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Recommendations are futile

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.

Sue McAllister, Prison and Probation Ombudsman

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”

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ministry-of-justice/about

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.

Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Photo by Paul Sullivan.

Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

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.

 

~

Credits:

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. 

Over 60,000 allocated visits in prisons by the IMB

Did you know that there are between 60-65,000 allocated visits by the IMB to Prisons and Immigration Removal Centres each year?

This allocation is dependent on the money available for expenses such as travel and subsistence. But that is not the actual number of visits.

I can reveal to you for the first time that since April 2016 HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay, an open Cat D prison, only achieved 58% of its allocated visits.

That cannot be effective monitoring and yet the MoJ has repeatedly told me that effective monitoring is going on there. Really?

How many more prisons do not satisfy their allocations?

If the projected percentage of allocated visits turns out to be 58% in terms of actual visits across the custodial estate then monitoring in YOIs, HMPs and IRCs is dangerously low. It also means that this part of the National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) is dysfunctional.

The IMB is very topical on Twitter now and that’s not just because of my story.

There are many vacancies on boards from Cat D open prisons to closed and remand prisons. It’s not a glamorous job, you need passion, determination, time, and a true interest in the welfare of prisoners and the mechanisms of the prison estate. Oh and you won’t get paid, there are no guarantees that your voice will be heard and there is a lack of support from IMB Secretariat. If you can get beyond all that, apply.

Some IMB members only visit wings to retrieve applications from the IMB boxes and perhaps to speak to those that have asked to see them. But if the IMB members are regarded by prisoners as practically useless,  having no influence and are part of the MoJ then what are tax payers paying for?

Annual Reports

Every IMB is required to write an Annual Report. However, by the time it is published it is so out of date that it precludes any chance of swift meaningful action to resolve issues and will be filed away to collect dust just as previous years.

Am I being harsh? NO.

I have spent hours and hours preparing, collating, and writing Annual Reports. I was determined that the 2015/16 Annual Report for HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay would be different, that it would not be cut and paste as previous years. But there will be no Annual Report for 2015/16. I don’t even know where all the preparations went it was abandoned when the HBIMB ambushed me on 19th April and ostracised me in reprisal for speaking out for reform.

I recently learned that HMP Doncaster didn’t publish an Annual Report and it does not even have an IMB board. When the Chair left the board followed and it then had to rely on members from other prisons dual boarding.

So how many other IMB’s are suffering from similar dilemmas?

Updated 07 March 2017

Its even worse at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay than I revealed when I posted this blog on Sunday.

Information made available to me show new figures for the actual number of visits is even lower.

Allocated visits were 354 actual were 204. New figures allocated visits 354 actual were 196. 

Just 55%, Lousy performance means that when monitoring is not effective it places people in custody and people who work there at higher risk.

 

 

 

We don’t just need a vision, we need a cause!

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“She’s no rebel and she’s got a cause”

In the space of 6 weeks I have written an article which has been published in The Prisons Handbook 2016, just before the Prime Ministers speech. I have been interviewed by Ian Dunt with an article put on politics.co.uk, been in my local paper with a 2 page spread, had a front page article in Converse prison newspaper, had an interview with another newspaper with an article ready for the next months edition… If I can achieve all this in just 6 weeks, just imagine what could be achieved in 6 months or a year?. It’s all about going at pace.

It’s not always about what you have achieved in the past, although it does help. But it’s about what you can/will/want to do in the future.

Can’t abide being held back because of what I haven’t done yet. Especially when I’m at the start of something significant and have plenty of passion, energy and drive for what is to come.

And despite the knock backs, to keep a sense of humour.

Yes I have mainly worked with vulnerable adults and children before, but we all have a vulnerable side to us. Some are able to reveal it, others not, some it leads to being a victim and others it leads them into criminal activity.

Have you noticed how quick some people are to judge others,  put you into boxes and to categorise? I hope you won’t judge my life by the chapter you just walked in on.

Prisons are no different.

Many problems arise when people enter the prison system and then leave in a worse state than when they arrived.

Why after all the money pumped into prisons is this happening?

Profits are made out of prisoners, we all know that.

How many reviews, reports can you count over the last say 10 years that involve prisoners?

There have been countless

How many organisations do you know that work hard to bring reform to prisons and prisoners?

There are countless

How much money has been spent on prison reform?

Countless

On 8th February, the Prime Minister set out a vision for prison reform. Mr Cameron said:

This system will be hard to change because it is, in some ways, still stuck in the dark ages – with old buildings, old thinking and old ways of doing things.

So I don’t want to go slow here – I want us to get on with proper, full-on prison reform.

Today, 27th May the Public Accounts Committee report warns that the criminal justice system is close to breaking point:

Report summary

  • The criminal justice system is close to breaking point.
  • Lack of shared accountability and resource pressures mean that costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another and the system suffers from too many delays and inefficiencies.
  • There is insufficient focus on victims, who face a postcode lottery in their access to justice due to the significant variations in performance in different areas of the country.

Criminal justice system “already overstretched”

  • The system is already overstretched and we consider that the Ministry of Justice has exhausted the scope to make more cuts without further detriment to performance.
  • The Government is implementing reforms to improve the system but we are concerned that users of the system won’t see the full benefit for another four years.
  • There are opportunities for the Ministry to make improvements before then, including better sharing of good practice and making sure that everyone is getting things right first time.

Click to access 72.pdf

But what is the answer?

(If I had the answer I would be a very rich woman!)

Over the last few years I have visited every category of prison, YOI and Women’s. I have sat behind the Right hon. Michael Gove MP whilst he has been in front of the Justice Select Committee twice. I have attended meeting after meeting in Westminster, attended conferences, training courses, lectures, seminars etc. at my own cost.

Why?

I want to learn, I want to understand but most of all I want answers to the questions I have posed.

I also want to be a part of the change that is so desperately needed in our prisons.

We don’t just need a vision, we need a cause!

Vision is often personal, but a cause is bigger than any one individual

People don’t generally die for a vision, but they will die for a cause

Vision is something you possess, a cause possess you

Vision doesn’t eliminate the options; a cause leaves you without any options

A good vision may out live you, but a cause is eternal

Vision will generate excitement, but a cause generates power

[Adapted from Houston (2001)]

Houston, B. (2001) For this Cause: Finding the meaning of life and living a life of meaning. Castle Hill: Maximised Leadership Inc.

Problems at YOI’s? send in the dogs!

After being inundated with tweets concerning Feltham YOI, it’s time to take a step back and consider what really is happening and what could be done about it.

Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release http://hmprisonservice.gov.uk/abouttheservice/statementofpurpose/  Believe it or not this is part of the statement of purpose for the prison service! This clearly is not the case.

There are limitations to  current penal system  with problems of overcrowding and high levels of recidivism. But that is no excuse for locking up children for at least 18 hours per day. How can this treatment help in the rehabilitation of young offenders? And what about them leading “law-abiding and useful lives in custody”?

According to the Independent : http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/inside-feltham-why-londons-young-offender-institution-is-one-of-the-scariest-prisons-in-britain-8788635.html Last month, though, the present chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, wrote what the Howard League for Penal Reform called the worst dispatch from any such institution in more than a decade. “There is no concealing the fact that this report is one of the most concerning we have published recently,” Hardwick wrote. He painted a picture of aimlessness, and hopelessness, and endemic gang violence. If you were a parent with a child locked up there, he told this newspaper, “you would be right to be terrified”.

Later Nick Hardwick stated…“I don’t think this is just a Feltham problem, it’s a wider problem. We need to get our heads around what we are going to do with these very damaged boys, because simply punishing them, well, it doesn’t work. It absolutely doesn’t work.”

According to the Halliday Report (Home Office, 2001)

  1. Sentences are more severe
  2. Judges and magistrates award more custody
  3. Average length of custodial sentences are 50% longer then 10-15 years ago
  4. Magistrates sentencing significantly higher proportion to custody

So what now?

The Howard League is driving a  campaign for justice for children. They want to raise the minimum  age of criminal responsibility and ensure that society engages the child  behind the crime. They also believe that too many children are in prison. Through  their projects such as U R Boss they aim to give children a voice and work to improve the treatment and conditions for children in custody. http://www.howardleague.org/key-issues/

Send in the dogs?

YOI Warren Hill in Suffolk houses young offenders with a variety of problems and backgrounds. It is here that an old dog known as Eddie visits each week to help those inmates that need a bit of therapy. Eddie is part of the “Pets as Therapy Dogs” and gives the lads the unconditional love of an animal that is one of the things that are most missed aspects of their lives when they enter prison.

Home Office (2001) Making Punishments Work. London: Home Office [Online] Available at: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/halliday-report-sppu/