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Please leave a message after the tone…

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.

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Just how ‘independent’ is the Independent Monitoring Board?

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.

Yet:

  • 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

In conclusion

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.

 

Related Links

Protocols:

MoJ and HM Inspectorate Probation Download PDF
20 pages
Dated: 17 Apr 2018
Signed: Heaton 17 Apr 2018 and Stacey 02 May 2018
Published: 17 May 2018

MoJ and PPO Download PDF
19 pages
Dated: 01 Mar 2019
Signed: Heaton 20 Feb 2019 and McAllister 27 Feb 2019
Published: 12 Mar 2019

MoJ and IMB Download PDF
23 pages
Dated: 25 Jul 2019
Signed: Heaton 11 Jul 2019 and Owers 25 Jul 2019
Published: 14 Aug 2019

MoJ and HM Inspectorate Prisons Download PDF
24 pages
Dated: 10 Oct 2019
Signed: Heaton 30 Sep 2019 and Clarke 14 Oct 2019
Published:

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.

 

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This article was first published in Converse, November 2019 print edition and The Prison Oracle on 14 October 2019.

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The paralysis of too many priorities.

 

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.

thatcher-07-sept-2016-100546

Thatcher Room, 07 Sept 2016

 

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.

Faith Spear

Faith Spear

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.

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This is not a game; prisons reform is essential

Now the debacle inside HMP / YOI Hollesley Bay IMB has a Government Minister involved.

On 26 May 2016, Prisons Minister Andrew Selous (Twitter @AndrewSelous ) wrote to me by letter to inform me he had decided to suspend me. You can read his letter for yourself here.

Letter Selous to Spear 26 May 2016

I reflected carefully on what he said and the next day wrote a letter of reply back to him. You can read my letter to Mr Selous for yourself here.*

CLICK TO DOWNLOAD :   Letter Spear to Selous 02 Jul 2016 public

LetterSpearToSelous

 

Don’t shoot the messenger

It has already been established that I needed no permissions to write about prison reform in The Prisons Handbook 2016, neither did I need any permission to speak to the media (see 1st and 2nd bullet points about ‘East Anglian Daily Times‘ and ‘Inside Time‘).

The reply to a request under the Freedom of Information Act to MOJ by Mark Leech, publisher of The Prisons Handbook 2016, makes that point abundantly clear. And in so doing I think answers the pretexts cited by Mr Selous in his justification for suspending me.

As a public official I acted in the public interest.

When Mr Selous “shot the messenger” he also shot himself in the foot.

The treatment I am currently receiving from Ministry of Justice is wearing very thin on me, frankly. Nonetheless, I remain level-headed and undeterred from speaking up when it comes to prison reform. This is not a game; prison reform is essential, overdue and a cause which the public cares deeply about.

Faith Spear

Faith Spear

I look forward with great interest to receiving the reply from Mr Selous along with the copy of the report he received from The Secretariat.

In the meantime, uppermost in my mind is the key issue of what monitoring is taking place in HMP and YOI Hollesley Bay?

If you are concerned I’d recommend you contact Mr Selous to ask the question. You can also contact Dr Therese Coffey MP (Twitter @theresecoffey) if you live in the constituency of Suffolk Coastal where Hollesley Bay is located.

Assuring ongoing independent monitoring is surely an vital operational issue that Mr Selous must prioritise finding a solution to, probably before going out on his EU Referendum circus campaign.

*yes, I know, the letter carries a July date instead of June. Typo was mine but other than my home address it is unredacted. Warts and all. 

Blog last edited: 08 June

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