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My response to Dame Anne Owers
As it’s Independence Day (USA) I thought it would be fitting to take a few moments to consider the independence of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) which operate in every prison and detention centre in England and Wales.
Yes, I have mentioned it before, once or twice.
Pages 4-6 of the June edition of ‘Independent Monitor’ the journal of the Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards (AMIMB) carries an article bylined to the National Chair of the IMB, Dame Anne Owers. The article sets out her thoughts on the current state of the IMB’s and her vision for their future.
It focuses on the new Governance structure highlighting that it must enhance
- The Independence of IMB’s
- The Effectiveness of IMB’s
- The Impact of IMB’s
When a National Chairman has to say “It is important to be clear what we are independent of, and what we are independent for” it should immediately ring alarm bells. For an organisation that has existed since April 2003, surely this should have been established and implemented years ago.
She continues: “The IMB’s as a whole need to be, and to be seen to be, independent of the departments that sponsor them”.
So, by her own admission they are not independent then?
How an organisation with its headquarters on 9th Floor, Orange Core, 102 Petty France, London can purport to be independent is frankly astonishing.
When I have sent emails to the IMB Secretariat it has been the MOJ that have responded, and vice versa. Talk about living in each other’s pockets.
This has been my argument for a couple of years.
And another gem:
“…we are developing a framework agreement with the Ministry of Justice, to clarify our independent role, our relationship with the sponsoring department and ministers…”
What! after 15 years?
“Independence is an important touchstone for us all. But it exists for a purpose: to ensure that there is effective monitoring that has an impact on the conditions, treatment and outcomes for prisoners and detainees”
We have all seen the state of the prisons in England and Wales, the squalor, the fact that they are unsafe for both staff and prisoners and we have now have 11 prisons in special measures.
What does this say of the effectiveness of the IMB?
It is well documented in the public domain in reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, in local and national press, TV documentaries, hidden camera exposés, oral and written evidence given to various Select Committees, etc. that there very clearly is a unfolding humanitarian crisis in our prisons.
On the IMB website it states that for members “Their role is to monitor the day-to-day life in their local prison or removal centre and ensure that proper standards of care and decency are maintained”.
Proper standards of care have not been maintained. Proper standards of decency have not been maintained.
This means that the IMB has comprehensively failed in its purpose.
The IMB is not some vanity project for Ministers to appoint people to and to dismiss people from. Neither is it an arms-length body of any central Government department to sponsor in a whimsical way for its own ends.
IMB is part of the United Kingdom’s National Preventative Mechanism (NPM), created to meet the obligations of The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). This is an international human rights treaty designed to strengthen the protection of people deprived of their liberty.
When will the IMB be brought to account for being ineffective and not fulfilling their statutory requirements to protect people deprived of their liberty?
Impact of IMB’s
This week in Court No 1 at the Royal Courts of Justice, the IMB will come under the spotlight of the judiciary. The case is: R (Faulder and others) v Sodexo Limited and the Secretary of State for Justice.
The Howard League for Penal Reform has provided evidence as this case raises vital concerns about the state’s ability to monitor private prisons.
It’s CEO, Frances Crook, in her witness statement considers the monitoring of private prisons by Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs), volunteer members, and the official watchdog, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP).
Omissions characterise many IMB Annual Reports thus giving an unsatisfactory view of the prison estate in England and Wales. I have already written extensively on this.
I agree with Dame Anne that the IMB has increased its public profile. However, it has not increased its impact; recommendations and points for improvement contained in IMB reports are still routinely ignored. And by virtue of their frequency, being annual, the reports are already wildly out of date at the time of publication.
This is a far cry from real time information Dame Anne aspires to. And a far cry from the level of impact a body of monitors needs to have, especially given the state of the prisons in England and Wales, worsening by the day.
This week marked a very important milestone in the Criminal Justice System of England and Wales. On the evening of the 18th April a ‘Vigil for Justice’ took place outside 102 Petty France headquarters of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). This uprising came from members of the establishment; Barristers were protesting. It signalled the transition from people being unhappy about, but living with, a broken legal system to people being unhappy, but vocalising their unhappiness, about it.
This week also marked a very important milestone for me. Two years ago I vocalised my unhappiness too. I attended the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) monthly board meeting as the Chairman ready for a productive meeting with my colleagues when I encountered a carefully planned ambush. In that meeting I was required to give a statement confirming I was the author of the MOJ/IMB exposé “Whistle-Blower Without A Whistle” an article about the consequences of its poor governance which I had written for The Prisons Handbook 2016.
Today I have decided to make available my personal statement – word for word as delivered – which, until now, has never been shared publicly:
Statement from Faith Spear
Tuesday 19th April 2016
Please note: This statement is for the board only and has not be sent to any third party in part or as a whole.
“You will by now be aware of the lead Editorial bylined to Mark Leech and the article, which was dubbed as the special IMB exposé “Whistle-Blower Without A Whistle” bylined to Daisy Mallet, IMB Chair.
They have been published online at http://www.prisons.org.uk, they have been publicised on the social media channel Twitter @prisonsorguk and will soon to be published (on May 1st 2016) as part of a bound hardcopy in The Prisons Handbook 2016: Eighteenth Edition by Prisons.org.uk Limited. It’s a substantial work of reference with 1, 200-pages and a distribution circa 11,000 copies ISBN-10: 0957209851. ISBN-13: 978-0957209855
Before going to print both the Editorial and the special IMB piece were sent to and read by Rt. Hon Michael Gove MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, who has written the foreword to the book, to Andrew Selous MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Justice, and to every member of the House of Commons Justice Select Committee.
In addition to that, on April 6th both articles were emailed to all IMB Chairs, all members, Clerks, the National Council and the Secretariat, by Billy Prendergast, IMB secretariat alongside a covering letter from John Thornhill (IMB President) without my prior knowledge.
These two articles tackle reforming the IMB and its governance. This makes them relevant for today’s Board meeting as we are focusing on governance. But they are also relevant to this Board for a second reason.
It was on Friday April 1st that the managing editor of The Prisons Handbook, Mark Leech, invited me to contribute a written piece to The Prisons Handbook 2016. He had read some of my work on prisons and thought I might have a view point that would interest the readers. He invited me to contribute a personal opinion piece to the debate towards improving the Independent Monitoring Board.
I accepted Mr Leech’s invitation and drafted a piece which he sub-edited. In fact my first draft took me just 2 hours because I already knew what I wanted to say. Anyway, there were several iterations back and forth. I was able to correct what I had personally written, to accept or reject the editor’s suggestions and to add or remove supplementary text in order to arrive at an opinion piece. I submitted my final version and it was accepted on April 6th.
The views expressed are my own private and personal views. Exercising my right of free speech, they are given as a private individual, an unpaid volunteer, appointed as an individual by the Secretary of State to be an IMB member.
The views are not given on behalf of this Board, the IMB, the National Council, the Secretariat, this prison, the MOJ or any other organisation or person. They are mine and mine alone.
My views are expressed in the hope of seeing much needed change. These are my own personal views and experiences, and I was not speaking on your behalf.
I get asked to contribute written work some is for academic journals some is for blogs. Those who know me know that I am interested in the bigger picture. I saw this as an opportunity to express my views to a wider audience within the Criminal Justice System. You know that I travel and visit other prisons, this piece is not a critique of Hollelsey Bay; it deals with the wider picture that I see across the prison estate in England and Wales.
Now, turning to one specific point, I fully understand concerns that some of you may have over the publication of this opinion piece, especially perhaps the paragraph on page 22 of the book in which I refer to recruitment of members to this Board. I wrote:
The consequence of the somewhat pathetic process is that I now have to steer certain members into their role when they are really hard work, and simply not suitable. On paper my Board is short of members, but in reality I just cannot face another recruitment campaign, so I try and build the team as best I can.
This reflects my opinion of the process of recruitment, not on you as individuals. If I had to initiate another recruitment campaign this is what would happen. It is not what is happening now, I am amazed at the enthusiasm I have seen from all the new members on our board and I feel we have a good team, and I really do appreciate you all.
There are other elements of the article that due to misinterpretation have been distorted and as a result may cause offence. This was never my intention and if it has caused any of you distress of any kind then I am truly sorry.
I have been asked why I did not send the draft to the board for editing. The draft of the article was not submitted to you in advance for review or approval because it is my own view.
If you had reviewed and approved it would become the view of this entire Board. It isn’t. It is my point of view, and I’m not asking for you to agree with it.
My sincere hope is that each one of you continues the important work we are doing here. Monitoring is very important. My aim is to continue to serve as Chair of this Board. We have much to do.
If in the light of the publication of this piece, and of the statement I have just made, your view of me has changed and you find you that you have questions about my ability to continue as Chair, you are free to express those views now.”
Several months later I learned from the MOJ that a draft copy of this statement had been circulated without my authorization to every member of the Board, which meant that they knew what I had planned to say and had ample time to collaborate and to commence their character assassination against me.
This set in motion a chain of events, including bullying, ostracization, suspension pending investigation, two investigations by the MOJ, and a disciplinary hearing at Petty France, which ultimately led to me being fired from my role as Chair by the Prisons Minister and banned from holding any role in the IMB for a period of five years.
Photo courtesy of @PrisonStorm
Mr David TC Davies (Twitter @DavidTCDavies), Conservative MP for Monmouth and chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, has launched an inquiry into prison provision in Wales. At the moment, there are no facilities for women yet there are proposals for another “Titan” prison in South Wales at Baglan.
Let’s look briefly at the record
HMP Swansea, HMP Parc and HMP Cardiff rank amongst the worst prisons in the UK.
All have serious problems with prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, suicides, overcrowding and drugs. Here are some statistics:
Swansea: 80% of prisoners are in overcrowded cells. On arrival at the prison 53% have a drug problem and 32% have an alcohol problem.
Parc: this prison is ranked 111th place out of 117 in England and Wales. In 2017 there were 881 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and 1451 incidents of self-harm.
Cardiff: 64.5% of prisoners are in overcrowded cells. There were 220 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in 2017.
Usk/Prescoed: There is no full-time health care provision at either prison, concern by IMB of frequency of ‘lie downs’
If South Wales is serious about a new super prison it should first take a long look at what’s happened in North Wales:
Berwyn, the flagship of the MoJ which opened in February 2017.
Despite being Europe’s second biggest prison, with a capacity of more than 2,100, up to July of last year the £212m facility was less than a quarter full – with just over 500 inmates being catered for. By November there were 800 men.
Digging a little deeper, we find:
- HMP Berwyn received 319 complaints from prisoners February to September 2017.
- There were 219 complaints about the living quarters in the first seven months and 31 complaints about the quality of the food.
- There were 4 complaints about prisoner-on-prisoner violence or assault compared to 50 lodged by prisoners alleging abuse or assault by prison officers.
- Five of the alleged assaults were passed to North Wales Police for investigation, no action was taken over any of them.
- Ministry of Justice revealed that 376 items were confiscated from prisoners between its opening in February and October last year.
- 30 unspecified weapons, 56 items relating to drug paraphernalia and 34 mobile phones were among the items found in the possession of prisoners.
- Other items confiscated include 21 debt list items, 66 lighters, 17 USBs, 26 vaping objects and 10 chargers.
- There were also a number of items described as “miscellaneous” that were confiscated by prison officers.
So, whether prisons are new, old, Victorian, large, average size, have highly respected Governors or frankly those that should not be there (believe me I’ve met both!), it makes no difference as they all have similar issues to contend with:
Overcrowded. Understaffed. Underfunded.
To alleviate this prison crisis, we need fresh approaches in order to:
REDUCE the population: send fewer people to prison for non-violent offences
INCREASE the use of community orders
CUT the number of recalls
DEAL with indefinite sentences IPP’s convert to fixed length sentences?
FACILITATE prison release, therefore reduce self-inflicted deaths and reduce self-harm
REFORM prison estate and ensure all facilities are decent
SHARE best practice
INVEST in the long term and DELIVER in the short term
ADD more mental health facilities
The list can be endless and will depend on whether we see the purpose of prison as punishment, rehabilitation, both of these or a form of social cleansing.
Only last September, Lord McNally said in the House of Lords debate on prison overcrowding:
“We therefore have to understand the debate today which will be overwhelming in favour of sensible reform still has to pass that test of how we get a Secretary of State, a Prisons Minister and a Prime Minister who are willing to drive through reforms”
But that’s not the end of the story
We need a change in public attitude and that can only come from being informed and educated and not continually having issues covered up and hidden, the brushing under the carpet syndrome. There must be transparency.
We then need investment in life after prison in the provision of a home, a place of work, training or education and a reduction of the stigma in having a criminal record.
“Can anyone doubt that today our prisons truly are in crisis—seriously overcrowded, understaffed and volatile—and that the solution cannot be simply to build more, but lies rather in adopting fresh approaches to reducing their population and restoring what is now almost entirely lost: the real prospect of prison sentences actually being used to reform and rehabilitate inmates?”
This was the opening paragraph from Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood on the debate on Prison overcrowding 7th September 2017 that he brought to the House.
I was there watching and listening very carefully and was the only person who stayed in the public gallery for the whole debate.
Why is the subject of prison population one that makes everyone uncomfortable?
Coincidently, it was exactly a year to the day when, in 2016, I sat watching and listening behind Liz Truss in the Justice Select Committee as she was grilled. This was her first time in front of this committee and they wanted answers. On the subject of prison population, which is at an all-time high, she said this: “…the metric I will judge myself is not prison population”.
I have tried to pick out some of the main points during this debate
Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood was very clear when he said, “Warehousing has largely replaced rehabilitation”. He had four recommendations:
- Send fewer people to prison and for shorter terms
- Indefinite sentences, which are now commonplace, should become a rarity
- Facilitate prison release
- Drastically cut the number of recalls
Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill also picked up on the crisis that shows no sign of ending. Her suggestions included an urgent review of the use of short-term sentencing and to reverse the sharp decline in community orders. In addition, we should stop the imprisonment of women for non-violent offences and instead invest more in women’s centres.
Lord McNally “I fear that part of the problem of prison reform is that in a way, the whole of our Prison Service is like a paddle steamer driven by two paddles, but they go in different directions. One paddle is egged on by the media, influenced by public opinion and by politicians who, when given the hard choice between backing the difficult decision or playing for the politics of fear, have too often chosen the latter, and by political parties of all kinds, which, when it comes to elections, put out their leaflets telling their would-be voters how crime is rising and how they are going to deal with it. That paddle, pounding away, always makes it difficult to get the case for reform.”
Lord Ramsbotham “…if the Prison Service’s distortion of its role is to be rooted out, Ministers and officials must stop ignoring, and start listening, to the clarion calls of those who, for years, have been drawing their attention to the damage that overcrowding does to a system for which they are responsible and accountable to the public”
Lord Hope of Craighead “My Lords, there are far too many people in prison who ought not to be there at all. I have been concerned for some time about what can best be described as inflation in the length of the sentences being imposed by the courts”
“As for rehabilitation, the effect of overcrowding is that the opportunity for effective rehabilitation is greatly reduced. On the other hand, many more prisoners are being recalled now for breach of licence conditions than ever before”
“The Government need to address the reasons for these rises in prison numbers as much as they need to address the physical problems the overcrowding gives rise to.”
Lord Wigley “We desperately need a new fundamental review of the whole strategy of preventing crime, rehabilitating offenders and building communities at peace with themselves. We need radical new thinking and we need it very soon.”
Baroness Murphy “We put money into policies and we have no idea whether they are being delivered, simply because we have no way of measuring and there is nobody who can do the measuring. So policy ambitions are not being addressed. Of course, the prison regime is most likely to lead to depression, anomie and disturbed behaviour. Inside prisons the situation is dire.”
“Yes, we could have more mental health services but, frankly, it will not make any difference unless we solve the problem of how we are pouring people into the criminal justice system.”
Lord Cormack “We should constantly remind ourselves that punishment is sending somebody to prison, and the purpose of prison is rehabilitation. That has been neglected and forgotten for so long. One of the reasons, I fear, is the commercialisation of prisons.”
“We have to try to reduce the prison population. If we do not, we will continue to connive at perpetuating a blemish on our society. We are collectively indicting our own civilisation on our civilised values.”
Lord Harries of Pentregarth “…I wish to focus on one aspect only—the impact of overcrowding on self-inflicted deaths.”
“When a person is in prison the state has a particular responsibility to do all it can to ensure that they do not develop a state of mind where suicide is what they are tempted to do. Prison can lead to a sense of isolation, mental fragility and a feeling of hopelessness. For the reasons that I have outlined very briefly, the present overcrowding makes the situation much worse and is totally unacceptable.”
Baroness Masham of Ilton“If there was a more comprehensive aftercare system for vulnerable prisoners when discharged, with ongoing rehabilitation and a place to live for those who are homeless, maybe there would not be so much recidivism, which is one reason for prison overcrowding”
Lord Bradley “…reform is urgently required of indeterminate sentences for public protection. I support an approach recommended by the Prison Reform Trust, based on the three principles of convert, protect and rehabilitate. IPP sentences should be converted from indeterminate to fixed-length sentences, starting with the shortest tariff lengths where the greatest injustice seems to have occurred. The public should be protected with a guaranteed minimum licence period for all cases following release. As to rehabilitation, we should ensure that a proper investment is made in the support of IPP prisoners after release.”
Lord Alton of Liverpool “What is happening to the Government’s proposals for getting prisoners into jobs after release, for ensuring that prisoners learn English and maths and for league tables to evaluate progress on education? Where do education, training, secure schools and young offender institutions fit into the long-term strategy?”
“…we need an entirely new culture in our prisons and a different attitude to the way in which we run them”
Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick “We understand the heart of the difficult arguments, and now it is time to move towards answers and solutions, to cut the cost to the public purse and to stop the unnecessary incarceration of men and women who do not need to be in prison.”
“Why not invest our tax resources instead in their futures, and not in containing people in the despair and hopelessness of prison?”
Lord Lee of Trafford “…our prisons are a national embarrassment”
Lord Berkeley of Knighton “Overcrowding in prisons is severely hampering the opportunity for rehabilitation and the shining of a light in a dark place to illuminate a more redemptive path.”
Lord Birt “What is needed is not more obfuscatory press releases from the MoJ, with numbers unaccompanied by any convincing narrative at all, but an integrated and convincing five-to-10-year plan that moves us ahead of the curve and contains prudent forecasts of prisoner numbers, with plans to build an estate without any overcrowding and with a plan for officer numbers that will allow our prisons to become controlled, disciplined and civilised.”
The Lord Bishop of Southwark “It is imperative that we work together to increase hope and ensure that words and aspirations are matched by actions and delivery. There is an urgent need so to do.”
Lord Low of Dalston “We should look not only at the prosecution and sentencing practice of other countries but at what they do instead with those offenders, particularly categories of offender who are no longer sent to prison.”
Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers “My Lords, we are dealing with a problem that successive Governments have failed to solve for over half a century. The cause of that problem is that we send far too many people to prison for far too long: far longer than is necessary for rehabilitation and far longer than is needed to provide an effective deterrent.”
“What is needed is a change in the public attitude to keeping people locked up in prison: a recognition that the cost to society of this form of punishment is prohibitive; that the cost of each year that a man spends in prison simply by way of punishment is depriving us of resources that could otherwise be used to meet urgent social needs, including those that prevent young people turning into criminals. To bring about this change in attitude calls for leadership and courage on the part of Government. The aim should be, for a start, to halve the number of those in prison. IPP prisoners should be released. Old men who no longer pose any threat should not be held in expensive custody. Most importantly, legislation should reverse the trend of requiring ever longer sentences.”
Lord Colgrain “I have been drawn to three particular aspects of the prison system that seemed so anomalous that I subsequently drew them to the attention of the then Secretary of State for Justice, and I think that it is worth reiterating them now in the context of this debate on prison:
- Reduction of utilisable space, which in turn adds to the sense of overcrowding
- Delay in administration, which in turn restricts the execution of the system, which in turn leads to overcrowding
- Release late on a Friday afternoon, with limited ready funds and no protected environment within which to reside, must surely contribute to a higher possibility of reoffending than might otherwise be the case, with the subsequent prison overcrowding”
Baroness Hollins “Prison chaplains are trusted by prisoners. They are able to help counter the negative effects of overcrowding by offering personal and pastoral support to the prisoners in their care. Pressures created by overcrowding also threaten to undermine the quality and provision of family contact in prison—something particularly relevant to mothers with dependent children. As the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, stated in a recent review, family ties are as essential to rehabilitation as education and employment”
Lord Bird “Until we move on to prevention, until we start to dismantle poverty, we will have overcrowded prisons. I am sorry to say this, because overcrowded prisons are not prisons that work. We can be as clever as we like and come up with all sorts of solutions, but let us stop the churn; let us stop the arrival of people in prisons. That is the big, revolutionary need in terms of our thinking.”
Lord Judd “If our system is not rehabilitating people, it is a total failure. There needs to be a culture and a professional commitment at all times to rehabilitation. Rehabilitation means recognising that prisoners are individuals.”
“We all have a heavy responsibility to resist the cynical populism of the press and too many of our political colleagues when it comes to the challenge of prison reform. What we have now is generating crisis, not overcoming it.”
Lord Cullen of Whitekirk “…there is little evidence of overcrowding in Scotland’s 15 prisons.The most marked decrease has been in the number of young offenders. This points to the success of a whole system initiative which has encouraged a number of actions such as early intervention, opportunities for diversion from prosecution and support from the court process. For initiatives such as this the relatively small size of Scotland has assisted in bringing together the responsible agencies, sharing good practice and developing good teamwork.”
Lord Fellowes “If any other public service were in the position of our prisons, radical measures would have to be taken, and quickly. In the case of Britain’s prisons, this becomes more and more essential as the years go by, and the clear priority must be for a significant drop in overall numbers. The present numbers ensure that rehabilitation comes way down the priority list.”
“I know that our Government have much urgent business to complete, but the state of our prisons and the intolerable burden we place on the Prison Service continue to shame us and remain a danger to the stability of our society.”
Lord Woolf “In our system very powerful forces, coming largely from Parliament, continually drive up sentences and there is no equally powerful force which has the opposite effect of reducing them. That is what we have to focus upon…I suggest that we have to give the Sentencing Council a new remit whereby, if sentences are increased, it has to make recommendations under which they can be reduced. Unless we get a balancing factor of that sort, I am afraid that the present problems will continue.”
Baroness Stern “I would make two proposals to the Minister. First, a radical review could be a very practical and sensible way to proceed. Secondly, would she consider inviting the Secretary of State for Justice—who has a very good reputation—to find the time to listen to the views of some of those in your Lordships’ House in whom so much wisdom on this subject resides?”
Lord Elton “…it has been assumed that the problem that needs to be solved is how you treat criminals. But the problem would be solved with much less expenditure and much greater effect if you focus on how you treat children so that they do not become criminals.”
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames “The state of our prisons is one of the scandals of our times. They are neither humane nor civilised and they fail as places of rehabilitation and reform. The combination of overcrowding and understaffing is toxic.”
“…civilised society has a duty to ensure, by law when necessary—and experience has shown that it is—that prison is genuinely only used as a last resort; that prisons must be decent, humane and uncrowded; that sufficient staff must be employed to keep prisoners safe and secure; and that prisoners must be afforded full opportunities for education and work with a view to their rehabilitation. We should legislate to insist on achieving those standards. Only when we achieve them may we say that we have an acceptable penal system.”
Lord Beecham “I observe that we already have a world-class system—unfortunately, it is a third-world-class system. We do not know what the Government’s intentions are in respect of legislation. Perhaps the Minister could advise us. What has become of the claim in the Government press release of 23 February that the,
Historic Prisons and Courts Bill will transform the lives of offenders and put victims at the heart of the justice system, helping to create a safer and better society,
new legislation underpins measures outlined in the ground-breaking Prison Safety and Reform White Paper which will transform how our prisons operate?”
Baroness Vere of Norbiton “To reduce overcrowding, we must act in two areas. We must reform the prison estate and manage prisoner numbers.”
“I believe that the reforms and actions I have set out show how we are effectively managing the prison population, now and for the future. In an estate parts of which date back to Victorian times, there are of course significant challenges, but we know where those challenges lie and what is needed to rise to them. With our recruitment of record numbers of prison officers, with our unprecedented prison modernising programme and our focus on rehabilitation and reducing offending rates, we are getting on with that important work to build a prison systems that is safe and secure and transforms offenders’ lives.”
But is THIS the real problem
I will give the last word to Lord McNally
“We therefore have to understand that the debate today, which will be overwhelmingly in favour of sensible reform, still has to pass that test of how we get a Secretary of State, a Prisons Minister and a Prime Minister who are willing to drive the reforms through.”
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.”