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I have been waiting eagerly for more news as to how the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) would operate ‘indirect monitoring’ of prisons and places of detention as it had stated on its website on 30th March 2020: “This is a fast-moving situation…” but there has been nothing for 4 weeks.
When a new hotline initiative was first mentioned by the National Chair in an update on the IMB website it claimed:
“We are in discussion at a national level with specialist contractors about the possibility of freephone lines to enable applications using in-cell telephony and the additional telephone capacity proposed by the Prison Service”
Seeing the headline on their website this morning, “Independent monitors launch new hotline for prisoners to report concerns during pandemic”, I was relieved. That is until I read the detail.
A few things about it stood out to me.
First, this hotline will only be available to 13 prisons, around 11% of the entire estate.
The prisons taking part are Wayland, Pentonville, Lewes, High Down, Berwyn, Woodhill, Eastwood Park, Bronzefield, Durham, Buckley Hall, Swinfen Hall, Onley and Elmley.
The hotline will be part of a new pilot scheme running for 6 weeks.
Ten thousand prisoners will be able to call for free from a phone in their cell or a communal phone.
That’s a start, but what about accessibility to the IMB in the meantime for the other seventy one and a half thousand people in prison?
Lines will be open, with a voicemail service, from 7am-7pm seven days a week.
In other words prisoners will not actually be able to talk to someone; it’s an answerphone and their message will be recorded.
Second, the actual process.
The prisoner’s concerns will be passed on to the relevant board, who will respond through the ‘email a prisoner’ service, or through the normal IMB routes or the IMB clerk.
It doesn’t say who will pass on the prisoner’s concerns and to the relevant Board. Presumably a member of staff will have to listen to the message and then write out the complaint/concern and send it to the relevant Board via email. Replies from IMB to the prisoner will then go through the ‘Email a Prisoner’ service.
Incidentally, the ‘Email a Prisoner’ website states:
“We are sending your messages to the establishments daily, as normal, but please note that prison staff are very compromised at the moment, so there may be instances where messages and replies are unfortunately delayed”
I cannot see how using an already saturated system will be particularly efficient.
Moreover, giving staff an additional task of transcribing the messages and sending them to the IMB would not be seen as a priority.
Even using the IMB clerk, which I’m aware happens in some prisons, is not the best way as they are HMPPS staff. In fact I know of one IMB Board where the clerk was closely related to one of the Governors at the same prison.
Like calls to the Samaritans, these calls will be confidential, and not recorded by HMPPS
Third, how can these recorded calls ever be considered confidential?
A prisoner telephones the hotline and has to leave a message on an answering service as the hotline is unmanned. The prisoner will have to leave personally identifiable information: their full name, their prisoner number and the name of the prison they are in. No mention is made in the announcement as to where these recorded calls are stored or for how long, nor who has access to them.
Someone has to relay these to the relevant IMB Board which means either sending a copy of the digital recording or transcribing them. Either way the confidentiality which should exist between a prisoner and a Board member is broken and trust is compromised.
Once the message is in the hands of the relevant IMB Board, assuming it reaches the correct one first time and does not go astray, the IMB must then find the information and respond to the prisoner.
The reply from the IMB to the prisoner must be made via the ‘Email a Prisoner’ service, which as everyone knows is a web based email service that depends on a member of the prison staff logging in and printing off to hardcopy all the individual messages sent to prisoners.
This step breaks for a second time the confidentiality that should exist between a prisoner and the IMB Board. Please don’t tell me that messages arriving for prisoners are not read by staff.
One more point worth making here is that only 9 out of the 13 prisons in the pilot have in place the ability for prisoners to reply back to messages from the IMB using the ‘Email a Prisoner’ platform. In other words, there will be 4 prisons where prisoners will have to start the process all over again should the response from the IMB not answer their concerns.
(Immigration detainees can already email IMBs directly which surely must be a much easier solution, and far more likely to be confidential as well as quicker)
Whereas it is only a pilot and teething troubles will naturally be ironed out, this system is fundamentally flawed from the beginning.
For it to have any credibility in effective monitoring the prisons in England and Wales the IMB must urgently rethink what it considers to be acceptable ‘indirect monitoring’.
Update: A short message I received from Sarah Clifford, IMB Head of Policy and Communications:
Hello Faith – Just wanted to clarify that the IMB freephone pilot is a live service, staffed eight hours a day by IMB members with voicemails as a back up. I have added a note to the IMB website announcement to that effect: https://www.imb.org.uk/independent-monitors-launch-new-hotline-for-prisoners-to-report-concerns-during-pandemic/. Many thanks.
This is incredible that this clarification was needed. This should have been on the website from the start without myself having to point it out in a blog. There was an uproar when I copied the IMB plans straight from their website. There was no hint at all that it would be a live service, staffed eight hours per day by IMB members. This was an essential point that was ommited.
Lets hope the IMB itself becomes a little more transparent and accountable.
It is 4 years today that I put pen to paper and wrote about the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) from my direct experience and my perspective as a prison monitor. My article “Whistle blower without a whistle” published in The Prisons Handbook 2016, sent shock waves across the criminal justice sector, locally, nationally and internationally.
When you feel so passionately about a cause it is very hard to keep quiet, I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. I was given the opportunity and used my voice.
First, I had to weigh up the risk of possibly causing offence versus the need to speak up in the public interest.
What I didn’t expect was it resulting in a prejudicial character assassination, a fight to clear my name, being gagged by a grooming culture within the IMB, being investigated twice by UK Ministry of Justice, a disciplinary hearing at Petty France and the involvement of not one but two Prison Ministers. I felt that I was on my own against a bastion of chauvinism. Not the last bastion of their kind I would come across. Welcome to the IMB!
Maybe the problem was that the IMB and the MoJ didn’t expect someone like me to put their head above the parapet or to dare voice an opinion. Yet we all have a voice; we all have opinions and we should not feel the need to suppress them. I did, I felt that I couldn’t really express myself, would anyone listen?
Faced with adversity, people either ‘fight, flight or play dead’. I made the decision to fight. I have no regrets.
People started listening, taking notice and lending their support. Above all, they agreed with me but felt unable to say anything publicly themselves for fear of reprisals.
We all know the saying ‘action speaks louder than words’ but often you have to speak before any action can take place. So, I spoke out and expected results.
Since then I have written on many occasions about the IMB, its lack of effectiveness, lack of diversity and most troubling of all its lack of independence. The IMB Secretariat is staffed by MoJ civil servants, the National Chair is an MoJ employee, the purse strings are held by the Permanent Secretary of the MoJ and Board members expenses are paid by the MoJ.
“I’m finding the working environment intolerable and detrimental to my health, and part of me would like the IMB to recognise this as a symptom of its unsustainable system and the pressure it puts on people (but they probably won’t care)”.
Sadly, when I continue to receive messages such as this one from a serving IMB Chair, I realise very little has changed.
Even with a new governance structure, the appointment of its first National Chair and a written protocol between the MoJ and the IMB, none of these has persuaded me that there is enough independence, effectiveness or impact.
If there are concerns and issues that don’t add up, instead of staying silent, ignoring the facts or even dismissing them, it is imperative to ask questions.
As I have seen first-hand with the relationship between the IMB and the MoJ where they appear to be marking their own homework where monitoring of prisons is concerned, I noticed another irregularity.
During 2019 whilst attending sessions of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Miscarriages of Justice, I noticed something of vital importance about the composition and scope of the inquiry of the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice, which states:
“Given that there are serious misgivings expressed in the legal profession, and amongst commentators and academics, about the remit of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and its ability to deal with cases of miscarriages of justice, and given that perceptions of injustice within the criminal justice system are as damaging to public confidence as actual cases of injustice, the WCMJ will inquire into:
1. The ability of the CCRC, as currently set up, to deal effectively with alleged miscarriages of justice;
2. Whether statutory or other changes might be needed to assist the CCRC to carry out is function, including;
(i) The CCRC’s relationship with the Court of Appeal with particular reference to the current test for referring cases to it (the ‘real possibility’ test);
(ii) The remit, composition, structure and funding of the CCRC
3. The extent to which the CCRC’s role is hampered by failings or issues elsewhere in the criminal justice system;
and make recommendations.”
But between 2010 and March 2014 Dame Anne Owers who currently sits on the Westminster Commission on Miscarriages of Justice “established by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Miscarriages of Justice (APPGMJ) with a brief to investigate the ability of the criminal justice system to identify and rectify miscarriages of justice”, was a non-executive director of the CCRC.
Public purse. Public interest.
I have a problem with a system that allows for a person to occupy a role paid for from the public purse who then later occupies a separate post, albeit as a volunteer with expenses paid from the public purse, which is meant to scrutinise the work that has been done previously by that same person.
This is utterly incompatible because of the risk that the full truth of what was done or was not done previously may never see the light of day. I believe it is in the public interest to ensure that officials never get the opportunity to mark their own homework. This is especially true when it comes to the substantive issues of miscarriages of justice.
We are talking about miscarriages of justice. We are talking about lives that have been ruined. We are talking about lives which have been lost and about families that no longer have their loved ones.
Deciding to ask someone with a link to a current CCRC application, whose opinion I trust, if they would see the APPG on Miscarriages of Justice differently should a member of its commission have had previous links with the CCRC, their response was startling and very revealing:
“I certainly would Faith. A commission looking at the inner workings and efficiency of the CCRC should be totally independent looking at the watchdog with open and unclouded eyes. I dread to think which kinds of bias would come into play if somebody with a past association to the CCRC were allowed to be part of the investigatory commission”
Separately, as a friend once said to me:
“Faith has stood her ground where many others have feared to tread and of course I admire this characteristic immensely but more than that, she has survived and continued her quest with renewed vigour”
I am nobody’s fool and the Ministry of Justice has left me with no alternative than to continue to take more robust action in the public interest. This in part means being willing to ask probing questions whenever I discover irregularities in the Criminal Justice System, and fully intend to continue to do so.
Photo is copyright and used with permission.
Paragraph 18. “also paid for from the public purse” deleted and replaced with: “albeit as a volunteer with expenses paid from the public purse,”
This week I was sent information issued by Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) Head of Policy and Communications Sarah Clifford, to IMB Regional Reps, Chairs and Vice Chairs detailing guidelines for all Board members.
“Following the Prime Minister’s announcement last night, Boards should not visit the establishment they monitor for any purpose and should move fully to indirect monitoring. This includes serious incidents, during which Boards should arrange to be kept in contact with the command suite via telephone. We will review the position if the Government’s approach changes following the initial three-week lockdown period.”
Indirect monitoring? There is no such thing.
Board members will now have to rely on the prison staff to pass on information, further removing any semblance of independence it ever claimed to have had.
“It is important to maintain active contact with the establishment by phone, email and other electronic means. As a minimum, Boards should ensure that every member is receiving the daily briefing from the establishment and, for prison Boards, any updates to the regime management plan”
Keeping IMB up to date
Whereas it is essential that individual boards are kept up to date indirect monitoring will, at best, be from the prison’s perspective and biased as a consequence. Very little can be verified when you are outside a prison.
On 25th March, all members were sent a comprehensive letter from the IMB Secretariat. In that letter, under the heading “Impact on prisoners/detainees – reporting mechanism”, there was this statement:
“We will be gathering Boards’ serious concerns about deteriorating conditions and treatment for prisoners/detainees caused or significantly exacerbated by the Coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak so we can bring these to ministerial/senior level attention”
How on earth are monitors meant to collect and collate information such as this if Board members cannot go into prison for their own safety?
Indirect monitoring is complete nonsense.
Under the heading “Board meetings via teleconference/videoconference” the letter stated:
“Boards now each have dedicated teleconference lines to enable meetings to take place by phone. Please note that only Skype has been cleared by the MoJ for use for Board business”
I have been informed that dedicated teleconference lines are completely different technology to Skype, which uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) running over the public internet and which is susceptible to hacking. Confidential information of a serious and official sensitive nature should not be discussed using Skype.
Posters have been issued to be stuck onto IMB application boxes showing inmates the changes in dealing with their applications. One notable detail is this:
“We will still get daily updates from senior managers, so we know what is going on in the prison”
In other words, senior managers will tell IMB only what they want them to know.
IMB boxes will be emptied by IMB clerks (MoJ staff) or prison officers (MoJ staff). The IMB clerk or member of administrative staff will scan the application and email it to the prison’s IMB who will investigate concerns.
Responses may be emailed to the IMB clerk or member of administrative staff and delivered in an envelope or it may come direct from the IMB in an envelope. But not all Boards have access to a clerk.
Many members of the IMB may be in the high-risk category due to their age, others may have children to look after. Therefore, it is inevitable that changes will need to happen to safeguard prisoners, detainees, staff, and IMB members to minimise the risk of spreading infection.
Although the situation is changing daily, I think it’s safe to say:
All scrutiny of prisons is lost for the foreseeable future
The IMB has placed itself in an impossible position; the failure of the Secretariat to assure a sufficiently diverse membership is only one of a set of longstanding issues which the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing in the full glare of public attention.
IMB National Chair Dame Anne Owers, who holds ultimate responsibility for the organisation, must urgently rethink how the IMB is to fulfill its statutory obligation to provide monitoring of the prisons in England and Wales.
UPDATE 3rd April 2020
According to www.imb.org.uk. the message has now changed:
“Dame Anne Owers, IMB National Chair, has today (30 March) written to stakeholders to update them about monitoring of prison and immigration detention during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 epidemic:
Given the significant health risks for prisoners, detainees and staff during the current COVID-19 crisis, and following the Government advice issued this week, direct monitoring activity in prisons and immigration detention has inevitably been restricted.
Boards will be able to carry out some limited on-site work where it is safe and feasible to do so. However, we have also developed remote methods of providing some independent assurance at a time of heightened concern for prisoners and detainees. This is a fast-moving situation, but we have advised Boards as follows:..
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affecting prisons, a change of direction such as this raises serious questions. How is it safer than a week ago for Board members?
Photos of Dame Anne Owers by Paul Sullivan. Used with kind permission.
People working within the Criminal Justice System will have noticed how writing or making recommendations carries little or no weight any longer. Defined as “a suggestion or proposal as to the best course of action, especially one put forward by an authoritative body”, a recommendation has few or no consequences for those delivering them or for those receiving them.
Yet those who write recommendations have no power to mandate them.
Prisons are bombarded with recommendations from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Independent Monitoring Boards, and a host of so-called arm’s length bodies.
It is remarkable that their recommendations in reality are routinely ignored, albeit officially named differently as you will see in the table. Since there appears to be no recourse and no accountability, why continue to rely on this method of scrutiny which has become ineffective and, therefore, a waste of time, effort and money?
Surely if all No 1 Governors were held personally accountable for enacting recommendations given to them then maybe there would be more action. Instead it is like a carousel, where certain Governors get away with the appearance of activity before being moved to another prison or a newly created role at HQ. After all, why work hard on recommendations when you can use a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card? Meanwhile, the mess they leave behind them is inherited by successive Governors.
On 25th February 2020, I attended the ‘Keeping Safe’ conference organised by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP). I’m telling you this because it perfectly illustrated to me how recommendations in and of themselves are futile.
For example, under the section on the agenda ‘Learning from reports and recommendations to prevent future death’ we heard from representatives from four prominent organisations, including Jonathan Tickner representing HM Inspectorate of Prisons who stated that in the last reporting period 14 prisons were inspected and none had been rated “good” in the safety aspect.
In each inspection recommendations are given. I decided to look at recommendations and to analyse how many were achieved. I chose those same 14 prisons inspected in 2019 and noticed huge variations which I’ve summed up in the table below:
Sue McAllister, Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), raised some relevant points about policies not being good enough on their own and action plans not being good enough in response to PPO recommendations, like a tick box exercise. However, if there is no follow up on whether recommendations have been adhered to, or no consequences of not following up recommendations, then nothing has been achieved and the whole process is worthless.
In the 12 months to September 2019 there have been:
308 deaths in custody (6 every week)
90 self-inflicted deaths (1 every 4 days)
8 deaths in women’s prisons
We should be ashamed of ourselves. Those of us working in or for the Criminal Justice System must share a collective burden for the failure to keep people safe, sometimes from themselves.
According to ‘Deaths in prison: A national scandal‘ published January 2020 by Inquest:
This report identifies areas for the immediate reform within and outside of the prison system and concludes with recommendations to end deaths caused by unsafe systems of custody. (Inquest, 2020, p. 3)
As you can see, there is no shortage of recommendations.
Nobody knows which custodial sentence will become a death sentence.
The point is some do but none ever should.
Is it any wonder the MoJ has reformulated its mission statement from:
“Her Majesty’s Prison serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law abiding and useful lives in custody and after release”
To how it reads today, portraying itself as a sterile, uncaring, faceless organisation.
“The Ministry of Justice is a major government department, at the heart of the justice system. We work to protect and advance the principles of justice. Our vision is to deliver a world-class justice system that works for everyone in society”
“The organisation works together and with other government departments and agencies to bring the principles of justice to life for everyone in society. From our civil courts, tribunals and family law hearings, to criminal justice, prison and probation services. We work to ensure that sentences are served, and offenders are encouraged to turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens. We believe the principles of justice are pivotal and we are steadfast in our shared commitment to uphold them”
When you look long enough at failure rate of recommendations, you realise that the consequences of inaction have been dire. And will continue to worsen whilst we have nothing more compelling at our disposal than writing recommendations or making recommendations.
Recommendations have their place but there needs to be something else, something with teeth, something with gravitas way beyond a mere recommendation.
Show me a system where action is mandatory, where action has a named owner assigned to it, where action has a timeline attached to it, and where action is backed by empowerment to deliver it and I’ll show you a system which functions better than the one in operation today in the Criminal Justice System obsessed with recommendations.
Culture is what you do when no one is watching.
Integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.
I found it very telling that the most poignant part of the conference came with the stories and sadness from families who had lost loved ones and to learn that every 4 days a person takes their own life in custody. If the changes being recommended were changes being mandated, who knows how many deaths could have been averted?
Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, arrived early enough to have heard from those family members. He talked about working together with shared humanity and wanting to be notified personally of all deaths and the circumstances surrounding each one, which of course he already is. In closing his speech Mr Buckland said:
“As we continue to work together during my tenure as the Secretary of State, please know that my door is always open to those who want to make a difference”
It’s time to put him to the test on that.
But don’t go in with recommendations; go in with a plan for action.
Photos of Robert Buckland QC MP and Sue McAllister, both by Paul Sullivan. Used with kind permission.
Monopoly Board Game, 2006 Hasbro. Photo by the author.
For many years I have struggled with the concept of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) being actually independent.
This is an organisation which was based at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) HQ, Petty France for many years, but now shares open plan offices in a Government Hub at Canary Wharf alongside HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), Parole Board for England and Wales and the Lay Observers Secretariat.
The introduction of IMB’s new Governance structure, where the role of President was replaced by a Chair and an additional layer of management, has failed to persuade me otherwise.
Dame Anne Owers, formerly Chair of The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and prior to that Chief Inspector of Prisons (2001-2010), took up the role of National Chair of the IMB in November 2017.
We appear to differ on the definition of independence. Or do we? Across a committee room in the House of Lords, she and I exchanged glances as soon as the word “independence” was mentioned. I get the impression she knows it’s not.
Does it matter that the IMB is not independent?
It unquestionably matters because an application to the IMB requires a response within a certain time frame from an “independent” voice. But as the IMB is a department of the Ministry of Justice any problems or issues highlighted cannot be dealt with in a proper manner if they are basically monitoring themselves. The phrase “marking their own homework” comes to mind.
Is this the reason why the IMB does not have any real powers?
The IMB was established by statute (Offender Management Act 2007, Section 26), unlike the National Chair or the Management Board, neither of which are statutory entities. IMB responsibilities within prisons are set out in Section 6 of the Prison Act 1952 (as amended), Prison Rules Part V 1999, and Young Offenders Institution Rules Part V 2000.
In addition, IMB responsibilities in the Immigration Detention Estate (IDE) are set out in Section 152 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, the Detention Centre Rules Part IV 2001 and the Short-term Holding Facilities Rules Part 7 2018.
In Summer 2019, MoJ and IMB co-produced a 23-page document “Protocol between The Ministry of Justice as the department and the Management Board of the Independent Monitoring Boards” A copy is available via this page of the IMB website.
This is where it gets interesting.
This protocol was drawn up by the MoJ and the Management Board of the IMB, setting out the role of each body in relation to the other. Furthermore, it sets out the responsibilities of the principal individuals running, sponsoring and overseeing the IMB Secretariat.
At this point, it’s relevant to look at the IMB structure:
First, we have the National Chair: Dame Anne Owers, appointed by the Secretary of State for Justice (Ministerial appointment) and a non-statutory public appointment
Second, there is the IMB Management Board, appointed by the National Chair which sets out the overall strategy and corporate business plans for the IMB (Protocol, p. 2: 1.3)
Both work with and through a regional representative’s network also appointed by the National Chair, providing support and guidance to the IMB.
Third, we come to the IMB Secretariat, a team of MoJ civil servants providing the IMB with administrative and policy support. This team is tasked by the National Chair and Management Board
It is the National Chair, Management Board and regional representatives that have the responsibility for the operation of this protocol. Yet with all the effort in its production this protocol does not confer any legal powers or responsibilities (Protocol, p.2: 1.6).
This protocol is approved by the Permanent Secretary of the MoJ, who is Sir Richard Heaton, and the sponsoring Minister. It is signed and dated by the Permanent Secretary (i.e. Sir Richard Heaton) and the National Chair (i.e. Dame Anne Owers).
But why should the independence of the IMB, the National Chair and the Management Board be of paramount importance? (Protocol, p.4: 3.1)
Let me try to answer this succinctly.
The IMB is part of the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), designated by the Government to meet the obligations of the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).
To be part of the OPCAT, it is necessary to be independent (Part I, Art 1; Part II, Art 5.6; Part IV, Art 17; Part VII, Art 35).
NPMs are required to be functionally and operationally independent. Therefore, the IMB is required to be functionally and operationally independent.
IMBs are sponsored by MoJ
National Chair is a ministerial appointment
IMBs receive funding through the MoJ and the Home Office
MoJ is responsible for ensuring the use of funds meets the standards of governance, decision-making and financial management, as set out in Managing Public Money 2013 revised 2018
The head of the IMB Secretariat accounts to the Principal Accounting Officer (PAO) for the appropriate use of resources
The PAO is the Permanent Secretary of the MoJ (Sir Richard Heaton) and is responsible for ensuring that IMB meets the standards set out in Managing Public Money
MoJ has appointed a sponsorship team
The sponsorship team is drawn from the Sponsorship of Independent Bodies Team in the MoJ’s Policy, Communications and Analysis Group. Its policy responsibilities are to act as the policy interface for the IMBs and assurance responsibilities are to act as a “critical friend” to the IMBs
The Head of the IMB Secretariat is a civil servant and employee of the MoJ and has accountability for IMB finances
It appears throughout this document that the MoJ exerts operational and functional control of the IMB. If that is the case then it is not independent, cannot call itself “Independent” and questions should now be asked concerning its membership of NPM and OPCAT.
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.
MoJ and HM Inspectorate Prisons Download PDF
Dated: 10 Oct 2019
Signed: Heaton 30 Sep 2019 and Clarke 14 Oct 2019
Can you see the common denominator between all these protocols?
NB. The Protocol between MoJ and HMI Prisons was promised by the Ministry to the Commons Justice Select Committee back in March 2016.
How/why did your involvement in the CJS come about?
I turned down my place to study for a degree and instead moved from Lincolnshire to Essex at the age of 19. My first “proper” job was in admin with NACRO in Colchester. I worked primarily in wages and finance. At that point NACRO provided 6 months work placements in painting and decorating or in gardening teams etc for those who had just come out of prison. I heard amazing stories from those men and some brought newspaper cuttings to show me of their various escapades, including a headline “Most wanted man in Britain” They made me laugh and some made me shed a few tears. But for me I had many questions that were never answered.
What happens after 6 months?
What about their families, how can they support them financially?
Was this really a way for integration back into society?
Why is only manual labour available?
Fast forward 25 years, I was accepted into University. I became a full-time student studying Criminology with 2 kids at school, 1 at college, a part time job and my husband working full time and studying also, I embarked on a very busy 3 years of multi-tasking!
For my first presentation I chose to speak on Women in prison and the Corston report, I researched thoroughly but was marked down because no one was interested in prisons and especially not women in prison, it was deemed not an exciting enough subject. Great start. My next presentation was about Restorative Justice and yet again I was questioned as to why I was interested, one lecturer even said, “What’s that?”. A pattern was emerging of my interest into those within the CJS and those that had been released increased. I was not put off and in my 3rd year the title for my dissertation was: Restorative Justice: Is it delivering strategic change in England and Wales or just a cost cutting exercise by the Government?
To understand the significance of Restorative Justice I arranged interviews with experts in the UK, NZ and USA, even Howard Zehr widely regarded as the Grandfather of RJ agreed to help. I consumed document after document on RJ and was a frequent visitor at the Cambridge University Library, floor 6 (those stairs almost killed me!) and the Institute of Criminology Library.
I graduated with an honours degree in Criminology and looked for my next step.
I joined the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay and in just three years became the Chair.
I wrote about the things I saw and heard but what I didn’t expect was what happened next. I was confronted with a prejudicial character assassination brought against me, a fight to clear my name, being investigated twice by the Ministry of Justice, called in front of a disciplinary hearing in Petty France and the involvement of not one but two Prison Ministers. I felt that I was on my own against a bastion of chauvinism. Not the last bastion of their kind I would come across. Welcome to the IMB!
My continuing journey can be found in my blog: The Criminal Justice Blog www.faithspear.wordpress.com
Because my story is fairly unique it has been covered by BBC News, Channel 4 News, BBC Radio Oxford, BBC Radio Suffolk, 5Live, LBC as well as National and Local newspapers, law journals and online publications etc.
Religion is clearly important to you, what role does God play in your life?
I remember going to Chapel with my grandparents as a young child and hearing my Dad and Grandfather sing the old hymns with deep sincerity. Christianity has always been part of my life. My faith in God has often been tested.
How do you balance work and life responsibilities?
I often say I’m a Mum first, always have been always will be. My husband and my kids are the most important people in my life, I have a great relationship with them all. They understand who I am and what motivates me to do what I do. They understand the bigger picture and that for me it is a cause and not merely a job. That in itself I realise is exceptional and I find I am continually grateful because I know that the level of family support I have is sadly not available to everyone. I can’t do this stuff on my own. They are also aware of the work I do behind the scenes and the many hours of support I give freely.
What role, if any, has luck played in your life?
Things happens for a reason, we don’t always know or understand the reason why. We all have issues to face and hurdles to climb and times of joy and celebration. Luck doesn’t fit in my life at all.
Not only have you been a source of inspiration to me in certain areas, I have also seen you inspire others and would like to know who inspired, or inspires you and why?
A few years ago, I wrote a journal article with a friend of mine, Dr David Scott about a remarkable woman, Lady Constance Lytton, commemorating 100 years since her book Prisons and Prisoners was published. In it she presented one of the most significant challenges to 20th Century anti-suffrage politics. Her book is a harrowing personal account of her four prison sentences as a militant suffragette. It is also a compelling insight into the mind of a young woman consumed by a cause which would prove to be instrumental in prison reform and votes for women, as well as tragically being a contributory factor to her death. My inspiration, which comes from her being consumed by a cause, makes me wonder if that is still possible. This wasn’t a phase she was going through or a pastime, it was a lifestyle.
I admire her courage and determination. I see this in so few people but when I find it, it is unmistakable. Let me give you an example, Tracy Edwards MBE. At the age of 26 she was the skipper for the first all-female crew for the Whitbread Round the World Race. It is not so much the fact that she sailed around the world, although that in itself is remarkable, but it is the reason why that I find compelling. She said “First time in my life I stood up for something I believed in” I have met and chatted with Tracy, she is an inspiration to me without a doubt.
What would you say is your greatest accomplishment and/or achievement is?
I think that my greatest accomplishment is staying true to myself, maintaining integrity and not bowing to pressure to conform.
In terms of my greatest achievement let me give you a couple of examples. First, being nominated for the Contrarian prize 2017 especially when you realise the key criteria that the judges look for are Independence, Courage and Sacrifice.
Second, last year I was deeply moved and excited to learn that I had been counted as one of the 100 inspirational Suffolk women alongside people such as Dame Millicent Fawcett.
As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?
On one of my visits to the House of Parliament I took time to seek out one of the most outspoken MP’s known for saying it as it is. I sat down next to Dennis Skinner and asked him a very simple question. I asked, “How do you get heard in this place?”. Mr Skinner looked me straight in the eye and offered me advice I will never forget. With his characteristic directness, he said, “You have to be seen to be heard”. I’ve taken his advice and applied it to all I do. This has not come naturally to me as people who know me will tell you.
Everybody wants to have their say and everyone has an opinion. But there is a big difference between those who say their piece ad nauseum and those who have something to say.
In one sense all that people have heard from me so far is simply learning to overcome the barriers of not being heard. When I have learned enough then I am sure I will have gained the clarity with what I have to say.
If you were given the prisons and probation ministers role, what changes would you make?
I would scrap the titan prison building programme and instead invest in smaller local units, making families more accessible and start to break down the barriers between those in prison and those on the outside.
I would encourage industry to step out of their comfort zone and give more people with convictions a second chance. To remove the stigma of a criminal record so that it is not forever hanging around people’s necks. We are a deeply divided and hurt society that is full of prejudges.
I would ban all industries within prisons that do not provide purposeful activities and a decent wage. People need to be work ready on release with housing and job options already in place. Families should be able to stay together and be supported, children should be prioritised.
I would make sure everyone working within the CJS were trained sufficiently for their roles and supported in their jobs.
As a prisons minister you can only change what is in your field of influence to change. In other words, you need to be precise, you need be pragmatic and you need to learn whose advice you can trust. Then act on it.
One of my priorities as Prisons Minister would be to take advice to demonstrate better things to invest in. Diversion, or Restorative Justice or Community.
Put money into early years, into youth etc.
We have to stop this madness of believing that we can change people and their behaviour by banging them up in warehouse conditions with little to do and not enough to eat and sanitation from a previous century.
As Prisons Minister I would initiate change that would lead to every prison Governor carrying personal accountability for the way they run the prisons they are responsible for. It’s not their prison, its ours and they must run it properly, giving people in their care decent conditions and personal dignity regardless of what crime the courts have sent them to prison for. The moment Governors carry that personal accountability is the moment you will see astonishing changes in HMPPS.
I will ensure under performing Governors leave the service and are not continually rotated around the prison estate or promoted to more senior positions. They have to know the weight of the accountability they carry.
Finally, what are you hopes and aspirations for the future of the criminal justice, and also for you?
Transparency and Accountability should underline every decision made. No more carpets where issues are swept under. No more excuses for the crisis within the system. We talk too much, we deliberate too much and have too many committees. There are too many roundtable events, conferences, discussions where everyone is saying they are experts yet so much remains the same. We produce too many reports, reviews and paperwork that gets filed away. Now is the time for action, for investment in people and for priorities to change. Lets just get on with it and stop competing and instead work toward a common objective, such as drastically reducing the prison population
In the next five years, I will continue to speak up truthfully and will add my voice to the very many voices calling for change. I will support policies introduced by the current Prisons and Probation Minister or by their successor where those policies do bring about real change. However, I shall not hesitate in bringing a strong critique where those policies gloss over the hard questions or where they shirk the implementation of measures for real reform. I will finish on this:
Vision is often personal, but a cause is bigger than any one individual
People don’t generally die for a vision, but they will die for a cause
Vision is something you possess, a cause possess you
Vision doesn’t eliminate the options; a cause leaves you without any options
A good vision may out live you, but a cause is eternal
Vision will generate excitement, but a cause generates power
[Adapted from Houston (2001)]
The Wales Governance Centre, a research centre and part of Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics undertakes innovative research into all aspects of the law, politics, government and political economy of Wales.
This week they released a report: Sentencing and Imprisonment in Wales 2018 Factfile by Dr Robert Jones
Before looking at this report, lets put things in context by referring to the first unannounced inspection by HMIP of HMP Berwyn in March 2019. Here it is reported that “impressive” support procedures are in place for new arrivals. Positive note. However, use of force was considerably higher than at similar prisons and 1 in 4 prisoners (23%) told HMIP that they felt unsafe. Alarm bells?
Below are the four tests when inspecting a prison, Safety, Respect, Purposeful activity and Rehabilitation and release planning. Not the best outcome for the first inspection.
Safety: Outcomes for prisoners were not sufficiently good against this healthy prison test.
Respect: Outcomes for prisoners were reasonably good against this healthy prison test.
Purposeful activity: Outcomes for prisoners were not sufficiently good against this healthy prison test.
Rehabilitation and release planning: Outcomes for prisoners were not sufficiently good against this healthy prison test.
HMP Berwyn prison has only been open just over 2 years, hasn’t reached full capacity and has its 3rd governing Governor.
Now let’s look at some of the facts revealed that are not easy reading
The number of self-harm incidents
2017 = 231
2018 = 542
Self-harm incidents rose by 135% in 2018
Rate of self-harm: (48 per 100 prisoners)
This is what the Government website states:
“Self-harm may occur at any stage of custody, when prisoners are trying to deal with difficult and complex emotions. This could be to punish themselves, express their distress or relieve unbearable tension or aggression. Sometimes the reason is a mixture of these. Self-harm can also be a cry for help, and should never be ignored or trivialised” https://www.gov.uk/guidance/suicide-self-harm-prevention-in-prison
This is what the HMIP report states:
“The strategic management of suicide and self harm required improvement. Strategic meetings were poorly attended and too little was done to analyse, understand and take action to address the causes of self-harm. Most of the at-risk prisoners on assessment, care in custody and teamwork (ACCT) case management did not feel sufficiently cared for. ACCT documents required improvement, and initial assessments and care plans were weak”
Yet below are more uncomfortable facts showing that this prison is not just dangerous for prisoners but for staff too. Nothing to celebrate here.
The number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults rose by 338% in 2018
Rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults: (20 per 100 prisoners)
The number of assaults on staff at HMP Berwyn increased by 405% in 2018
Rate of recorded assaults on staff (18 per 100 prisoners)
You would think that a new prison would have a security department second to none, with little chance of items being brought in. Yet these figures show that weapons, drugs, alcohol and tobacco are increasingly being found. Some may say hats off to the staff for finding these items, but really there’s still no cause for celebration…
The number of incidents where weapons were found in prison, years ending
March 2017 = 1
March 2018 =25
March 2019 Berwyn = 138
The rate of weapon finds (11 per 100 prisoners) year ending March 2019
This was the highest rate per prisoners in all prisons in Wales, astonishing. Serious problems with security.
The number of drug finds at HMP Berwyn increased by 328% in the year ending March 2019 (prison population increased by 67% during this period)
The rate of drug finds (16 per 100 prisoners)
Where are the robust measures to stop drugs coming into the prison?
The number of incidents where alcohol was found in HMP Berwyn years ending March
2017 = 0
2018 = 21
2019 = 146
Alcohol finds at HMP Berwyn rose by 595% (prison population increased by 67% during this period)
Rate of alcohol finds (12 per 100 prisoners) year ending March 2019.
Yet again the highest rate of alcohol finds in all the prisons in Wales
The number of incidents where tobacco was found in HMP Berwyn years ending March
2018 = 20
2019 = 61
Rate of tobacco finds (5 per 100 prisoners)
The prison is covered in photos of Wales and the countryside, everywhere you look there is a motivational quote, there are flowers, bees, greenhouses yet one in 4 prisoners didn’t feel safe.
Comfy chairs in reception, pretty pictures, colourful décor does not appear to contribute to the safety of HMP Berwyn.
Motivational quotes such as “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows not the flower” means nothing if a quarter of the population feel unsafe.
Prisons can be austere places, drab, filthy, old and not fit for purpose. But here we have a new prison with serious problems. There can be no excuse that these are teething problems, we are talking about peoples lives.
Remember the Berwyn Values?
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
Is this just a marketing ploy, designed for a feel-good factor, making us all think that the money spent on this Titan prison was worth every penny?
Independent monitors have praised the work of staff at HMP Berwyn describing their efforts to establish a new prison as a ‘considerable achievement” (Recent comment by IMB) After this shocking report, what will they now say? Or will they remain silent?
I don’t doubt there are some hard working, diligent and caring staff. In fact, I met some on my visit last year. But when the prison opened in 2017 over 90% of staff had never worked in a prison before. When you have prisoners arriving from over 60 prisons all with different regimes, you find they have far more experience of the prison estate than the majority of prison officers.
But more worryingly is that the Government is continuing with its programme of building new prisons. A new prison will be built in Wellingborough as part of the Government’s Prison Estate Transformation Programme. I’ve read gushing articles on how this prison will benefit the community etc, similar to when HMP Berwyn began construction. Just like HMP Berwyn there are many promises and opportunities, but theory and practice can be a million miles apart.
Is whistleblowing a band wagon to jump onto?
Usually you don’t suddenly wake up in the morning and say, “Today I’m going to be a whistle-blower”. The negative connotations surrounding whistleblowing such as being an informant, betrayer, or even a backstabber is not something to aspire to.
Yet, these descriptions cannot truly explain why there are those in the minority that will put their head above the parapet, will risk their reputation and often lose their job through speaking out.
So, have we become largely a society that will cower rather than stand up, do we lack courage or integrity or both?
Fear of reprisals can cause us to retreat, to stay silent but in so doing are we not being true to ourselves. It takes more than just determination to be vocal about issues you are passionate about. Unfortunately, when living in such a punitive society, the norm is to shut people down rather than to listen.
Having sat at an employment tribunal with an experienced Prison Officer listening to their case of dismissal, my thoughts were not that they wanted revenge, not at all. I saw passion, I heard a very determined individual with a story that has affected not only their work, their life but possibly their health too.
It’s too easy for society to ignore the reality in our prisons in England and Wales, where violence, instability and a lack of investment over decades has reduced them to warehouses of the vulnerable. Numerous are inhumane and on the point of crisis.
Equally, let’s not point the finger at those that want transparency in the Criminal Justice System, instead we should push for accountability and not lose sight that one day those in prison may be a loved one or will become our neighbour.
Time to stop shooting the messenger
Recently I met Michael Woodford, the inaugural winner of the Contrarian Prize and former CEO of Olympus who exposed a $1.7 billion fraud at the heart of Olympus and was sacked for doing so. He had more than most to lose by speaking out.
According to: https://www.gov.uk/whistleblowing
“As a whistleblower you’re protected by law – you should not be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’.
You can raise your concern at any time about an incident that happened in the past, is happening now, or you believe will happen in the near future”
But is this really so?
It also states:
“You’re a whistleblower if you’re a worker and you report certain types of wrongdoing”
But what if you are a volunteer?
Yes, you work and often very hard, but where is the protection mechanism?
In my experience, being a volunteer for many years offers little protection especially when dealing with the Ministry of Justice. Even going through the “normal” channels produces little response. Suddenly people become hard of hearing, blind to what is happening all around them and stick their heads in the sand.
I’m not like that, I am very aware of many untold stories and issues within the justice system.
I put my head above the parapet once, I have no regrets even now still living with the consequences.
I would do it again.
And plan to do shortly!
As the second anniversary rapidly approaches of the disciplinary hearing I stood in front of in Petty France, my heart tries not to sink.
Yes, I am still banned from being a member of the IMB, just over three years to go.
I am often asked if I would want to join again, I can honestly say in its current form, no, not at all. I want to see a monitoring board that is truly independent not just in title but in actions, the prisoner’s perceptions and their Annual Reports.
I miss the work, it was work to me and I took it seriously even though the Governor once said, “you don’t work here, you are a volunteer” This kind of attitude stinks and shows how little he regarded the IMB.
Even now many IMB members face opposition from their boards when they stand up and challenge the “but we always do it that way” brigade. It’s not good enough.
I recently chatted to an IMB member who recognised me and wanted to meet and was keen to explain that she had tried to implement some of my suggestions, such as out of hours visits. But that hadn’t gone down well with her board, apparently nothing happens outside of office hours in a prison and there’s nothing to see, therefore, IMB members are not needed. A short-sighted response. I have heard it before and I’m sure I will hear it again.
My article for the Prisons Handbook 2016 is just as relevant today as it was two and a half years ago when it was first published. There are still the same questions and very few answers.
Although the new Governance structure appears to be a re-package concept with little bite, there is a hint of optimism.
I haven’t given up, I haven’t disappeared into one of the many cracks of the Criminal Justice System, I am aware that some would want that to happen. Too bad.
I am very much alive and kicking.
I have a voice and I use it.
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.