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Busy London streets
I made my way out of the crowds towards my destination: The National Portrait Gallery, London.
Although this will be a time to indulge my love of Art, I’m actually here to interview rather than be an interviewee.
I arrived early and found a quiet(ish) corner of the café to collect my thoughts, helped enormously by the Earl Grey tea and slice of orange and polenta cake.
Two days previously I attended the Koestler Art exhibition on the South Bank entitled “Another Me”
I prefer to visit alone; I don’t want other people’s initial reflections to become mine. For me it’s not just the pieces of art that can stop me in my tracks but the titles of the pieces. This year I discovered “Stand Alone”, “Consequences”, “Innocent Man” and “Woo Are You Looking at?”.
From matchsticks to J-cloths, from socks to gold leaf such variety of materials, such ingenuity.
But the question that stayed in my mind was:
“Are these exhibits examples of escapism or expressionism?”
I made my way up to the large information desk at the National Portrait Gallery and sat patiently awaiting my guest.
Ten minutes later, he arrived looking rather bemused at my choice of venue to interview him.
Erwin James followed me up a flight of stairs where we slowly wandered around looking at portraits of people, from HM The Queen to Zandra Rhodes and every conceivable individual in between.
Trying to get my bearings, we turned a corner and entered the Statesmen’s Gallery, lined on each side by a series of white marble busts on projecting plinths in between painted portraits. It looked outstanding.
At the far end hung a portrait painting of Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Ethel Wright (oil on canvas, exhibited 1909), militant Suffragette, persuasive speaker and effective strategist. Erwin and I stood and pondered.
In one of the rooms off this gallery we found a bench, sat down and started to talk. Straight ahead was a significant portrait, covering a large part of the wall, entitled:
The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari
Faith Spear: When you look at that picture what does it tell you?
Erwin James: There are people who care about people that others don’t care about. This lady cared for the wounded she didn’t care about the war, she cared about people.
FS: How does it make you feel when you see that?
EJ: My experience of prison was that occasionally, more than occasionally there are people who care about people, about the wounded people in our prisons who need assistance, it’s a challenge for any community or society to think that we should care or help those that have hurt us. But she cared about everybody.
FS: Do paintings like that inspire you?
EJ: I found paintings in prison. I did an Arts degree and I was given this folder of great art; I had never had access to art or that sort of thing, ever in my life until I went to prison. I found art through the Open University.
I have never seen this painting before if I’m honest, but it tells us, “this lady, she doesn’t care who you are. She just wants to heal you.” The Onlookers: What are they thinking, should we help this person? There’s hesitance, others are standing away, observing. But you can’t hesitate or observe when people need help. My feeling about our attitudes to prisoners is that’s it’s a challenge to help people who’ve hurt us but if we don’t help them, they are going to hurt more people. When I look at that painting, I promise you some are taking advantage of the crowd.
FS: That’s interesting “taking advantage of the crowd”
EJ: We do that in our society now, longer prison sentences…we deserve a prison system that hates the crime, perhaps hates the criminal but for Christ sake give the prisoner a chance. That’s my philosophy really.
We slowly moved from room to room admiring and yet questioning the art we saw. Both of us were struck by a painting of Henrietta Maria (1635) and our hidden thoughts became open dialogue
EJ: Look how attractive we are, look how wealthy we are, look how amazing we are
FS: Always trying to prove something
FS: Is that because people can’t accept who they are?
EJ: People seem to want to portray an image that is more than what they are, that is exactly what these people did
FS: It’s not just status is it?
EJ: Status, its look at me, look at us, all the poverty in the country when she was painted.
The poor people, we always looked up to the people doing well, we always aspire to be like them
FS: Always looking down on those that are not doing so well?
EJ: I don’t know why because we are all trying to get up that ladder
FS: Do you think we fall into the trap that we don’t actually accept people for who they are?
EJ: Well we are not sure who they are, all we know is we think we know who we are we want to be better versions of ourselves come what may
There are many self-portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, some more obvious than others.
FS: With a self-portrait you are not necessarily portraying the real you
EJ: No, you are portraying what you want the world to know about you. As a writer I am the same, I’m exactly the same, I want the world to know me through words because the world sort of knew me through the courts through prison through prosecution
FS: So, do you think you were trying to re-invent yourself
FS: But then that is saying previously that wasn’t the true you
EJ: Yes, that wasn’t the true me
FS: Do you think that this is the true you now, what you are doing now?
EJ: Yes, before I became who I think I am, I’m not perfect by any means, but I am my own person and I think lots of people go through life thinking, well is this me? I’m born into this way of living but gradually you think did I decide this. Other people decide our lives and what prison gave me was the freedom to choose my own, if that makes any sense. But even though I am a million miles away from perfect, I am a real person
They all portray dominance over everyone else. The whole purpose of art in these ages was to say look at us, we dominate you – and then the dominated looked up and said, “we are so pleased to be dominated by you”, we didn’t know then that any of us could be dominate and dominated we didn’t realise then before mass education, we didn’t understand that we can all be people with education with skills and abilities
We walked up to level 2, not knowing what to look at first. We entered a small room.
FS: Do you see that painting over there of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with his books showing he is an educated man, well in fact, a poet?
EJ: Books for the educated people? No. books are for everyone, to me Faith, books are a great leveller. If you can read, you can be a King.
By this time, I needed to sit down; juggling bag, jacket, notebook, pen and phone was getting problematic. I found a wooden bench in one of the corridors and with phone at the ready I continued my questions as we sat down.
FS: One thing I am always amazed at in an art gallery is that everything is categorised, often by year, era or by event. Everything is numbered. And there is a lot of security. When you come into an art gallery you are watched by cameras everywhere.
Everything is numbered, everything is categorised exactly the same as it is in a prison.
How did it feel to be categorised and given a number?
EJ: That is a really good question.
Well I was categorised; I was a Cat A prisoner for 5 or 6 years. The system categorises you and gives you a number. I hated my prison number. I was in Devon driving down a lane and I saw a signpost for the B73…, arghhhhhh! That’s my prison number!
It was awful, I had forgotten it, forgotten it purposely. When you are categorised and given a number you become labelled, you’re not human you’re a prisoner. But thank god there are some amazing people that work in prisons who want you to be human. For various reasons you end up there, they work there, and they are there to help you to become like them. Thank god for that. Without those people I would never be here I would never have made it. Teachers, psychologists, probation officers some prison officers…
FS: But when people are reduced to a number do you think that is degrading?
EJ: Well I think the danger Faith, you are asking me something quite profound here, because the danger when we do that, we detach people psychologically from our community. Now prison is detaching. You did harm, you caused pain, grief etc, but what we do with that in our prison system is that we detach further psychologically so the people in prison psychologically don’t feel part of society. Don’t feel part of the community, there’s no sense of wanting to come back.
I want to do some good when I come back, but mostly we don’t want them back. But actually, there’s so many people that do come back do good but it’s the physiologically detachment that presents danger from the released prisoner.
As Erwin is a writer, I wanted to probe a little more into different aspects of his life.
FS: For someone who is setting out on a journey as a writer what advice would you give?
EJ: Well what I would say is first and foremost is tell your truth. But first, you have got to find your truth because if you don’t know your truth you will never be able to share that truth. So, there are a couple of things: have discipline, have courage because when you put your truth out there you are going to get people who hate you and your truth. You need to have courage and be bold, but as long as you know your truth you will have a significant number of people who will accept that. Whatever the obstacles whatever the challenges you just keep going.
I decided to probe a little deeper too.
FS: What makes you laugh?
EJ: You will be amazed how many people in prison laugh, it’s a funny thing in jail you laugh at the most banal things.
FS: But what makes you laugh now?
EJ: My great granddaughter she makes me laugh. “Grandad, grandad look at the chickens” she chases chickens and I run after her and I’m laughing like hell and then she catches a chicken. Then she chases the ducks.
I do laugh but I am a very serious thinker, but I laugh when she laughs, its infectious. I feel safe to laugh with my great granddaughter.
FS: Is that because you are not being judged?
EJ: In the public if I am laughing, I feel awful because there are people grieving because of me. Even in jail I was scared to laugh sometimes because it looked like I didn’t care about anything.
FS: What makes you cry, do you cry?
EJ: I cried a long time ago in prison when I came to terms with what I had done with the effects on victims’ families of my crimes. I didn’t cry before that.
What makes me cry now? A good drama where there’s an amazing writer who brings the human condition into our living rooms and shows us how weak, strong, dominant, how we are as humans.
That makes me cry.
My final question was about what others say.
FS: What is one of the most memorable statements about yourself?
EJ: The best thing that’s been said of me, that I am really proud of, I do school talks. I was in a school in Southampton a few years ago, the Headmaster said afterwards:
“It was one of the best talks we have had all year and, for some, will be an abiding memory of school.”
It was time to switch my recorder off, I took in a last view of this amazing gallery and headed outside for some air. After a refreshing drink we said goodbye and I headed for the tube.
What an interesting conversation.
Erwin James is editor-in-chief of ‘Inside Time’, the national newspaper for people in prison and the author of ‘Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope’.
Photos: Copyright © FM Spear. All rights reserved.
A bright summer’s day. A short car journey, a train, 2 tubes, 2 more trains and I finally arrived after more than 5 hours of travelling, into Wrexham. I’ve come to HMP Berwyn. I’m here with an open mind and at the invitation of the No 1 Governor, Russell Trent.
HMP Berwyn is not very well signposted, it’s as if the locality is reluctant to admit such a place exists in their own backyard. On the way here, I asked some locals for their opinion on the prison, its location and its size given that it is not yet at full capacity. Many local people were hesitant in speaking about it. Others were really bemused when I said I was on my way there to meet the Governor.
“Well, they need to build a bigger car park”, one local said.
On arrival, from the outside, it resembles a business park not a prison.
Entering through large open doors I was greeted by a uniformed officer with a friendly face who showed me the lockers for my bag and phone, and the door to enter the prison. But it was the wrong door. I wasn’t asked why I was there or even who I was. I was sent back outside to another door, this time I approached a glass window and said I was here to see Russell Trent. Simple.
Unfortunately, the officer there had no record of my visit. Great start. I was then asked to put my driving licence onto the window, so they could read my name. Bingo, the glass screens opened, and I was inside.
I fully expected to be patted down. I wasn’t. I expected an officer to pass a wand over me. They didn’t. This surprised me.
The site is huge. I was immediately impressed by the overall cleanliness, both inside and out, the wide-open spaces between communities and grass, yes real grass, and flower beds. There was even a small area where they hold services of remembrance.
V = value each other and celebrate achievements
A = act with integrity and always speak the truth
L = look to the future with ambition and hope
U = uphold fairness and justice in all we do
E = embrace Welsh language and culture
S = stick at it
Sitting on a comfortable sofa opposite Number 1 Governor Russell Trent in his office, he pointed out the motivational quote on the wall.
“When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows not the flower”
But motivational quotes are everywhere throughout the prison, on stairwells, in corridors alongside photos of Wales. Another one that caught my eye was:
“You have got to be the change you want to see”
The Governor handed me a small pack of cards; each card represents a different Berwyn practice for each day of the month.
Day 1. We recognise achievements and celebrate successes #thankyou
Day 2. We actively listen to each other and make eye contact #respect
Day 3. We offer and ask for help and feedback #support
You get the idea.
This is a first, I have never brought anything out of a prison that I haven’t taken in and I have never seen such motivational material in quite the same way in any other prison I have visited. And I’ve been to every category of prison, more than once.
Having the opportunity to accompany Governor Trent as he did his rounds meant we could talk as we toured communities, healthcare, college, library, horticulture, accommodation, etc.
I watched as well as listened, as I always do, with my notebook at the ready for contemporaneous note taking. Governor Trent appears to be on the ball, knowing the names of the men and their sentence. Many politely came up to him with a query or problem they wanted resolving. If he didn’t have the answer, then he signposted or agreed to meet them later. I did find it odd when he was called “Russ” and even “Trenty”. I thought that was a bit over-familiar considering the whole ethos was of respect. Something didn’t quite add up.
In various conversations, the name of a certain community came up more than once and so did the name of a member of staff. It appeared some men felt fobbed off by this individual. I chose not to probe this but preferred to watch how it was dealt with.
I was introduced to the prosocial model of behaviour, a rehabilitative culture, making big feel small, the principle of normality and much more. Yes, Governor Trent is driven and considering over 90% of frontline staff have never worked in a prison before he has to sell his regime not only to the men but to the staff also.
The Ministry of Justice is very good at musical chairs, moving leaders around the prison service. It makes me wonder how long Governor Trent will remain at Berwyn.
Can Berwyn culture function without him and will the vision live on without his oversight?
Or will the settling cracks be more prominent or permanent?
In March 2018 there was a Death in Custody at Berwyn. The Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) is still investigating and this death is unclassified as the cause is not yet known. I will not jump to any conclusions.
What I can say is during my visit I neither saw nor heard nor smelled any signs of drug abuse or spice.
Health and Wellbeing
Page 12 of ‘Rehabilitative Culture at Berwyn‘ states that “promotion of health and wellbeing is the responsibility of all whether they are living or working at Berwyn”. I think that collective ownership like this is a good thing because it means that the sole responsibility is not just carried on the shoulders of the healthcare team. The reason why this is good is because it replicates what goes on in the wider society.
I saw team sports in action, outdoor gym equipment and the outdoor running track. One initiative that caught my interest was the ‘Governor’s Running Club’. Men were proudly wearing their t-shirts which they were entitled to have once they had attended 5 successive weeks. Governor Trent emphasised to me that it was more about the commitment than the fitness.
Whilst all this looks favourable, one question I still have is the level of staff sickness at Berwyn. In ‘Annual HM Prison and Probation Service digest: 2017 to 2018, Chapter 15 tables – Staff sickness absence’ for the period 1st April 2017 to 31st March 2018 there were 3,628 working days lost (see Table 15.1, Column U, Row 18). It raises a concern as to why this is, given that Berwyn is not at full capacity and new communities are only opened once sufficient staff are in place.
It’s all very well having unlock at 08:15 and lockup at 19:15 but if the industries, education, workshops, purposeful activities are not there then what?
And what do we mean by purposeful activity?
I saw one of the workshops, sewing prison regulation towels. A monotonous task, processing the same off-white coloured towelling. I’ve seen the same activity in other prisons such as HMP Norwich. Why is this happening in Berwyn? If sewing is to be one of the “purposeful activities” then surely this could be expanded to sewing something less bland and uninteresting using acquired skills that may be genuinely useful on release. For example, Fine Cell Work showcases how this is possible both inside and after release with their post-prison programme.
In another workshop I saw, I felt I was looking at something more purposeful; it was a call centre, provided by Census Group, run by a woman who was keen to praise the men in her group. I could see how skills learned here could translate into meaningful employment on the outside as well as provide interest, variation and a challenge for those participating in this activity.
I briefly stepped into the College building housing the prison library. If it wasn’t for the jangling of keys you could have been in any educational institution.
Whereas I had expected the heat, because my visit was in August, I had not expected the temperature levels inside on the landings of the communities and in the rooms I visited. It must have been at least 30 degrees.
I had heard a lot about the rooms here and saw many photos. However, you need to walk in one to fully understand the scale. For the rooms which are single occupancy they are compact, but I’ve seen smaller. A raised bed, with storage underneath, a desk with monitor, a plastic moulded chair. It has a shower/toilet/wash basin in the corner with a short curtain acting as a screen. And a small safe for locking away any medical supplies and that’s your lot.
Unfortunately, with only 30% of the rooms in Berwyn built for single occupancy the majority of the men have to double up.
In the double-occupancy rooms, it is the same layout for two but only slightly wider and another small bed with storage underneath. To share a room with someone you have never met and to have so little privacy going to the toilet or having a shower is entirely unacceptable for a new build prison in the 21st Century.
Here is where I have a problem with Berwyn as a model for Titan prisons.
According to ‘The Report of the Zahid Mubarek Inquiry’ published in June 2006, (download the PDF here) there were three main recommendations concerning enforced cell-sharing:
- The elimination of enforced cell-sharing should remain the objective of the Prison Service, and the achievement of this goal should be regarded as a high priority.
- The Prison Service should review whether the resources currently available to it might be better deployed towards achieving this goal, without compromising standards in other areas, and should set a date for realising this objective.
- If the resources currently available to the Prison Service are insufficient to produce a significant decrease in enforced cell-sharing, central government should allocate further funds to the Prison Service to enable more prisoners to be accommodated in cells on their own.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to be astonished that after 12 years these recommendations were not incorporated into the planning of Berwyn. They were made long before the architects’ drawings were prepared and before any ground works were dug.
How can the concept of a Titan prison be a showcase, a flagship, when recommendations such as these are willfully overlooked? Was it in pursuit of lower unit cost per prisoner?
Economies of scale
If it is such a flagship of the Ministry of Justice, a social experiment, a regime extraordinaire, or whatever you wish to call it, why hasn’t the Secretary of State for Justice or the Prisons Minister visited? I will urge them to come and see Berwyn for themselves.
I already have my doubts that Berwyn will ever reach its full capacity so in that case what is stopping it from turning all double rooms into single occupancy?
It has been built to 70% double, 30% single rooms, like a Walmart of the Prison Service, pack them high, sell them cheap
During my visit I was informed that the cost per head was £14,000. Afterwards, I contacted Berwyn to confirm and was told £13,500 per head. Compare this to the average annual overall cost of a prison place in England and Wales at £38,042 in 2017, according to Ministry of Justice report on ‘Costs per prison place and cost per prisoner by individual’, £35,182 in 2016 (download the 2017 PDF here and the 2016 PDF here). See: Table 2a, Summary Comparison
I wouldn’t be surprised if the figure was more like £11,000 – £12,000 per head at Berwyn, its “economies of scale” achieved by factors such as low salaries of frontline staff in their first year of service being the predominant workforce here.
The Berwyn Way
All the men arriving into HMP Berwyn are given Enhanced IEP status. The idea behind this is that the men then have to take some personal ownership to maintain that level. In other words, it leaves no room for incentives to improve status but only punishment if you don’t make the grade. In my opinion, it makes a nonsense of the IEP system and is inconsistent with many of the sending prisons of which there are 65. Is this demotivating those who have worked hard to achieve Enhanced elsewhere?
I remember when the last changes with IEP came into effect with Chris Grayling. Working in a prison where most of the men were on Enhanced yet half of them did not fulfil the new criteria to be on Enhanced. This brought about a two-tier system when people were transferred into the prison as they had to adhere to the new rules. This issue alone can have a big impact on the culture and effective daily operations inside a prison. I feel the same pitfall maybe true of Berwyn, albeit inadvertent.
I noted later that in the document ‘The Berwyn Way’ 3. Strategic priorities, Rehabilitative culture.
3.8 An important part of the realisation of Berwyn’s rehabilitative culture will be changing behaviour by reward, not punishment and everyone will work hard to uphold this ambition.
How can this be so when the IEP system is used not to reward, but to punish?
There is a clear disconnect here.
Respect: to get it you must give it
I noted that on one occasion entering a community, staff immediately stood up as we entered. My immediate thoughts, was this just a mark of respect or fear of reprisal later?
I rather hope it is the former rather than the latter.
But I have been in enough SMT meetings in other prisons, where Governing Governors have mouthed off over even a trivial matter, to know how that could have been out of fear.
I shook hands with many members of staff and the men housed there. Some men apologised for their language even though it wasn’t aimed at me. This showed self-awareness which is a vital characteristic in life as well as in living in a prison.
I came away with a brochure about the rehabilitative culture at Berwyn, a document on ‘The Berwyn Way’, a desk top flip chart and pack of cards of the Berwyn Values.
I’m commenting on a regime, I’m not criticising any individual. I’m evaluating and analysing what the consequences might look like for Berwyn based on what I have personally seen and heard.
The model of single-occupancy rooms is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
It is time HMPPS stops putting profit before people.
Positive reinforcement of behaviour works much better than penalties.
In my opinion I would have to say, on the balance of probability, there should never be another prison built on the scale of Berwyn.
This visit to HMP Berwyn took place on Thursday 2nd August 2018.
My time and expenses were entirely self-funded.
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 of Lords.
I was there in the Public Gallery 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?
Coincidentally, 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.
That 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 on is not prison population”.
I have tried to pick out some of the main points made during this House of Lords debate below
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.”
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.