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Think carefully – why would people who have been released from prison want to be integrated back into a society that thinks it’s okay for them to be locked up for 23 hours a day, with little nutritious food, lack of education, virtually no purposeful activity, squalid living conditions, unsafe, rife with drugs and violence, where staff struggle to maintain order, where corruption, suicides, self-harm and unrest are all increasing, where budgets are cut and staff numbers reduced.
Surely it’s time we asked why?
I think it’s because prison reform should not be just a political issue.
Regardless of who the Secretary of State for Justice is, or who the Prisons Minister is, or what political party they are from, prison reform should not be contingent on who is at No 10, it should be happening anyway.
It has become a humanitarian issue.
I want to get things done.
I’ve had some prison Governors and Officers talk to me about prisoners and – honestly – I cannot even repeat the words that came out of their mouths.
And yet I’ve had other prison Governors and Officers confide in me about the growing concerns they have for people in prison.
On Friday 28 April, I learned that I was named a nominee of The Contrarian Prize 2017. It’s a prestigious prize for those who have shown independence, courage and sacrifice. I didn’t apply for this or seek the nomination, it found me. And I’m deeply grateful for it.
My fellow nominees are a formidable bunch and we’re all Contrarians in our own way. In my case, I wasn’t afraid to speak the truth to those in power, talking about the criminal justice system in the public interest. Doing so came at a huge personal cost including a face-off with the ‘goliath’ of the Ministry of Justice.
I’d like to use this nomination to propel and advance the issues I’ve been talking about. If it means we can see change and real prison reform by people seeing it more as a humanitarian issue then it has been worth it.
Contrarian Prize 2017 shortlist announced here
The Contrarian Prize seeks to recognise individuals in British public life who demonstrate independence, courage and sacrifice.
Now in its fifth year, it aims to shine a light on those who have made a meaningful contribution to the public debate through the ideas that they have introduced or the stand they have taken.
Ali Miraj (@AliMirajUK) is the founder of the Contrarian Prize.
A letter from the Ministry of Justice landed on my doormat yesterday morning. I was expecting it and with trepidation it was opened and carefully read.
To download and read, please click here.
I shed a few tears. And then I replied!
To download and read, please click here.
9 months after I wrote an article in The Prisons Handbook 2016 the curtain has fallen on my time in the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB). I am dismissed with immediate effect for a period of 5 years.
I kept my word and saw this sorry episode through to the end. There are no winners or losers.
What I now know through personal experience is that if you level criticism about the Criminal Justice System you can guarantee the weight of the system will be upon you. In my case I faced an investigation by the MoJ that was biased to begin with and full of lies.
Paperwork from the start shows this was a deliberate and prejudicial character assassination designed to shut me up in the hope I would give up go away and to discredit me. I have the evidence and so does the MoJ but they have been selective with it.
But I am stronger than that and I have done my best to stand up to everything that has been thrown at me. Reports that I have read about myself written by the MoJ bear no resemblance to me and yet they have been used against me and yes, the Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah has taken them on board and made his decision.
I cannot change this decision. I have appealed and my voice may have been ignored by him but my voice has traveled far.
So, what now?
I am already on the record as saying “The Ministry of Justice has left me with no alternative than to take more robust action in the public interest” and that is exactly what I will do.
This doesn’t mean I will retaliate and seek retribution. However, since I am not gagged anymore I could reveal considerably more information about dishonesty and real misconduct I have encountered.
The IMB Secretariat, current and former IMB members, MoJ wonks and HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay staff including Governors should reflect carefully on their own behaviour before shouting down a volunteer monitor who decides to write about what they have seen and heard.
They chose to make it personal whereas I wrote about the issues.
Throughout this last year, I have kept my integrity and I have been truthful about what happened. I have never sought to elevate myself.
I am passionate about the issues I have raised for prison reform and I have no intention on being quiet or giving up, no not for one moment.
As many readers will know my motto has become #notshuttingup #notgoingaway and that is how it will continue.
Our prisons are in crisis and reform is taking too long.
* acknowledgements to Sir Ivan Rogers‘ email
First published 05 January 2017 in East Anglian Daily Times under the headline ‘Prison reform is taking too long, say ex-Hollesley Bay IMB chairman and former inmate’
Had the authorities listened to the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP Birmingham the riot on 16 December maybe could have been prevented. In their annual report the IMB wrote:
“the increasingly difficult behaviour of individual prisoners coupled with staff resource constraints give the Board cause for concern… Many staff are now concerned for their personal safety as well as for the safety of the prisoners… A solution is required urgently.”
Instead what happened was described by the Prison Officers Association as the biggest prison riot since Strangeways in 1990.
So why have prisoners behaved in this way?
Sentencing guidelines have placed more people in prison for longer periods of time and has, therefore, inflated the prison population to record numbers. This in turn has given rise to overcrowding, and together with under-staffing and the emergence of psychoactive substances also known as “legal highs”, our prisons have become places of deprivation on a record scale. It’s a toxic combination.
Less well publicised factors such as restricted access to education, to facilities, and the right of association with one another add to the frustration felt by those living inside. People being locked in their cell for 23 hours every day or sometimes for days on end during “lock down” creates a volatile atmosphere.
A high number of people in custody suffer from genuine mental health issues. They are imprisoned sometimes to protect society. But those are in the minority. Many people in prison with mental health issues are only there because the courts have no idea what else to do with them. For their sake and for the sake of society in which we all live, it is entirely the wrong place to send them.
IPP is defunct
Others are in prison under the now defunct rules on Imprisonment for Public Protection, known simply as “IPP”. These people don’t have a release date. Many prisoners today under IPP have already served time far beyond the normal tariff They are left to languish until the parole board decides it is safe to let them out.
I’m not saying we should open the prison doors and let everyone walk out. That would be reckless and irresponsible. But I am saying it is time to speed up the process of evaluation to make sure that those who don’t pose any risk to the public be allowed to go home as soon as possible.
What concerns me most is the utter boredom that so many of people in custody must endure. They are invariably portrayed as having a low IQ, a high percentage with a reading age of an 11year old; many have been in care and come from seriously complex situations. What isn’t realised is that many people in custody are intelligent, well-educated and have skills that could benefit other prisoners and need something worthwhile to do.
In other words, purposeful activity whilst in prison must be a priority. Lives are wasted here; I see it all the time.
So many organisations are involved in the ‘prison industrial complex’. Big money is made from those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Everyone wants a slice of the profits, but too little is re-invested in the prisoners and in the conditions in which they are held.
There are not enough links with the outside community, with colleges and University. Too few businesses are willing to give prisoners another chance, but without a fresh start it is impossible for them to be reintegrated back into society.
Beyond the Gate
I have seen the crushing stigma that ex-prisoners live under on release; the failure of a system that is meant to be there for them beyond the gate, the lack of accommodation, the difficulties of finding work, the list goes on.
It’s time for society to think differently towards people who find themselves in prison.
“Our prisons are in crisis and prison reform is taking too long.”
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.
In the space of 6 weeks I have written an article which has been published in The Prisons Handbook 2016, just before the Prime Ministers speech. I have been interviewed by Ian Dunt with an article put on politics.co.uk, been in my local paper with a 2 page spread, had a front page article in Converse prison newspaper, had an interview with another newspaper with an article ready for the next months edition… If I can achieve all this in just 6 weeks, just imagine what could be achieved in 6 months or a year?. It’s all about going at pace.
It’s not always about what you have achieved in the past, although it does help. But it’s about what you can/will/want to do in the future.
Can’t abide being held back because of what I haven’t done yet. Especially when I’m at the start of something significant and have plenty of passion, energy and drive for what is to come.
And despite the knock backs, to keep a sense of humour.
Yes I have mainly worked with vulnerable adults and children before, but we all have a vulnerable side to us. Some are able to reveal it, others not, some it leads to being a victim and others it leads them into criminal activity.
Have you noticed how quick some people are to judge others, put you into boxes and to categorise? I hope you won’t judge my life by the chapter you just walked in on.
Prisons are no different.
Many problems arise when people enter the prison system and then leave in a worse state than when they arrived.
Why after all the money pumped into prisons is this happening?
Profits are made out of prisoners, we all know that.
How many reviews, reports can you count over the last say 10 years that involve prisoners?
There have been countless
How many organisations do you know that work hard to bring reform to prisons and prisoners?
There are countless
How much money has been spent on prison reform?
On 8th February, the Prime Minister set out a vision for prison reform. Mr Cameron said:
This system will be hard to change because it is, in some ways, still stuck in the dark ages – with old buildings, old thinking and old ways of doing things.
So I don’t want to go slow here – I want us to get on with proper, full-on prison reform.
Today, 27th May the Public Accounts Committee report warns that the criminal justice system is close to breaking point:
- The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.
- Lack of shared accountability and resource pressures mean that costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another and the system suffers from too many delays and inefficiencies.
- There is insufficient focus on victims, who face a postcode lottery in their access to justice due to the significant variations in performance in different areas of the country.
Criminal justice system “already overstretched”
- The system is already overstretched and we consider that the Ministry of Justice has exhausted the scope to make more cuts without further detriment to performance.
- The Government is implementing reforms to improve the system but we are concerned that users of the system won’t see the full benefit for another four years.
- There are opportunities for the Ministry to make improvements before then, including better sharing of good practice and making sure that everyone is getting things right first time.
But what is the answer?
(If I had the answer I would be a very rich woman!)
Over the last few years I have visited every category of prison, YOI and Women’s. I have sat behind the Right hon. Michael Gove MP whilst he has been in front of the Justice Select Committee twice. I have attended meeting after meeting in Westminster, attended conferences, training courses, lectures, seminars etc. at my own cost.
I want to learn, I want to understand but most of all I want answers to the questions I have posed.
I also want to be a part of the change that is so desperately needed in our prisons.
We don’t just need a vision, we need a cause!
Vision is often personal, but a cause is bigger than any one individual
People don’t generally die for a vision, but they will die for a cause
Vision is something you possess, a cause possess you
Vision doesn’t eliminate the options; a cause leaves you without any options
A good vision may out live you, but a cause is eternal
Vision will generate excitement, but a cause generates power
[Adapted from Houston (2001)]
Houston, B. (2001) For this Cause: Finding the meaning of life and living a life of meaning. Castle Hill: Maximised Leadership Inc.
I seem to be making a habit of this; on Wednesday 16th March I attended the Justice Select Committee for the third time, again listening to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP being questioned by a team of MP’s.
I sat behind Mr Gove and watched as he interacted with the committee. The meeting can be accessed from this link: http://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/e67772ca-8c75-4112-853a-0fbd80688389
The first question he was asked was “How would you encapsulate the overall purpose of the thrust of the Government’s prison policy”? Michael Gove replied “In a sentence, it is about turning prisoners from liabilities into assets”. Interesting use of language I thought.
He continued by stating that…”the critical thing is to make sure that during their time in prison there is purposeful activity…” I have come across some excellent forms of purposeful activity but to be honest there just isn’t enough going on. Is it all down to money? If millions can be found to build new prisons then surely purposeful activity has to be included.
The stories coming out of many of the prisons in England and Wales are appalling, locked up at least 22 hours a day, rat infested are but a few I have read this week.
When will we see real progress?
The most successful custodial establishment according to Nick Hardwick former chief inspector of prisons was the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) in Colchester. However, in October 2015 there were 35 being held at the MCTC, hardly an example to compare. The ratio of staff to detainees is far higher than within the prison estate which is surely a factor along with greater governor autonomy that contributes to its success. I have visited it and was impressed by the order, cleanliness and regime. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/484448/Detainees_Military_Corrective_Training_Centre_Colchester.pdf
But how do you really measure success?
Michael Gove gave an example of Bronzefield prison as being a very successful female prison, yet this week one of the main stories I have read is about staff giving out sleeping bags to women released with no accommodation. It doesn’t add up!
I want to read more success stories, see real progress and watch as these “liabilities are turned into assets”