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An interview with Phil O’Brien by John O’Brien
Phil O’Brien started his prison officer training in January 1970. His first posting, at HMDC Kirklevington, in April 1970. In a forty-year career, he also served at HMP Brixton, HMP Wakefield, HMYOI Castington, HMP Full Sutton, HMRC Low Newton and HMP Frankland. He moved through the ranks and finished his public sector career as Head of Operations at Frankland. In 2006, he moved into the private sector, where he worked for two years at HMP Forest Bank before taking up consultancy roles at Harmondsworth IRC, HMP Addiewell and HMP Bronzefield, where he carried out investigations and advised on training issues. Phil retired in 2011. In September 2018, he published Can I Have a Word, Boss?, a memoir of his time in the prison service.
John O’Brien holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Leeds, where he specialised in autobiography studies.
You deal in the first two chapters of the book with training. How do you reflect upon your training now, and how do you feel it prepared you for a career in the service?
I believe that the training I received set me up for any success I might have had. I never forgot the basics I was taught on that initial course. On one level, we’re talking about practical things like conducting searches, monitoring visits, keeping keys out of the sight of prisoners. On another level, we’re talking about the development of more subtle skills like observing patterns of behaviour and developing an intimate knowledge of the prisoners in your charge, that is, getting to know them so well that you can predict what they are going to do before they do it. Put simply, we were taught how best to protect the public, which includes both prisoners and staff. Those basics were a constant for me.
Tell me about the importance of the provision of education and training for prisoners. Your book seems to suggest that Low Newton was particularly successful in this regard.
Many prisoners lack basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. For anyone leaving the prison system, reading and writing are crucial in terms of functioning effectively in society, even if it’s only in order to access the benefits available on release.
At Low Newton, a largely juvenile population, the education side of the regime was championed by two governing governors, Mitch Egan and Mike Kirby. In addition, we had a well-resourced and extremely committed set of teachers. I was Head of Inmate Activities at Low Newton and therefore had direct responsibility for education.
The importance of education and training is twofold:
Firstly, it gives people skills and better fits them for release.
Secondly, a regime that fully engages prisoners leaves less time for the nonsense often associated with jails: bullying, drug-dealing, escaping.
To what extent do you believe that the requirements of security, control and justice can be kept in balance?
Security, control, and justice are crucial to the health of any prison. If you keep these factors in balance, afford them equal attention and respect, you can’t be accused of bias one way or the other.
Security refers to your duty to have measures in place that prevent escapes – your duty to protect the public.
Control refers to your duty to create and maintain a safe environment for all.
Justice is about treating people with respect and providing them with the opportunities to address their offending behaviour. You can keep them in balance. It’s one of the fundamentals of the job. But you have to maintain an objective and informed view of how these factors interact and overlap. It comes with experience.
What changed most about the prison service in your time?
One of the major changes was Fresh Start in 1987/88, which got rid of overtime and the Chief Officer rank. Fresh Start made prison governors more budget aware and responsible. It was implemented more effectively at some places than others, so it wasn’t without its wrinkles.
Another was the Woolf report, which looked at the causes of the Strangeways riot. The Woolf report concentrated on refurbishment, decent living and working conditions, and full regimes for prisoners with all activities starting and ending on time. It also sought to enlarge the Cat D estate, which would allow prisoners to work in outside industry prior to release. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t yet come to pass sufficiently. It’s an opportunity missed.
What about in terms of security?
When drugs replaced snout and hooch as currency in the 1980s, my security priorities changed in order to meet the new threat. I had to develop ways of disrupting drug networks, both inside and outside prison, and to find ways to mitigate targeted subversion of staff by drug gangs.
In my later years, in the high security estate, there was a real fear and expectation of organised criminals breaking into jails to affect someone’s escape, so we had to organise anti-helicopter defences.
The twenty-first century also brought a changed, and probably increased, threat of terrorism, which itself introduced new security challenges.
You worked in prisons of different categories. What differences and similarities did you find in terms of management in these different environments?
Right from becoming a senior officer, a first line manager at Wakefield, I adopted a modus operandi I never changed. I called it ‘managing by walking about’. It was about talking and listening, making sure I was there for staff when things got difficult. It’s crucial for a manager to be visible to prisoners and staff on a daily basis. It shows intent and respect.
I distinctly remember Phil Copple, when he was governor at Frankland, saying one day: “How do you find time to get around your areas of responsibility every day when other managers seem tied to their chairs?” I found that if I talked to all the staff, I was responsible for every day, it would prevent problems coming to my office later when I might be pushed for time. Really, it was a means of saving time.
The job is the same wherever you are. Whichever category of prison you are working in, you must get the basics right, be fair and face the task head on.
The concept of intelligence features prominently in the book. Can you talk a bit about intelligence, both in terms of security and management?
Successful intelligence has always depended on the collection of information.
The four stages in the intelligence cycle are: collation, analysis, dissemination and action. If you talk to people in the right way, they respond. I discovered this as soon as I joined the service, and it was particularly noticeable at Brixton.
Prisoners expect to be treated fairly, to get what they’re entitled to and to be included in the conversation. When this happens, they have a vested interest in keeping the peace. It’s easy to forget that prisoners are also members of the community, and they have the same problems as everyone else. That is, thinking about kids, schools, marriages, finances. Many are loyal and conservative. The majority don’t like seeing other people being treated unfairly, and this includes prisoner on prisoner interaction, bullying etc. If you tap into this facet of their character, they’ll often help you right the wrongs. That was my experience.
Intelligence used properly can be a lifesaver.
You refer to Kirklevington as an example of how prisons should work. What was so positive about their regime at the time?
It had vision and purpose and it delivered.
It was one of the few jails where I worked that consistently delivered what it was contracted to deliver. Every prisoner was given paid work opportunities prior to release, ensuring he could compete on equal terms when he got out. The regime had in place effective monitoring, robust assessments of risk, regular testing for substance abuse and sentence-planning meetings that included input from family and home probation officers.
Once passed out to work, each prisoner completed a period of unpaid work for the benefit of the local community – painting, decorating, gardening etc.
There was excellent communication.
The system just worked.
The right processes were in place.
To what extent do you feel you were good at your job because you understood the prisoners? That you were, in some way, the same?
I come from Ripleyville, in Bradford, a slum cleared in the 1950s. Though the majority of people were honest and hardworking, the area had its minority of ne’er-do-wells. I never pretended that I was any better than anyone else coming from this background.
Whilst a prisoner officer under training at Leeds, I came across a prisoner I’d known from childhood on my first day. When I went to Brixton, a prisoner from Bradford came up to me and said he recognised me and introduced himself. I’d only been there a couple of weeks. I don’t know if it was because of my background, but I took an interest in individual prisoners, trying to understand what made them tick, as soon as I joined the job.
I found that if I was fair and communicated with them, the vast majority would come half way and meet me on those terms. Obviously, my working in so many different kinds of establishments undoubtedly helped. It gave me a wide experience of different regimes and how prisoners react in those regimes.
How important was humour in the job? And, therefore, in the book?
Humour is crucial. Often black humour. If you note, a number of my ex-colleagues who have reviewed the book mention the importance of humour. It helps calm situations. Both staff and prisoners appreciate it. It can help normalise situations – potentially tense situations. Of course, if you use it, you’ve got to be able to take it, too.
What are the challenges, as you see them, for graduate management staff in prisons?
Credibility, possibly, at least at the beginning of their career. This was definitely a feature of my earlier years, where those in the junior governor ranks were seen as nobodies. The junior governors were usually attached to a wing with a PO, and the staff tended to look towards the PO for guidance. The department took steps to address this with the introduction of the accelerated promotion scheme, which saw graduate entrants spending time on the landing in junior uniform ranks before being fast-tracked to PO. They would be really tested in that rank.
There will always be criticism of management by uniform staff – it goes with the territory. A small minority of graduate staff failed to make sufficient progress at this stage and remained in the uniform ranks. This tended to cement the system’s credibility in the eyes of uniform staff.
Were there any other differences between graduate governors and governors who had come through the ranks?
The accelerated promotion grades tended to have a clearer career path and were closely mentored by a governor grade at HQ and by governing governors at their home establishments and had regular training. However, I lost count of the number of phone calls I received from people who were struggling with being newly promoted from the ranks to the governor grades. They often felt that they hadn’t been properly trained for their new role, particularly in relation to paperwork, which is a staple of governor grade jobs.
From the point of view of the early 21stC, what were the main differences between prisons in the public and private sectors?
There’s little difference now between public and private sector prisons. Initially, the public sector had a massive advantage in terms of the experience of staff across the ranks. Now, retention of staff seems to be a problem in both sectors. The conditions of service were better in the public sector in my time, but this advantage has been eroded. Wages are similar, retirement age is similar. The retirement age has risen substantially since I finished.
In my experience, private sector managers were better at managing budgets. As regards staff, basic grade staff in both sectors were equally keen and willing to learn. All that staff in either sector really needed was purpose, a coherent vision and support.
A couple of times towards the end of your book, you hint at the idea that your time might have passed. Does your approach belong to a particular historical moment?
I felt that all careers have to come to an end at some point and I could see that increasing administrative control would deprive my work of some of its pleasures. It was time to go before bitterness set in. Having said that, when I came back, I still found that the same old-fashioned skills were needed to deal with what I had been contracted to do. So, maybe I was a bit premature.
My approaches and methods were developed historically, over the entire period of my forty-year career. Everywhere I went, I tried to refine the basics that I had learned on that initial training course.
Thank you to John O’Brien for enabling Phil to share his experiences.
In July 2020 you were appointed as a Commissioner to a new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, what do you hope to bring to the table?
My professional and personal experiences, rooted in supporting many charities, being part and in and around the criminal justice system for just over 34 years, our independence of thinking and hopefully visionary approach which is not dependent on the support and expectations of others.
Young people’s pipeline to youth justice services – impact of words and actions, we have more power than we realise. Can you expand on this?
As my knowledge of people, children, adults, increases, I’m actually getting to understand the science better behind human relationships and also our development. The maturity of a person’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 24 years. Therefore, any interactions that we have with a person during that 24-year period, can have and does have a significant impact on their development and their actions. It’s possible to physically change the wiring of a person’s brain, when it’s in that developmental stage. Basically, people under the age of 25 are likely to be less risk averse, more impulsive, take risks and more easily influenced by their peers and their surroundings.
Children are children whether they are in the justice system, or not. Their vulnerabilities, education, keeping them safe and supporting them into a future life whether they feel part of society is important for all children.
Look for the potential, don’t judge young people by their sibling’s actions, there is a better way. A few points you recently raised with me. Can you give examples?
This is just as a result of people I have met who told me about many instances in which they have been judged because of the behaviour of their siblings. E.g., their sibling could be in and around the justice system and they get seen through the same lens as this sibling. I remember one individual who told me about how teachers judged him because of his brother and their expectations of him were reduced as a result. It was one teacher who showed that they cared which enabled him to go on and complete a degree, even though it appeared that the teachers in secondary school had written off.
What matters to you?
Family, friends, loyalty, trustworthiness and sticking up for those that others might overlook and seen the value in people.
Trust is especially important, you mentioned in a previous conversation that during our afternoon of talking and sharing together a level of trust was built up between us, can you expand on this?
Trust is important to me, it’s one of my values, being trustworthy. I have seen throughout my life how trust has helped to make things happen and the lack of trust or broken trust has made things happen slower or stop things from happening at all. This is true of my personal life and my professional life.
What drives you?
I have an absolute passion for life and for people.
I love people and am fascinated by the different outcomes for different people and what can be done to improve and change that. I’m a real people person which found this lockdown extremely difficult. Meeting people via video call is better than telephone conferencing but it has been difficult over the last year to reduce my level of face-to-face engagement with the different people I meet.
You appear to have a drive for order in your life, is that a true picture?
I don’t think I have a drive for order, my mind is just on fire and I’m excited about the possibilities and problem solving and making things better. It can be a little bit difficult for others to deal with and I feel that it is a central part of my dyslexic brain. I take ownership of my active mind and not try to curb it. Many people can’t deal with the number of ideas and things that I like to talk about or get involved in.
My personality type, using the Myers Briggs indicator is I NTJ, which is introverted – energised by quiet times alone (some might find that surprising) intuitive – sees patterns and possibilities, thinking prioritise logic and reason and judging – prefer structure and order.
How do you compartmentalise your life?
Since I left the police, I found it important to put more structure around how I interact with the world. I’ve had to create strategic bubbles and objectives so that I can understand what I am doing and why. Five years prior to leaving the police I created three strategic bubbles which I now use for the next chapter in my life.
1 – spend time doing the things I like doing such as family and friends, hobbies…
2 – I want to spend a certain amount of my time giving to others in whatever way I can provide benefit, whether it be through a charity, or supporting an individual…
3 – I’d also like to spend time in various paid roles or developing ideas but always ensuring that the things I get involved in sit with my values.
My dyslexic brain doesn’t really struggle with putting things into compartments if I ask it to. I don’t get too stressed out about having a lot of things on, in a certain way it excites me and stimulates me.
Your parents instilled values in you, how has that enabled you in life?
Not just by parents, when you have a loving upbringing and a loving extended family, it provides you with an inner strength and a strong sense of your own values. I was told on numerous occasions I love you by my aunties and sometimes my uncles. Even my cousins would say privately to me that they love me when someone says that to you and you are not expecting it, it is really powerful in a positive way.
Does your drive and determination also come from your parents?
The short answer is yes, although I didn’t realise it until later on in life. People kept on asking me what drives you, what keeps you so passionate, so positive and caring about others. When I was younger, I remember having a conversation with my father “you are going to have to work four times as hard as others to get on”, a conversation that has stayed with me. Once I joined the police, he would always tell people I was one rank above the rank I saw a sense of pride on his face and a little bit of mystery, but he helped drive my career in policing.
When I went for my interview as Superintendent, I wore my dad’s suit, which is older than me, and when I joined the Youth Justice Board and had my first official photograph, I wore one of my dad’s ties. I suppose it was a way of remembering him and keeping him near me although he isn’t physically with me, but up and definitely in heaven.
What obstacles did you encounter with your dream of being a police officer?
Not sure what obstacles I encountered; I was focused from an early age. I first wrote to the Home Office and sent in an application form when I was either 13 or 14. Some unknown civil servant took the time to write a letter to me personally, to encourage me to reapply when I was 18½ and send some information about joining the police. That was enough to continue and drive my passion and vision and becoming a police officer.
I suppose some of the barriers I had I failed getting into the police cadets and I didn’t get into the West Midlands police when I first applied. That is why I went to London. I loved my time in London and I have made really amazing friends. But 20 years later they recognised the error of their ways haha and accepted me as a Chief Inspector and I retired as Superintendent in my home region, where I was born and bred and that filled me with a sense of pride.
“Just get on with it and don’t make a fuss” is that your attitude?
I don’t realise that I have that attitude, but it’s when things are pointed out to you, you realise that’s what you are like.
I remember once during my lunch break, I was getting my car tax from the post office, I was in my civilian suit. Two men armed with a knife in the queue in front of me, attacked another man in an unprovoked and violent way. The post office was rammed with people, I dived at the person with the knife. It was quite a nasty struggle and I was on my own. The whole post office emptied with just one member of the public staying behind to help. When backup arrived, I went back to the office and continued with my work. It wasn’t until the criminal investigation department or CID rang to speak with me that my colleagues in the office found out what had happened. They were shocked that I calmly walked back into the office and got on with my work without saying anything. I was commended by the judge at court and by a senior police officer for my actions.
I suppose getting on with it without making a fuss has its pros and cons, it can lead to people overlooking you and not realising what you are capable of. It is not within my nature to make a fuss of publicity, it’s not my natural environment and I’m definitely not in my comfort zone.
Tell me about your fundraising ventures
I have created an informal organisation consisting of me and whoever I can get to partner with me – it’s called overcoming your challenges to achieve. We have raised, around £33 – £35,000 for different charities such as Sport Birmingham, Birmingham and Solihull women’s aid, Care of police survivors. All achieved through abseiling down one of Birmingham’s tallest buildings. I’m terrified of heights and it didn’t get easier the second time round; in fact, it was worse because I knew what to expect even though I was supported by an amazing para-athlete Christopher Skelley.
I have also been locked in cells overnight and completed Birmingham’s 13 peak challenge raising money for a young child with brain cancer.
Currently I am trying to raise, with others just over £3 million to build a Cenotaph to remember and say thank you to team 999 and all those who are part of our emergency services.
What makes you happy/laugh?
Now this is a hard one I do laugh a lot or smile a lot. I have a very dry and sarcastic sense of humour, which I must control, because it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.
Things that make me happy are celebrating family occasions such as birthdays, christenings, also the similar type of things with friends. I enjoy socialising chatting with friends, I love a good debate about current affairs and enjoy objective conversations about what makes the world tick, I think sometimes people find these conversations hard, because they often overlap people values and what they believe.
What makes you cry?
I have found as I get older that some of the injustices and suffering that I see on the news have made me cry, it never used to, but I see more and more how people suffer because of an accident at birth or where they live, rather than anything that they have done in their lives. Those that have made others suffer upset me, especially when you hear the back stories behind the faces you see on the news, I find that extremely difficult to deal with. I do also have tears of joy rather than sadness. I have only cried in work once and that was when I told my line manager, I was dyslexic, and the response floored me.
Who inspires you and how can you or do you inspire others?
People in general inspire me, not just those who have achieved a significant level of fame, but also ordinary people who deal with ordinary issues on a day-to-day basis. Many people I interacted with as a police officer have left a trace on me and supported my onward journey and development. These people have touched and strengthened my life. I might let you Faith answer that question about how I inspire others, I always find that quite difficult to answer, but people have said I’m inspirational and different and I have a positive impact on their lives, but I don’t realise it until people say it. So, it would be nice to hear what you Faith have seen in me and hopefully that doesn’t feel like a copout.
You seem to take all decisions carefully, retirement plans 5 years in advance, exit strategy, giving back, life split into strategic areas very upfront on what work/time you can commit to. If you reach saturation point you are no use to anyone. Is this a good summary of you?
I do think ahead, which is a benefit and a challenge. If I get behind the vision, I’m very passionate about achieving it, but I also have to be aware that my passion may put people off. I am constantly trying to reassure people that just because I’m passionate doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind… It has its downsides too, for example if my vision goes against the prevailing thinking. If it’s irrational and/or unfair I find it difficult to follow, even if it’s policy, law, et cetera. It does not mean that I would go against policies and laws without understand the consequences of them.
I’m not a maverick an organisation cannot trust, but I am prepared to stand up to things which are unfair.
‘The Grass Arena’ by John Healy is a book centred round a world I thankfully have never ventured into – either by choice or circumstance. Drink, drugs, vagrancy, death, prostitution and money – the somewhat graphic portrayal of a life I can only describe as ‘brutal’.
A daily struggle for life itself, for the breath to breathe and the sustenance to give strength is a battle many start but then give up, as hurdles become visible, barriers are built and prejudice is rife. Drink becomes an obsession. I am sure we have all at some point tried to look through the window of others’ lives. We analyse their behaviour; we penalise whilst categorising them, we pity them. Not forgetting we compare their misfortune with our own accomplishments.
We read about them. Some use it as research to further their own life chances whilst disregarding the people involved. Some may find it entertaining; others as a measure of how they personally are doing, or how far they have failed. For myself, when reading about others there is an element of intrigue of course, but it’s more than that. I do not like small talk, its uncomfortable. I want facts and meaningful conversations. That is true communication.
This book communicates.
I frequently read about people’s journeys in life.
We all have a story to tell and I am eager to listen.
I have met many authors with fascinating quotes and anecdotes and maybe one day I will have the opportunity of meeting John. It was hard to put down this autobiography, an often harrowing account mirrored by the lines on my forehead, my furrowed brow. It is intense, it is absorbing yet thought provoking in a greater sense than most books on my shelves.
“Life was becoming more complicated. I was back in the old routine: stealing, drinking, fighting, my probation order, car insurance, detectives. I was pulling so many strokes for drink that I could not remember what I was doing…”
The stories of Fred, Dipper, Spikey and more carry merit, lives entwined with a common desire in life. Their struggles, contentions, crusades, rivalry and exploitations all add to the chart laid out in front of us.
“We look at people with only one thought. How can we get the price of a drink out of them? Looking, always looking, even when there is nothing to observe”.
An obsession leading to a lifestyle and a painful path trodden – alcohol picking you off one by one becomes a dangerous liaison. Yet seeing others fall is no way to interrupt the cycle, there is no end in sight, its continuous. I tried not to interpret my initial thoughts, the “if only”, “but” or even “what if” can become a distraction.
I just read. The shady doorways, the open green spaces, the derelict houses and the public houses all feed John’s obsession. Recovery from excess is quick and the thought of drink is always on his mind and he will do anything to take the constant battle, the weight on his shoulders and the voice in his ear, away.
This book is about a fight for survival, the many characters described within it are people trying to get through trauma, abuse and hopelessness. Many do not make it through.
Prison, I would not wish on anyone, I have visited enough to know they are not holiday camps, never have been and never will be. They are dangerous places. Here in ‘The Grass Arena’ they imitate the chaotic world that John is in. Familiar faces, familiar stories, and familiar issues to deal with.
Is it possible to escape from the grip of an obsession – even in prison? I read with impatience, asking that question many times.
Can John break free?
Does he want to break free?
Slowly but surely his obsession is substituted, by a game of chess. Yes chess, a game often associated with money, with brilliant minds; not a wino living each day for the dangerous toxic thrill of a drink.
A good book impacts you, challenges you, and this book is no exception, but it does leave the reader wanting more.
As I wrote earlier, it is a window into many lives and now the onus is on the reader to decide what to do next…
first published, Insidetime November 2020
A retrospective of 2020
The author Peter Mayle once wrote “The year began with lunch…” which pretty much mirrored mine, although for me it started on Aldeburgh beach in the freezing cold, eating chips, and surrounded by family celebrating my birthday.
Cambridge is a favourite place of mine, having spent hours in libraries, museums and taking in the splendour of the architecture. So in February when I was invited to a seminar in the Institute of Criminology (IoC), I immediately responded. I have entered that building many times, studied in their library, attended seminars and even had tea in Professor Bottom’s office.
The subject was ‘Can Prisons Rehabilitate?’, delivered by Yvonne Jewkes. Rehabilitation is a subject I have thought long and hard about. Whilst awaiting the start, I received a very warm welcome from Rebecca L. Greene, Artist in Residence at IoC. It was good to catch up with those I hadn’t seen for a while, chat to Ben Crewe and have some interesting conversations with students who were keen to engage with me.
Months later Rebecca kindly invited me to take part in the digital exhibition Drawing Connections at the edges, Arts in Prison at the Museum of Cambridge following on from the Festival Of Ideas: Arts in Prisons, what changes can they bring? in 2019. The title to consider was “How did lockdown make you feel?” drawing on experiences of lockdown relating to the perception of my work with people within the Criminal Justice System. For my contribution I decided to write a poem:
Dare I compare my lockdown to theirs?
Can I not reach out to those in prison to manage my isolation and to draw on their resources to get through this challenging time?
Perhaps this has been a way to understand their hopes, fears and feelings too, leading to a breakdown of mental and spiritual barriers between us.
No longer is it just about reaching out to those in prison, instead it is an opportunity for us to be reached out to, from those within the prison walls.
Their voices illuminating
Their voices resonating
Their voices compelling
Are we not all part of society?
Has lockdown reinforced this?
Can freedom come from within and can freedom come from without?
I invited Rebecca to say a few words for inclusion in this retrospective and this is what she wrote:
“I was honoured to be asked by Faith Spear to write a short piece on how we met for her blog: as the year which has proved challenging and complex for everyone in myriad ways draws to a close, it seems hard to believe it was only in February of 2020. We met, when I welcomed her to a Public Seminar presented by Professor Yvonne Jewkes’ Can Prisons Rehabilitate?, hosted by the Institute of Criminology, my place of work. Faith’s ability to speak clearly and concisely has meant her work is something I have taken an interest in since my first engagement with the CJS through Learning Together in 2016. The material Faith shares on Justice and Social matters is done so, I feel, with fairness and truth and since our meeting this has been further enhanced through a shared love of the Arts and their restorative qualities.” (Rebecca L. Greene)
Poetry played a major role in my activities this last year. After being approached by Gerry Hamill, @FirstTimeInside, I became a panel member and part of a community for a Hidden Voices project with HMP Edinburgh. This was a poetry competition open to men and women entitled ‘Saughton Sonnets‘. The prisoners were asked to express their feelings on lockdown and Covid-19 and how they have been affected by this crisis. For 5 weeks a new batch of poems were sent to us to judge, score and comment on. Each weeks winners were then scored to find an overall winner. It was brilliant to work alongside other community members and to discover the amazing potential in those that are so often overlooked. The finale was to see these sonnets in print and to hear how those that had taken part had been encouraged to continue to write.
Writing is steadily becoming a passion for me, and I have been fortunate enough to have two book reviews printed in the InsideTime newspaper:
In June 2020 edition: ‘Can I have a word Boss’ written by Phil O’Brian after 40 years within Her Majesty’s Prison Service. His passion and drive come across in every chapter. Sadly, this kind of experience is now fading as his calibre is being replaced by those with little experience in the world, let alone within the justice arena. Is this a good thing? Only time will tell.
In November 2020 edition: ‘The Grass Arena‘ written by John Healy is a book centred round a world I thankfully have never ventured into – either by choice or circumstance. Drink, drugs, vagrancy, death, prostitution and money – the somewhat graphic portrayal of a life I can only describe as ‘brutal’. This book was recommended to me by Charlie Ryder after having read a blog I wrote the previous year “A Conversation with: Erwin James“.
Erwin kindly sent that review to John Healy and days later I received a supportive and positive response from John inviting me to keep in touch.
Sadly many conversations have not been face to face, with numerous events cancelled, meetings postponed and travelling almost non existent. Instead we have all embraced/tolerated/accepted, zoom, video calls and the old fashioned just picking up the phone to communicate. For example, I had a zoom call with Chris Daw QC, quizzing him on his new book ‘Justice on Trial‘ and trying to find the answers to so many questions I had.
During the year, I have written about two conversations with amazing individuals and their enthralling journeys in life.
The first was “A Conversation with: Phil Forder“, we chatted for hours, a remarkable man. When I asked “Who is Phil Forder?” the response was brilliant:
“My job title is community engagement manager at HMP Parc but as you so rightly said previously. ‘There is more to an individual than their job.’ I’m also a painter writer and woodcarver. LGBT rights supporter. Environmentalist Nature lover. Lecturer, etc.
But in a nutshell
“Just a bloke doing what I think is right and enjoy doing”
I asked Phil if he would like to say a few words for inclusion in this retrospective. This is Phil’s contribution:
“Over the years I had read so much about conditions in prisons on social media, most of it not good, that as a person who works in one I decided to launch my own account in 2017. Although a lot of what was being written about was true, I also knew there was another side to it where positive initiatives and positive people were striving to make a difference under increasingly difficult circumstances. So I put my head above the parapet, using my own name, and began to try and show another side to prison life, of which examples were daily. Twitter can be a pretty ugly place as I soon found out. There were times aplenty I was disheartened and tempted to stop as I began to receive flack from all directions but then I noticed it wasn’t all bad as a lady called Faith was following me and what’s more she had started retweeting my work and making constructive comments too. Although not alone in doing so, as there were others, that constant support was, and still is, invaluable in putting out the work that I do. As anyone who follows Faith will know, she is pretty fearless in her pursuit of Truth and not someone to take lightly. But what is so refreshing, especially on social media, is to hear a voice that is not only honest and always well-thought out but one that is objective and well-balanced too. Through her insights, Faith has proved herself, again and again, a valuable member of the prison community that we are lucky to have in such a complex prison system. And as for me personally, she continues to be a constant source of inspiration and support”
My second “A Conversation with Dr Sarah Lewis, Director of Penal Reform Solutions” was equally inspiring. I felt that her overall message was one of HOPE:
Sarah said: I believe in people
I don’t quite believe in the system yet.
I have hope in individuals.
I believe in them.
We need to be actively hopeful in people. Let them know “I believe in you”
I have hope in people.
We talked about rehabilitation, complexities within the prison estate, radical reforms and so much more. But the question to her that I received the most feedback on was: “Do we need more research on prisons, are there gaps or do we need to push for changes based on existing knowledge?”
“Yes to both. We know enough to know what works. The difficulty is how we apply that knowledge. Academia needs to move out of its ivory tower and on to the shop floor. There’s plenty of research, you need to create a growth environment (climate) and capture this impact with understanding. Research takes so long, from ethics approval to peer review to publication. More creativity is needed with research, capture stories, motivate staff.
Academic research needs creativity, inclusion, and we must learn from our mistakes”
As I have mentioned before, we all know the saying ‘action speaks louder than words’ yet often you have to speak before any action can take place. So this year I was pleased to work together with a number of charities in the justice sector to write a consultation submission to the Ministry of Justice. In addition, I have offered advice and encouragement, assisted in media articles, proof read books, edited web sites and also shared a bit more of my story for Female Leaders At 50 – Women Behind the Network Series.
But the cherry on the cake for me was to be invited to write the forward for a book. Phil Martin published in November ‘The People in Prison and their Potential: Insights into imprisonment and true stories of rehabilitation’. As I have discovered for myself, the potential in prisons is vast and this book highlights what can be achieved. We appeared to be on the same wavelength here. Those with convictions do have potential, deserve to be given opportunities and can be valuable members of society. Many are willing to change but are we willing to accept them?
This is just a snippet of what became a challenging year both personally and professionally. Yet I enter this new year 2021 with anticipation, a renewal of energy and a continued determination in speaking truth to power. I will not be on mute.
In the context of a blog like this, it’s possible to only mention a fraction of the workload, time and miles covered. For obvious reasons you will appreciate I’m unable to share the full extent of everyone I have met or all that has been done.
In her Twitter bio it states: A passionate prison reformer. Interests: collaborative research, personal growth, creative action research, relationships, Nordic prisons, prison reform.
Just reading this I knew we would have a connection and a great conversation together.
What does it mean to you to be a prison reformer?
What I do has meaning, consumes me, its a purpose that is constantly in my blood and mind.
Collaboration matters to me, so does inclusion and having an unconditional regard for people. My inspiration comes from Elizabeth Fry, however, there are many with her passion. We need to work together to make a collective impact, not rely on one individual to drive change in prisons. I also believe that reform is not only situated in prisons, but in the community at large.
I don’t want to consistently bash the Criminal Justice System, but we need to be realistic about the problems whilst instilling hope. We need to meet people where they are at.
Prison reform needs to be a social movement in order to create a climate outside of raising awareness and drawing people together for a common purpose.
Prisons can be a transformative place.
Do we need any more research on prisons, are there gaps or do we just need to push for changes based on existing knowledge?
Yes to both.
We know enough to know what works. The difficulty is how we apply that knowledge. Academia needs to move out of its ivory tower and on to the shop floor. There’s plenty of research, you need to create a growth environment (climate) and capture this impact with understanding. Research takes so long, from ethics approval to peer review to publication. More creativity is needed with research, capture stories, motivate staff.
Academic research needs creativity, inclusion, and we must learn from our mistakes.
Do you see yourself as an academic?
Yes, but I’m a bit of an odd ball in academia, being an academic is part of my identity, but it doesn’t define me.
You mention personal growth, can you elaborate on this?
Growth for me is inclusion, growth in the community and families. People can reform, but you need to create hope and invest in unconditional relationships.
Growth, which includes love, acceptance and trust is also about unconditional support, nurturing and building relationships.
How important is it to establish relationships with prisoners/prison staff?
From determing the level of trust, to how people talk about their feeings, their fears and trauma. It’s the key to prison reform, desistance, cleanliness, safe environment, trust and many more…
What are some of the elements from the Nordic prisons that can be easily incorporated into prisons in England and Wales?
To never enter a prison and think people are broken with no hope.
Would you describe yourself as resilient?
I’m strong through stubbornness, but I am focused on what I want to achieve. Resilience means you bounce back, I’m susceptible to tiredness and pain due to health conditions, but this won’t stop me. I refuse to give in, so by overcoming obstacles I adapt to my environment.
Where does your strength come from?
My husband is my rock, my team, friends and importantly my sense of direction.
In an article in the InsideTime newspaper, June 2020, Sarah stated:
“My lifelong mission is to create a more humane system, which provides conditions where people can find meaning, have hope in the future and be happy”
In relation to this statement where do you see the prisons in England and Wales?
We are far away from that, further than we think. We have the ability to change, yet we underestimate the collaborative abilty of staff and prisoners alike. Culture and climate are important. A more humane system will not happen on its own, we need investment and training.
I have 100% hope in the future, that’s my logic.
We want people to live and not just survive.
With your work in schools, do you believe it is possible to instil meaning, hope and happiness into children’s lives?
From my experience it is easier to teach children than adults. The idea of the “Growth Project” at Guys Marsh was one of nurture, principle of growing and a purpose and peace in children. Divert them from prison by focusing on these building blocks around relationships, in order to protect them in later life.
You mentioned the “Growth Project”, how did this come about and how do you see it progressing?
The Norway Project took place in 3 Norwegian prisons and started as a photographic exhibition about how I captured collaboration. I spent 3 years researching Norwegian prisons and during the fieldwork I created a research team to understand their exceptional prison practices and priciples of growth. Out of this the Growth Project was born in England and Wales. We now have a collection of passionate people forming a steering group with prisoners and their families involved. We discuss issues such as diversity and inclusion in both prisons and society alike.
The aim of the “Connection Campaign” is to bring the inside and outside together, how are you managing to break down the walls to achieve this?
We are looking at where there is disconnection and the needs of young people. We magnify a voice that is quiet from various criminal justice areas. But we are not about blaming or shaming prisons. We wanted senior management to have conversations with prisoners families. Our strategy is to meet people where they are at and how to be a bit more compassionate, a critical friend.
Is rehabilitation possible within the current prison set up?
They need to be habilitated in the first place. Rehabilitation is a managerialistic term which often sets people up to fail. Like a game of trying to catch people out which is not conducive to change and no growth can happen. It can be harmful as no one wins.
Do we need radical reforms, if so what are the possibilities, if not, why not?
We need an authentic meaningful longterm investment in those principles that are encouraged in the Nordic model, applying the principles of growth in a meaningful way within our own context.
Irrespective of ideology, we want to strive for a just and humane system. This needs to happen, we need to change the narrative around prisons, prisoners and prison staff. But it must be sensitively executed. It’s not just about success stories.
Working within the prison estate can be rewarding but also can be disappointing, exhausting and demoralising. How do you deal personally with the complexities you face?
I see and hear a lot of stuff. However, I have such a strong mission.
Yes it is. Absolutely.
We have lost 2 growth members, 1 person through suicide after prison and 1 whilst he was in prison. It was a painful experience, I knew their families and the ripple effect was hard because their lives matter.
The question I really wanted to ask Sarah was: Is your underlying message of hope?
I believe in people.
I dont quite believe in the system yet.
I have hope in individuals.
I believe in them.
We need to be actively hopeful in people. Let them know “I believe in you”
I have hope in people.
I was delighted when Phil Forder agreed for me to interview him. There is always a lot more to a person than their job so I wanted to learn more about him. When I asked why he agreed, he responded:
“Because you are a speaker of truth”
So, who is Phil Forder?
“My job title is community engagement manager at HMP Parc but as you so rightly said previously. ‘There is more to an individual than their job.’ I’m also a painter writer and woodcarver. LGBT rights supporter. Environmentalist Nature lover. Lecturer, etc. “
But in a nutshell
“Just a bloke doing what I think is right and enjoy doing”
One thing we have in common is our association with Suffolk, I believe you were born there?
“I moved from Suffolk at 3 weeks old. Mum and Dads parents were from Suffolk, we then moved to Somerset and to Harlow in Essex where I grew up. I am one of six children.
Just before lockdown, I found the time to go through my mum’s memories she had written down before she passed away.
Mum grew up as a child in Beccles, Suffolk. Working class, brought up in the country before 2nd World War.
Grandfather prisoner of war in Germany, but never spoke about it.
Dad was a strict Catholic and worked at Downside Abbey, in Somerset and whilst there trained in teaching.”
“We moved to Harlow on the outskirts of London, in limbo between two worlds and was voted as the 2nd most boring place in British Isles.”
But Living in Essex Phil felt excluded because of his sexuality and tried to avoid facing up to it.
Whilst searching for his own identity and a way of fitting in somewhere and searching for a way out of Harlow, he decided to train to be a priest, but 3 months later he realised that was not the direction for him.
Before college Phil hitched to Afghanistan then blagged his way into Art college without an interview even though he had failed most of his exams. During his time, he managed to get a sabbatical and hitchhiked a second time to Kashmir.
Was he running away again?
But the problem is you can’t run away from self.
Back to Art college to finish his course and was voted Student of the Year.
He decided to live in isolation in a caravan and worked in a wholefood shop and then was promoted to managing it. But still there was a struggle within as to who he really was and what he should do in life.
There were many changes in the pursuing years including being a father, wanting a different kind of education for his child led to home-schooling and eventually attendance at an alternative Steiner School. This somewhat alternative way of educating was based on the idea that a child’s moral, spiritual and creative sides need as much attention as their intellect.
Helping out in Kindergarten as an assistant influenced Phil to train as a Steiner teacher in alternative education.
“But after 8 years, I wanted to do something completely different”
“A friend who was a magistrate phoned me up and said there was a job going as an Art teacher at HMP/YOI Parc, talk about a baptism of fire”
Such a contrast from working in a nurturing environment where parents cared for their children, were financially secure and where children grew up in a healthy environment.
He was then faced with dysfunctional families reminding him of his upbringing in Harlow that he had fought so hard to leave behind.
“Many of the lads in the YOI had known poverty, had mental health problems, history of abuse, came from dysfunctional families, history of crime in their family, history of substance misuse in their family and had poor education”
“Look what they were born into, their formative years. These young men then become society’s problem by falling through every net and ending up in prison”
Phil’s job changed when he became Equalities Manager and as he aptly said to me:
“To make an impression on a person you have to work with them and not against them.”
He developed a course to help the inmates engage and address their behaviour as most courses focus on what is wrong with them. But some are so ashamed of what they have done they cannot talk about it or even admit it. Phil wanted them to focus on what was good about themselves, what they had achieved, and only then when in a position of strength and comfortable can you tackle some of the issues.
“I brought a three day course into prison “The Forgiveness Project” founded by Marina Cantacuzino. It’s an amazing course, it’s important to put yourself with the prisoners and teach by example”
“I joined the Sports Council for an equalities point of view and invited a gay football club (Cardiff Dragons) and a gay rugby team (Swansea Vikings) to play against the prisoners. I wanted to break down stereotypes”
Who has inspired you?
“One of the most influential person has been Barbara Saunders Davis, her life very much influenced by Rudolf Steiner, came from an aristocratic family having studied in Paris and lived on her estate in Pembrokeshire. She taught me self-worth, life, Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophy (a philosophy based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) which maintains that, by virtue of a prescribed method of self-discipline, cognitional experience of the spiritual world can be achieved) I was honoured at her funeral to read the eulogy”
In your Twitter bio you have an impressive list apart from your work. Can you expand on some of these?
“In 2015, I wrote a book “Inside and Out”, a compilation of writings from LGBT people within HMP/YOI Parc, both prisoners and staff alike”
This book was featured in the Guardian in an interview by Erwin James.
His boss at HMP Parc, director Janet Wallsgrove, expressed pride in what Phil and his colleagues achieved.
“This book is a statement,” she says.
“It’s saying that we at Parc recognise and support everyone’s right to be respected as an individual. It’s both about tackling homophobia and challenging people who express views that are unacceptable and about getting people to feel comfortable with themselves and more motivated to buy into a rehabilitative culture in prison and in society.”
Another book Phil wrote was:
Coming out: LGBT people lift the lid on life in prison: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/12/lgbt-people-prison-struggle-book
“When I first started working in the prison, I realised there was no art available on the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit. As there was no classroom available, I taught art on the wing, with up to 30 men although resources were scarce”
“Over the years I have been asked to lecture on various aspects of prison life mainly to do with LGBT in prisons”
“I am a trustee of two charities, the first FIO a theatre company that tells stories that are or would otherwise go untold or unheard
and the second is the Ruskin Mill Education Trust for young people with learning difficulties.”
The last words go to Marina Cantacuzino:
“In the 10 years I was closely involved with several prisons in England and Wales I met three exceptional staff members who worked far and beyond what was expected of them, and were responsible for supporting charities like The Forgiveness Project to deliver their programmes to help change prisoners’ lives. The other two people burnt out – and left the prison service but Phil is still there! He seems to have reinvented himself a couple of times but his complete dedication to supporting prisoners is I think unprecedented. I don’t know what it is about him – is it his sense of humour, his deep creative/artistic streak, his compassion, his humanity, all of this! – that allows him to continue and keep doing outstanding work in this field. I now follow his progress on Twitter but for a long time he was our mainstay in Parc prison – the person who brought in the RESTORE programme and ensured it continued even when he was no longer in charge of this area. A wonderful human being!”
Thank you, Phil.
Photo credit: contributed by Phil Forder
I have been waiting eagerly for more news as to how the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) would operate ‘indirect monitoring’ of prisons and places of detention as it had stated on its website on 30th March 2020: “This is a fast-moving situation…” but there has been nothing for 4 weeks.
When a new hotline initiative was first mentioned by the National Chair in an update on the IMB website it claimed:
“We are in discussion at a national level with specialist contractors about the possibility of freephone lines to enable applications using in-cell telephony and the additional telephone capacity proposed by the Prison Service”
Seeing the headline on their website this morning, “Independent monitors launch new hotline for prisoners to report concerns during pandemic”, I was relieved. That is until I read the detail.
A few things about it stood out to me.
First, this hotline will only be available to 13 prisons, around 11% of the entire estate.
The prisons taking part are Wayland, Pentonville, Lewes, High Down, Berwyn, Woodhill, Eastwood Park, Bronzefield, Durham, Buckley Hall, Swinfen Hall, Onley and Elmley.
The hotline will be part of a new pilot scheme running for 6 weeks.
Ten thousand prisoners will be able to call for free from a phone in their cell or a communal phone.
That’s a start, but what about accessibility to the IMB in the meantime for the other seventy one and a half thousand people in prison?
Lines will be open, with a voicemail service, from 7am-7pm seven days a week.
In other words prisoners will not actually be able to talk to someone; it’s an answerphone and their message will be recorded.
Second, the actual process.
The prisoner’s concerns will be passed on to the relevant board, who will respond through the ‘email a prisoner’ service, or through the normal IMB routes or the IMB clerk.
It doesn’t say who will pass on the prisoner’s concerns and to the relevant Board. Presumably a member of staff will have to listen to the message and then write out the complaint/concern and send it to the relevant Board via email. Replies from IMB to the prisoner will then go through the ‘Email a Prisoner’ service.
Incidentally, the ‘Email a Prisoner’ website states:
“We are sending your messages to the establishments daily, as normal, but please note that prison staff are very compromised at the moment, so there may be instances where messages and replies are unfortunately delayed”
I cannot see how using an already saturated system will be particularly efficient.
Moreover, giving staff an additional task of transcribing the messages and sending them to the IMB would not be seen as a priority.
Even using the IMB clerk, which I’m aware happens in some prisons, is not the best way as they are HMPPS staff. In fact I know of one IMB Board where the clerk was closely related to one of the Governors at the same prison.
Like calls to the Samaritans, these calls will be confidential, and not recorded by HMPPS
Third, how can these recorded calls ever be considered confidential?
A prisoner telephones the hotline and has to leave a message on an answering service as the hotline is unmanned. The prisoner will have to leave personally identifiable information: their full name, their prisoner number and the name of the prison they are in. No mention is made in the announcement as to where these recorded calls are stored or for how long, nor who has access to them.
Someone has to relay these to the relevant IMB Board which means either sending a copy of the digital recording or transcribing them. Either way the confidentiality which should exist between a prisoner and a Board member is broken and trust is compromised.
Once the message is in the hands of the relevant IMB Board, assuming it reaches the correct one first time and does not go astray, the IMB must then find the information and respond to the prisoner.
The reply from the IMB to the prisoner must be made via the ‘Email a Prisoner’ service, which as everyone knows is a web based email service that depends on a member of the prison staff logging in and printing off to hardcopy all the individual messages sent to prisoners.
This step breaks for a second time the confidentiality that should exist between a prisoner and the IMB Board. Please don’t tell me that messages arriving for prisoners are not read by staff.
One more point worth making here is that only 9 out of the 13 prisons in the pilot have in place the ability for prisoners to reply back to messages from the IMB using the ‘Email a Prisoner’ platform. In other words, there will be 4 prisons where prisoners will have to start the process all over again should the response from the IMB not answer their concerns.
(Immigration detainees can already email IMBs directly which surely must be a much easier solution, and far more likely to be confidential as well as quicker)
Whereas it is only a pilot and teething troubles will naturally be ironed out, this system is fundamentally flawed from the beginning.
For it to have any credibility in effective monitoring the prisons in England and Wales the IMB must urgently rethink what it considers to be acceptable ‘indirect monitoring’.
Update: A short message I received from Sarah Clifford, IMB Head of Policy and Communications:
Hello Faith – Just wanted to clarify that the IMB freephone pilot is a live service, staffed eight hours a day by IMB members with voicemails as a back up. I have added a note to the IMB website announcement to that effect: https://www.imb.org.uk/independent-monitors-launch-new-hotline-for-prisoners-to-report-concerns-during-pandemic/. Many thanks.
This is incredible that this clarification was needed. This should have been on the website from the start without myself having to point it out in a blog. There was an uproar when I copied the IMB plans straight from their website. There was no hint at all that it would be a live service, staffed eight hours per day by IMB members. This was an essential point that was ommited.
Lets hope the IMB itself becomes a little more transparent and accountable.
It is 4 years today that I put pen to paper and wrote about the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) from my direct experience and my perspective as a prison monitor. My article “Whistle blower without a whistle” published in The Prisons Handbook 2016, sent shock waves across the criminal justice sector, locally, nationally and internationally.
When you feel so passionately about a cause it is very hard to keep quiet, I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. I was given the opportunity and used my voice.
First, I had to weigh up the risk of possibly causing offence versus the need to speak up in the public interest.
What I didn’t expect was it resulting in a prejudicial character assassination, a fight to clear my name, being gagged by a grooming culture within the IMB, being investigated twice by UK Ministry of Justice, a disciplinary hearing at Petty France and the involvement of not one but two Prison Ministers. I felt that I was on my own against a bastion of chauvinism. Not the last bastion of their kind I would come across. Welcome to the IMB!
Maybe the problem was that the IMB and the MoJ didn’t expect someone like me to put their head above the parapet or to dare voice an opinion. Yet we all have a voice; we all have opinions and we should not feel the need to suppress them. I did, I felt that I couldn’t really express myself, would anyone listen?
Faced with adversity, people either ‘fight, flight or play dead’. I made the decision to fight. I have no regrets.
People started listening, taking notice and lending their support. Above all, they agreed with me but felt unable to say anything publicly themselves for fear of reprisals.
We all know the saying ‘action speaks louder than words’ but often you have to speak before any action can take place. So, I spoke out and expected results.
Since then I have written on many occasions about the IMB, its lack of effectiveness, lack of diversity and most troubling of all its lack of independence. The IMB Secretariat is staffed by MoJ civil servants, the National Chair is an MoJ employee, the purse strings are held by the Permanent Secretary of the MoJ and Board members expenses are paid by the MoJ.
“I’m finding the working environment intolerable and detrimental to my health, and part of me would like the IMB to recognise this as a symptom of its unsustainable system and the pressure it puts on people (but they probably won’t care)”.
Sadly, when I continue to receive messages such as this one from a serving IMB Chair, I realise very little has changed.
Even with a new governance structure, the appointment of its first National Chair and a written protocol between the MoJ and the IMB, none of these has persuaded me that there is enough independence, effectiveness or impact.
If there are concerns and issues that don’t add up, instead of staying silent, ignoring the facts or even dismissing them, it is imperative to ask questions.
As I have seen first-hand with the relationship between the IMB and the MoJ where they appear to be marking their own homework where monitoring of prisons is concerned, I noticed another irregularity.
During 2019 whilst attending sessions of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Miscarriages of Justice, I noticed something of vital importance about the composition and scope of the inquiry of the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice, which states:
“Given that there are serious misgivings expressed in the legal profession, and amongst commentators and academics, about the remit of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and its ability to deal with cases of miscarriages of justice, and given that perceptions of injustice within the criminal justice system are as damaging to public confidence as actual cases of injustice, the WCMJ will inquire into:
1. The ability of the CCRC, as currently set up, to deal effectively with alleged miscarriages of justice;
2. Whether statutory or other changes might be needed to assist the CCRC to carry out is function, including;
(i) The CCRC’s relationship with the Court of Appeal with particular reference to the current test for referring cases to it (the ‘real possibility’ test);
(ii) The remit, composition, structure and funding of the CCRC
3. The extent to which the CCRC’s role is hampered by failings or issues elsewhere in the criminal justice system;
and make recommendations.”
But between 2010 and March 2014 Dame Anne Owers who currently sits on the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice “established by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice (APPGMJ) with a brief to investigate the ability of the criminal justice system to identify and rectify miscarriages of justice”, was a non-executive director of the CCRC.
Public purse. Public interest.
I have a problem with a system that allows for a person to occupy a role paid for from the public purse who then later occupies a separate post, albeit as a volunteer with expenses paid from the public purse, which is meant to scrutinise the work that has been done previously by that same person.
This is utterly incompatible because of the risk that the full truth of what was done or was not done previously may never see the light of day. I believe it is in the public interest to ensure that officials never get the opportunity to mark their own homework. This is especially true when it comes to the substantive issues of miscarriages of justice.
We are talking about miscarriages of justice. We are talking about lives that have been ruined. We are talking about lives which have been lost and about families that no longer have their loved ones.
Deciding to ask someone with a link to a current CCRC application, whose opinion I trust, if they would see the APPG on Miscarriages of Justice differently should a member of its commission have had previous links with the CCRC, their response was startling and very revealing:
“I certainly would Faith. A commission looking at the inner workings and efficiency of the CCRC should be totally independent looking at the watchdog with open and unclouded eyes. I dread to think which kinds of bias would come into play if somebody with a past association to the CCRC were allowed to be part of the investigatory commission”
Separately, as a friend once said to me:
“Faith has stood her ground where many others have feared to tread and of course I admire this characteristic immensely but more than that, she has survived and continued her quest with renewed vigour”
I am nobody’s fool and the Ministry of Justice has left me with no alternative than to continue to take more robust action in the public interest. This in part means being willing to ask probing questions whenever I discover irregularities in the Criminal Justice System, and fully intend to continue to do so.
Photo is copyright and used with permission.
Paragraph 18. “also paid for from the public purse” deleted and replaced with: “albeit as a volunteer with expenses paid from the public purse,”
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.
People working within the Criminal Justice System will have noticed how writing or making recommendations carries little or no weight any longer. Defined as “a suggestion or proposal as to the best course of action, especially one put forward by an authoritative body”, a recommendation has few or no consequences for those delivering them or for those receiving them.
Yet those who write recommendations have no power to mandate them.
Prisons are bombarded with recommendations from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Independent Monitoring Boards, and a host of so-called arm’s length bodies.
It is remarkable that their recommendations in reality are routinely ignored, albeit officially named differently as you will see in the table. Since there appears to be no recourse and no accountability, why continue to rely on this method of scrutiny which has become ineffective and, therefore, a waste of time, effort and money?
Surely if all No 1 Governors were held personally accountable for enacting recommendations given to them then maybe there would be more action. Instead it is like a carousel, where certain Governors get away with the appearance of activity before being moved to another prison or a newly created role at HQ. After all, why work hard on recommendations when you can use a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card? Meanwhile, the mess they leave behind them is inherited by successive Governors.
On 25th February 2020, I attended the ‘Keeping Safe’ conference organised by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP). I’m telling you this because it perfectly illustrated to me how recommendations in and of themselves are futile.
For example, under the section on the agenda ‘Learning from reports and recommendations to prevent future death’ we heard from representatives from four prominent organisations, including Jonathan Tickner representing HM Inspectorate of Prisons who stated that in the last reporting period 14 prisons were inspected and none had been rated “good” in the safety aspect.
In each inspection recommendations are given. I decided to look at recommendations and to analyse how many were achieved. I chose those same 14 prisons inspected in 2019 and noticed huge variations which I’ve summed up in the table below:
Sue McAllister, Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), raised some relevant points about policies not being good enough on their own and action plans not being good enough in response to PPO recommendations, like a tick box exercise. However, if there is no follow up on whether recommendations have been adhered to, or no consequences of not following up recommendations, then nothing has been achieved and the whole process is worthless.
In the 12 months to September 2019 there have been:
308 deaths in custody (6 every week)
90 self-inflicted deaths (1 every 4 days)
8 deaths in women’s prisons
We should be ashamed of ourselves. Those of us working in or for the Criminal Justice System must share a collective burden for the failure to keep people safe, sometimes from themselves.
According to ‘Deaths in prison: A national scandal‘ published January 2020 by Inquest:
This report identifies areas for the immediate reform within and outside of the prison system and concludes with recommendations to end deaths caused by unsafe systems of custody. (Inquest, 2020, p. 3)
As you can see, there is no shortage of recommendations.
Nobody knows which custodial sentence will become a death sentence.
The point is some do but none ever should.
Is it any wonder the MoJ has reformulated its mission statement from:
“Her Majesty’s Prison 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”
To how it reads today, portraying itself as a sterile, uncaring, faceless organisation.
“The Ministry of Justice is a major government department, at the heart of the justice system. We work to protect and advance the principles of justice. Our vision is to deliver a world-class justice system that works for everyone in society”
“The organisation works together and with other government departments and agencies to bring the principles of justice to life for everyone in society. From our civil courts, tribunals and family law hearings, to criminal justice, prison and probation services. We work to ensure that sentences are served, and offenders are encouraged to turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens. We believe the principles of justice are pivotal and we are steadfast in our shared commitment to uphold them”
When you look long enough at failure rate of recommendations, you realise that the consequences of inaction have been dire. And will continue to worsen whilst we have nothing more compelling at our disposal than writing recommendations or making recommendations.
Recommendations have their place but there needs to be something else, something with teeth, something with gravitas way beyond a mere recommendation.
Show me a system where action is mandatory, where action has a named owner assigned to it, where action has a timeline attached to it, and where action is backed by empowerment to deliver it and I’ll show you a system which functions better than the one in operation today in the Criminal Justice System obsessed with recommendations.
Culture is what you do when no one is watching.
Integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.
I found it very telling that the most poignant part of the conference came with the stories and sadness from families who had lost loved ones and to learn that every 4 days a person takes their own life in custody. If the changes being recommended were changes being mandated, who knows how many deaths could have been averted?
Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, arrived early enough to have heard from those family members. He talked about working together with shared humanity and wanting to be notified personally of all deaths and the circumstances surrounding each one, which of course he already is. In closing his speech Mr Buckland said:
“As we continue to work together during my tenure as the Secretary of State, please know that my door is always open to those who want to make a difference”
It’s time to put him to the test on that.
But don’t go in with recommendations; go in with a plan for action.
Photos of Robert Buckland QC MP and Sue McAllister, both by Paul Sullivan. Used with kind permission.
Monopoly Board Game, 2006 Hasbro. Photo by the author.