local prison or removal centre and ensure that proper standards of care and decency are maintained”.
Proper standards of care have not been maintained. Proper standards of decency have not been maintained.
This means that the IMB has comprehensively failed in its purpose.
The IMB is not some vanity project for Ministers to appoint people to and to dismiss people from. Neither is it an arms-length body of any central Government department to sponsor in a whimsical way for its own ends.
IMB is part of the United Kingdom’s National Preventative Mechanism (NPM), created to meet the obligations of The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). This is an international human rights treaty designed to strengthen the protection of people deprived of their liberty.
When will the IMB be brought to account for being ineffective and not fulfilling their statutory requirements to protect people deprived of their liberty?
Impact of IMB’s
This week in Court No 1 at the Royal Courts of Justice, the IMB will come under the spotlight of the judiciary. The case is: R (Faulder and others) v Sodexo Limited and the Secretary of State for Justice.
The Howard League for Penal Reform has provided evidence as this case raises vital concerns about the state’s ability to monitor private prisons.
It’s CEO, Frances Crook, in her witness statement considers the monitoring of private prisons by Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs), volunteer members, and the official watchdog, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP).
Omissions characterise many IMB Annual Reports thus giving an unsatisfactory view of the prison estate in England and Wales. I have already written extensively on this.
I agree with Dame Anne that the IMB has increased its public profile. However, it has not increased its impact; recommendations and points for improvement contained in IMB reports are still routinely ignored. And by virtue of their frequency, being annual, the reports are already wildly out of date at the time of publication.
This is a far cry from real time information Dame Anne aspires to. And a far cry from the level of impact a body of monitors needs to have, especially given the state of the prisons in England and Wales, worsening by the day.
My year opened memorably
In January, the Prisons Minister, Sam Gymiah, wrote to sack me from my role as a Chairman of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay and to ban me for 5 years from IMB membership. I spoke out in the public interest for prison reform, highlighting key weaknesses I found in the MoJ. They shot the messenger.
I’ve written extensively on the reasons for this as those of you kind enough to have followed the story will know only too well.
No doubt the MoJ and IMB hoped they had heard the last from me.
I have not shut up and I have not gone away
In fact, if anything, as a direct result of media interest from radio, tv and the local and national press, my voice became heard more widely. I was given many chances to raise important issues on the state of prisons in England and Wales and I took them.
In April, I learned that I had been nominated for The Contrarian Prize 2017. It is a prestigious prize for those who have shown independence, courage and sacrifice. Those who nominated me liked the fact that I was unafraid to speak the truth to those in power, talking about the criminal justice system in the public interest. They recognised that doing so came at a huge personal cost including a face-off with the ‘goliath’ of the Ministry of Justice.
Also in April, producers at the BBC brought me onto a live link on BBC News Channel to talk about the problem of drones bringing in banned items into prisons. When presenter Julian Worricker asked for my take on it, I was able to outline the context of the issue and that it was impossible for all the drugs, phones etc within a prison to have been delivered via drones and that the new task force to be set up by the MoJ may have limited results. After working within the prison system for several years I was convinced that visitors and staff were likely routes in for contraband, yet security continued to be somewhat limited.
In May, I was delighted to join Lady Val Corbett, at her invitation, to attend the first of three ladies executive networking lunches. Each one inspired me and brought me into contact with remarkable women. Nicola McCalliog and Jo Apparicio are two women who I met through the lunches and who I especially admire; I look forward to the opportunity of working with them in the coming year. I have been amazed by the interest that was expressed in my own story and experience.
In my opinion, Lady Val has such determination, persistence, and guts! I thank her for accepting me into the Corbett Network as an associate member, it’s great to play an active part of something so vibrant.
In July, an article by Laurence Cawley was published on the BBC website. Here, the journalist wanted to explore in greater depth my experience with the IMB and the MoJ. The editorial team expected the article would get around 200,000 unique views. In fact, it reached 690,000 unique views on the first day and am told it was ranked the 8th most read article that day globally on the BBC. It was then I realised that there was a thirst by the public for coverage on justice matters.
In its mission statement, her Majesty’s Prison Service for England and Wales states that it:
“serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.”
But it is shameful that HMPPS has fallen so short of its own mission statement. The situation in our prisons is worsening and really has become a humanitarian issue.
Also in July, I was invited to appear live on BBC News, this time in the studio, for an interview with Ben Brown about young people and children caught in the vagaries of the Criminal Justice System, highlighting the lack of care for these vulnerable individuals. This coverage proved a valuable opportunity to remind the public about the issue.
In August, I was invited to London to be interviewed by leading journalist, Simon Israel, who wanted to discuss the treatment I had encountered with the MoJ which tried to prevent me from speaking the truth concerning the prison crisis.
The interview went out on Channel 4 News causing quite a stir.
In the Autumn, I was part of one of the most important documentaries to be screened throughout the country. Here the theme was injustice and involved those from various angles within the Justice system. I was so delighted to meet those that had supported me over the last 18 months and together our voices were heard. There are more screenings planned for 2018.
This year new friendships were formed including Jane Gould (Clean Sheet) who works tirelessly in providing jobs for those that have been within the system and are often overlooked and penalised for having a criminal record. I joined her at the House of Lords for a tea reception.
My coffee and cake buddy Justin Williams has been a great friend. He has been a sounding board and has supported me when I have come under attack from those who have disagreed with my stand for prison reform.
On a lighter note, I was invited to the Opening Concert for Malta’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union by my friend Trevor Peel. Other invitations included ‘Why me’ evening at Clifford Chance with Peter Woolf and Mel Giedroyc; Probation Institute launch of Probation Services for Armed Forces Veterans under Supervision; ‘Fighting for Prison Reform’ at UCL and Robin Corbett Awards.
I have also taken up my usual seat at the Justice Select Committee on numerous occasions, the most memorable being when the IMB and AMIMB were in front of the committee. I listened carefully and made copious notes when the IMB President John Thornhill gave evidence. This man had caused so much harm to me and yet he was unaware that I was sitting right behind him. When he was informed who I was his face was like a rabbit in headlights. His plan to get rid of me had backfired, I was still there!
There were so many other events, meetings, coffee and cake times with those that have walked with me through 2017. I thank them all.
Richard Rowley, Daniel, Cranni, Jonathan Robinson, Jonathan Aitken, Unsound Robin, Charlotte, Khatuna, Chris Moore, Michael Irwin, Tracy Edwards…and more.
I started 2018 by celebrating with my twin sister our birthdays.
This year represents a year of great opportunity.
I intend to seize it with both hands.
This month marks one year since I sat in front of a disciplinary hearing at Petty France.
I had stood up and spoken out publicly on the state of our prisons and the state of the Independent Monitoring Boards that has a statutory role within each prison. Some may think I was too severe, and undermined the work that was done by volunteers. Others praised me for being brave enough to speak out as they were too fearful to face the consequences themselves.
I spoke from my experience and I spoke the truth. Seriously, the IMB is a shambles for the main part, a weak voiceless organisation that purports to be independent. Yes, there are some serious members that care about their role but blink and you will miss them! It’s not independent by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a department of the Ministry of Justice based at the MoJ headquarters Petty France.
I didn’t have to appear at the disciplinary hearing, the MoJ/IMB could have made a decision on my future as a Chairman of an IMB without my presence. I was determined to be there and try to uncover the ridiculous allegations against me. What a farce it was. I had been suspended from my role for 8 months and during that time was investigated twice by the MoJ.
During the investigation, I learnt that the article I wrote “Whistle blower without a whistle” in the Prisons Handbook 2016 was not an issue with the IMB Secretariat. The problem was that I spoke to the press. I was interviewed by my local paper ‘East Anglian Daily Times and by the ‘InsideTime’ prison newspaper. Suddenly my story was not only out in the open but was in every prison across the country.
Then came the prejudicial character assassination by both MoJ and IMB. I had struck a raw nerve. Three years previously the MoJ had commissioned Karen Page Associates to review the IMB. Conclusion was the IMB needed root and branch reform. They were so right, each board operating as a separate entity. There was nothing earth shattering about by article, I raised similar points to the review so why did the MoJ/IMB try to shut me down and silence me?
I believe it was a campaign initiated by a member of my board who had the audacity to send in additional material to the disciplinary hearing as he was scared that the decision would go in my favour and that I would reveal what was really going on in the IMB. It was rejected of course.
I didn’t realise that when you needed support or help in situations you faced as a member of an IMB it wouldn’t be available. There is so much I could say but basically the care team made up of members around the country that you could approach for support and guidance had been disbanded. So where difficult situations arose I was on my own.
Entering the hearing I was faced with a couple of familiar faces. The first panel member was on the executive committee for AMIMB. The same association that without permission had taken part of my article and printed it in their magazine and sent it to their members. So, no impartiality there.
I realised the MoJ had decided to change the terms of reference for the investigation without informing me, is that right?
The investigation was as a result of being suspended yet the direction and conclusion of the investigation had changed. I also found out the MoJ had been watching my every step for months and had a list of what I had said and when. Boy they were determined to silence me. I requested notes taken during the hearing and was disappointed but not surprised that so much that I had said was missed out. I don’t know what so-called “evidence” was sent to the Prisons Minister everything was done behind closed doors. They had made up their minds, nothing I could say or do would change that. Just as in the beginning of their campaign against me I knew there would not be fairness. Ironic that the IMB strapline is “Monitoring fairness and respect for those in custody”
Trying to silence me didn’t work
Since the hearing and at every opportunity without my hands being tied anymore, I have spoken out for positive change in the Criminal Justice System both locally and nationally.
I have met some amazing people, visited excellent schemes within prisons and worked with those I admire for their stand.
In trying to silence me the IMB/MoJ have given me a voice, a National voice. As I have said so many times before, I have never tried to raise my personal profile, for me the priority has been the issues I have raised. If you knew me you would understand this.
There have been so many that have walked beside me over the past year, some I have laughed with and some cried with. We have encouraged each other, we have shared our stories. I thank them all.
I am stronger now than I was a year ago and even more determined to play a part in the change that is needed within the Criminal Justice System.
The Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) and the Association of Members of the Independent Monitor Boards (AMIMB) have been invited to give oral evidence to the Justice Select Committee on Tuesday 31st January 2017.
We will all watch with interest.
Especially since neither IMB or AMIMB have a voice.
The two bodies have not conducted themselves well in my opinion and in my experience. And have been ‘at loggerheads’ with each other for years.
Lack of support they show for their members is as shocking as it is lamentable.
It’s clear that I’m far from alone in thinking this; many others know it to be true but are, for the moment anyway, unable to vocalise it publicly for fear of reprisals, similar to those dished out to me.
UPDATED Wed 1st Feb
Well, did you attend or watch online?
In your opinion, how did they do?
Sat immediately behind the new Secretary of State at the Justice Select Committee (@CommonsJustice) on 07 September, I registered a lot of awkwardness that was beyond mere nervousness felt by many a new joiner.
Just like Gove’s debut in front of the same Committee where he rattled on about “we’re reviewing it” (yes, I was there for that one too), Liz Truss (@trussliz) talked largely about the formulating of “plans” but on the day said nothing about tangible actions she will take.
How many more reviews do we need?
Has Truss inherited a poisoned chalice passed from one SoS to the next? Her department has a huge accumulated mess to sort out and doesn’t know what to do about it. Is she wondering what to tackle first? The paralysis of too many priorities?
Her critics say she’s doing things wrong. Look at it for yourself and you’ll see some of the priorities she is confronted with:
- Extremism and radicalisation in prison
- Violence against other offenders and against prison staff
- Over population
- Under staffing of prisons
- Death in custody
- Drugs and drones
- Education and purposeful activity
- Resettlement and homelessness on release
You would think her advisors would know what the order of priorities are. They don’t, or if they do, they obviously prefer the relative safety of “talking shop” over the tough task of taking concrete action on these priorities.
The key question people are asking is has she actually got the shoulders for the job; she has the high office and gilded robe of the Lord Chancellor but does she have the support of those working within the criminal justice system?
Soon after her appointment from Defra to Ministry of Justice, Liz Truss paid token visits to two prisons but cannot be expected to become an instant expert on the prison system.
What other mess does the SoS need to deal with?
The system of prison monitoring is in a mess. The IMB Secretariat is in utter disarray. They say they have policies and procedures but don’t always follow them themselves. For the most part, IMBs are doing their own thing. There’s no real accountability anymore. It’s a disgrace and it’s deplorable that it’s been allowed to get as bad as it has.
For my critique of prison reform and Independent Monitor Boards, I’ve been put through two MOJ investigations. Each one takes away a little piece of me. But for me it’s always been about the issues. That’s why they can’t and won’t shut me up.
The message of prison reform has become urgent and has to get to the top. If no one else will step up and if it falls to me to take it then so be it.
No accountability anymore? Give me an example.
You want an example? Here’s one of many: At HMP Garth, the IMB Chair issued a Notice To Prisoners 048/2016 dated May 2016 without the authority to do so, and apparently without the Board agreeing it. The Chair acted unilaterally outside of governance. I found out about it because a copy of that prison notice was sent to me as it happened to be about the article “Whistle Blower Without a Whistle” that I’d written for The Prison Handbook 2016 that the IMB Garth Chair was pin-pointing, (accusing me of a “rant” whilst both his prison notice and covering letter were dripping with distain).
I’m still standing by all I said in my Whistleblower article even though writing it has been at a high personal cost. In all candour, any pride I may have had in writing it has been completely sucked away from me. It’s back to the bare metal. The inconvenient truth of what I wrote remains. Readers will find that my main themes also feature prominently in the findings of the report by Karen Page Associates, commissioned by the MOJ at a cost to the taxpayer of £18,500.
An invite I received from Brian Guthrie to the forthcoming AGM of Association of Members of IMB says it all. It read:
“From the Chair Christopher Padfield
AMIMB – the immediate future
IMB needs a voice. We believe that without AMIMB this voice will not be heard. AMIMB intends to raise its voice, but needs the support of our members.
An outline plan for the immediate future of AMIMB will be put up for discussion at the forthcoming AGM (11 October 2016 at 2 Temple Place). It aims to respond both to the main needs and opportunities, and to the practicalities of the current situation.
The greatest need, as the executive committee of the AMIMB sees it, is to achieve a public voice for Independent Monitoring Boards – to let the British public know what we, as monitors, think about prison and immigration detention policy and practice in England and Wales and the impact this has on the men, women and children detained; to achieve some public recognition for the role of IMBs; in short to speak out about what we hear and see. We have urged the National Council to do this itself, but to no avail. In character, the NC propose as their contribution to the Parliamentary Justice Select Committee’s current consultation on Prison Reform, a response to a procedural question: ‘are existing mechanisms for … independent scrutiny of prisons fit for purpose?’ If the NC cannot or will not speak out, AMIMB should.”
Mr Padfield has served as IMB Chairman at HMP Bedford but to my knowledge has never been suspended pending investigation by the Prisons Minister like I was for speaking out on such things.
And therein lays the dilemma: whereas the official line is to encourage monitors to speak out, the reprisals levelled at you when you actually do are still shocking.
Is this what happens to women who use their voice?
People want you to get back in the box.
To shut up.
To go away.
The IMB doesn’t need a makeover; that would only hide most of the systemic problems behind filler and veneer. So rebranding clearly isn’t going to be the answer any more than putting lipstick on a pig.
People who think I want to abolish the IMB have totally misjudged me and the situation. I don’t want to abolish it. Far from it. I want the IMB to perform like it was set up to under OPCAT and to be all it should be as part of our NPM.
The clue is in the name: Independent. Monitoring. Board.
Have you noticed that the MOJ is haemorrhaging people at the moment?
Maybe Liz Truss could use that as an opportunity to enlist the help of those who do give a damn about the conditions in which people are held in custody and who do have a clue about strategies to stem radicalisation in prison, minimise violence, reduce prison over population, have the right staff and staffing levels, reduce death in custody, counter drones and drug misuse, revitalise education and purposeful activity, and last but not least, resettle and house people after their time in custody.
Join the conversation on Twitter @fmspear @trussliz @CommonsJustice #prisons #reform #IMB #AMIMB #SpeakUp
First published 17 Sept 2016.
Edited 18 Sept 2016.