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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.
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.
This month marks one year since I sat in front of a disciplinary hearing at Petty France.
I had stood up and spoken out publicly on the state of our prisons and the state of the Independent Monitoring Boards that has a statutory role within each prison. Some may think I was too severe, and undermined the work that was done by volunteers. Others praised me for being brave enough to speak out as they were too fearful to face the consequences themselves.
I spoke from my experience and I spoke the truth. Seriously, the IMB is a shambles for the main part, a weak voiceless organisation that purports to be independent. Yes, there are some serious members that care about their role but blink and you will miss them! It’s not independent by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a department of the Ministry of Justice based at the MoJ headquarters Petty France.
I didn’t have to appear at the disciplinary hearing, the MoJ/IMB could have made a decision on my future as a Chairman of an IMB without my presence. I was determined to be there and try to uncover the ridiculous allegations against me. What a farce it was. I had been suspended from my role for 8 months and during that time was investigated twice by the MoJ.
During the investigation, I learnt that the article I wrote “Whistle blower without a whistle” in the Prisons Handbook 2016 was not an issue with the IMB Secretariat. The problem was that I spoke to the press. I was interviewed by my local paper ‘East Anglian Daily Times and by the ‘InsideTime’ prison newspaper. Suddenly my story was not only out in the open but was in every prison across the country.
Then came the prejudicial character assassination by both MoJ and IMB. I had struck a raw nerve. Three years previously the MoJ had commissioned Karen Page Associates to review the IMB. Conclusion was the IMB needed root and branch reform. They were so right, each board operating as a separate entity. There was nothing earth shattering about by article, I raised similar points to the review so why did the MoJ/IMB try to shut me down and silence me?
I believe it was a campaign initiated by a member of my board who had the audacity to send in additional material to the disciplinary hearing as he was scared that the decision would go in my favour and that I would reveal what was really going on in the IMB. It was rejected of course.
I didn’t realise that when you needed support or help in situations you faced as a member of an IMB it wouldn’t be available. There is so much I could say but basically the care team made up of members around the country that you could approach for support and guidance had been disbanded. So where difficult situations arose I was on my own.
Entering the hearing I was faced with a couple of familiar faces. The first panel member was on the executive committee for AMIMB. The same association that without permission had taken part of my article and printed it in their magazine and sent it to their members. So, no impartiality there.
I realised the MoJ had decided to change the terms of reference for the investigation without informing me, is that right?
The investigation was as a result of being suspended yet the direction and conclusion of the investigation had changed. I also found out the MoJ had been watching my every step for months and had a list of what I had said and when. Boy they were determined to silence me. I requested notes taken during the hearing and was disappointed but not surprised that so much that I had said was missed out. I don’t know what so-called “evidence” was sent to the Prisons Minister everything was done behind closed doors. They had made up their minds, nothing I could say or do would change that. Just as in the beginning of their campaign against me I knew there would not be fairness. Ironic that the IMB strapline is “Monitoring fairness and respect for those in custody”
Trying to silence me didn’t work
Since the hearing and at every opportunity without my hands being tied anymore, I have spoken out for positive change in the Criminal Justice System both locally and nationally.
I have met some amazing people, visited excellent schemes within prisons and worked with those I admire for their stand.
In trying to silence me the IMB/MoJ have given me a voice, a National voice. As I have said so many times before, I have never tried to raise my personal profile, for me the priority has been the issues I have raised. If you knew me you would understand this.
There have been so many that have walked beside me over the past year, some I have laughed with and some cried with. We have encouraged each other, we have shared our stories. I thank them all.
I am stronger now than I was a year ago and even more determined to play a part in the change that is needed within the Criminal Justice System.
I feel proud to have been nominated for the Contrarian Prize for 2017 and thank you to Ali Miraj and the judges for considering me for this prestigious prize. My congratulations go to Professor Patrick Minford for winning the Contrarian Prize 2017.
This is the Mission statement for her Majesty’s Prison Service for England and Wales:
“Her Majesty’s Prison Service 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”
I’m sorry but this is nonsense
- The reality is that on average there is a suicide in prison every 3 days
- Violence is on the increase
- Self-harm is on the increase
- Drugs are everywhere.
- Prisons are overpopulated and under staffed.
- Many prisoners are locked in their cell for up to 23 hours per day with little to do and little to eat.
Our prisons are in crisis but reform is taking too long. It has become a humanitarian issue.
Yet, for speaking the truth to those in power for prison reform I was bullied, ostracised, suspended and investigated by the MoJ for misconduct.
Despite a prejudicial character assassination against me, continuing to speak out for prison reform and for speaking to the press was, according to the MoJ, gross misconduct so the Prisons Minister dismissed me from the Independent Monitoring Board for 5 years.
I haven’t finished yet I’m just getting started. I assure you this I am not shutting up and I am not going away. I will put this nomination to work immediately by using my voice as a Contrarian to assure reform in the Criminal Justice System.
I’m not here to join the debate I’m here to change the debate…that’s what Contrarians do!
Firstly, thank you once again for the very many messages of support. Very grateful for each and every one of those tweets, texts, emails, letters and coffees.
Current state of mind: I’m not angry at the moment, just bemused.
Let me explain…
I was emailed by the Head of The Secretariat of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) with a copy of my suspension letter from Mr Selous and an offer of a chat about it. That was thoughtful.
On 02 June, I replied. Okay, admittedly at the time I was shocked and more than a bit miffed about what looked like a two-faced approach; on the one hand the Minister suspending me for my behaviour and on the other being offered a cosy chat with the Secretariat.
Anyway, on 07 June I received an email reply, not from the IMB but from the Deputy Director Offender Policy Team at Ministry of Justice (MOJ).
It’s that email exchange which bemuses me. Can anyone tell me why exactly MOJ staff is answering emails that were addressed to the IMB?
That shouldn’t be happening, should it?
Although the admin for IMB and admin for MOJ is co-located in offices in Petty France, London, the two organisations are entirely separate. Aren’t they?
So why is MOJ staff seeing emails to IMB at all? Are emails sent to IMB Secretariat being auto-forwarded to MOJ, or are inboxes being shared, or intercepted somehow? And are emails sent to MOJ seen by the IMB Secretariat?
What a conundrum.
Answers on a postcard please, probably best to address it to the Secretary of State for Justice actually, as Mr Gove will need to pay attention to this even if he is busy with Brexit.
While we’re thinking about a potentially glaring lack of independence of IMB Secretariat, not merely these emails, let’s also think about the suspension decision itself.
Is it really normal practice for those subject to a complaint to be suspended? If it is then why were none of those I complained about also suspended pending the outcome of the investigation I asked for?
It would be useful to know who actually makes the decisions on such a suspension? Yes, of course I realise it is the who Minister signs it off, but who wrote the letter for Mr Selous to sign?
Are you wondering when the investigation that Mr Selous requires will start? So am I. No date has been given.
And when will a copy of the report by The Secretariat be forthcoming? Since the report is on me, I am named in it and no Government restriction applies to such a document, I believe I have the right to see it, don’t I?
Okay, so the movie metaphor is a little light-hearted but there’s a very serious point I’m making here.
The public want to know where independence comes into it if, in reality, the IMB mothership is actually being remote controlled by civil servants on the MOJ payroll.
Or would it be more authentic to drop the word “independent” and just call it the Monitoring Board, and stop pretending it’s independent when it clearly no longer is.
Whatever we decide to do, we have to move at a far quicker pace to make monitoring fit for purpose, to improve on our National Preventative Mechanism and to restore public trust in prisons.
My grateful thanks to Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation via IndieWire for graphic image used in this blog. By the way, ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ (PG-13) is due for release in the UK two weeks from today, on 23 June 2016. No kidding! Pure coincidence.