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My year opened memorably
In January, the Prisons Minister, Sam Gymiah, wrote to sack me from my role as a Chairman of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay and to ban me for 5 years from IMB membership. I spoke out in the public interest for prison reform, highlighting key weaknesses I found in the MoJ. They shot the messenger.
I’ve written extensively on the reasons for this as those of you kind enough to have followed the story will know only too well.
No doubt the MoJ and IMB hoped they had heard the last from me.
I have not shut up and I have not gone away
In fact, if anything, as a direct result of media interest from radio, tv and the local and national press, my voice became heard more widely. I was given many chances to raise important issues on the state of prisons in England and Wales and I took them.
In April, I learned that I had been nominated for The Contrarian Prize 2017. It is a prestigious prize for those who have shown independence, courage and sacrifice. Those who nominated me liked the fact that I was unafraid to speak the truth to those in power, talking about the criminal justice system in the public interest. They recognised that doing so came at a huge personal cost including a face-off with the ‘goliath’ of the Ministry of Justice.
Also in April, producers at the BBC brought me onto a live link on BBC News Channel to talk about the problem of drones bringing in banned items into prisons. When presenter Julian Worricker asked for my take on it, I was able to outline the context of the issue and that it was impossible for all the drugs, phones etc within a prison to have been delivered via drones and that the new task force to be set up by the MoJ may have limited results. After working within the prison system for several years I was convinced that visitors and staff were likely routes in for contraband, yet security continued to be somewhat limited.
In May, I was delighted to join Lady Val Corbett, at her invitation, to attend the first of three ladies executive networking lunches. Each one inspired me and brought me into contact with remarkable women. Nicola McCalliog and Jo Apparicio are two women who I met through the lunches and who I especially admire; I look forward to the opportunity of working with them in the coming year. I have been amazed by the interest that was expressed in my own story and experience.
In my opinion, Lady Val has such determination, persistence, and guts! I thank her for accepting me into the Corbett Network as an associate member, it’s great to play an active part of something so vibrant.
In July, an article by Laurence Cawley was published on the BBC website. Here, the journalist wanted to explore in greater depth my experience with the IMB and the MoJ. The editorial team expected the article would get around 200,000 unique views. In fact, it reached 690,000 unique views on the first day and am told it was ranked the 8th most read article that day globally on the BBC. It was then I realised that there was a thirst by the public for coverage on justice matters.
In its mission statement, her Majesty’s Prison Service for England and Wales states that it:
“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.”
But it is shameful that HMPPS has fallen so short of its own mission statement. The situation in our prisons is worsening and really has become a humanitarian issue.
Also in July, I was invited to appear live on BBC News, this time in the studio, for an interview with Ben Brown about young people and children caught in the vagaries of the Criminal Justice System, highlighting the lack of care for these vulnerable individuals. This coverage proved a valuable opportunity to remind the public about the issue.
In August, I was invited to London to be interviewed by leading journalist, Simon Israel, who wanted to discuss the treatment I had encountered with the MoJ which tried to prevent me from speaking the truth concerning the prison crisis.
The interview went out on Channel 4 News causing quite a stir.
In the Autumn, I was part of one of the most important documentaries to be screened throughout the country. Here the theme was injustice and involved those from various angles within the Justice system. I was so delighted to meet those that had supported me over the last 18 months and together our voices were heard. There are more screenings planned for 2018.
This year new friendships were formed including Jane Gould (Clean Sheet) who works tirelessly in providing jobs for those that have been within the system and are often overlooked and penalised for having a criminal record. I joined her at the House of Lords for a tea reception.
My coffee and cake buddy Justin Williams has been a great friend. He has been a sounding board and has supported me when I have come under attack from those who have disagreed with my stand for prison reform.
On a lighter note, I was invited to the Opening Concert for Malta’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union by my friend Trevor Peel. Other invitations included ‘Why me’ evening at Clifford Chance with Peter Woolf and Mel Giedroyc; Probation Institute launch of Probation Services for Armed Forces Veterans under Supervision; ‘Fighting for Prison Reform’ at UCL and Robin Corbett Awards.
I have also taken up my usual seat at the Justice Select Committee on numerous occasions, the most memorable being when the IMB and AMIMB were in front of the committee. I listened carefully and made copious notes when the IMB President John Thornhill gave evidence. This man had caused so much harm to me and yet he was unaware that I was sitting right behind him. When he was informed who I was his face was like a rabbit in headlights. His plan to get rid of me had backfired, I was still there!
There were so many other events, meetings, coffee and cake times with those that have walked with me through 2017. I thank them all.
Richard Rowley, Daniel, Cranni, Jonathan Robinson, Jonathan Aitken, Unsound Robin, Charlotte, Khatuna, Chris Moore, Michael Irwin, Tracy Edwards…and more.
I started 2018 by celebrating with my twin sister our birthdays.
This year represents a year of great opportunity.
I intend to seize it with both hands.
Sat immediately behind the new Secretary of State at the Justice Select Committee (@CommonsJustice) on 07 September, I registered a lot of awkwardness that was beyond mere nervousness felt by many a new joiner.
Just like Gove’s debut in front of the same Committee where he rattled on about “we’re reviewing it” (yes, I was there for that one too), Liz Truss (@trussliz) talked largely about the formulating of “plans” but on the day said nothing about tangible actions she will take.
How many more reviews do we need?
Has Truss inherited a poisoned chalice passed from one SoS to the next? Her department has a huge accumulated mess to sort out and doesn’t know what to do about it. Is she wondering what to tackle first? The paralysis of too many priorities?
Her critics say she’s doing things wrong. Look at it for yourself and you’ll see some of the priorities she is confronted with:
- Extremism and radicalisation in prison
- Violence against other offenders and against prison staff
- Over population
- Under staffing of prisons
- Death in custody
- Drugs and drones
- Education and purposeful activity
- Resettlement and homelessness on release
You would think her advisors would know what the order of priorities are. They don’t, or if they do, they obviously prefer the relative safety of “talking shop” over the tough task of taking concrete action on these priorities.
The key question people are asking is has she actually got the shoulders for the job; she has the high office and gilded robe of the Lord Chancellor but does she have the support of those working within the criminal justice system?
Soon after her appointment from Defra to Ministry of Justice, Liz Truss paid token visits to two prisons but cannot be expected to become an instant expert on the prison system.
What other mess does the SoS need to deal with?
The system of prison monitoring is in a mess. The IMB Secretariat is in utter disarray. They say they have policies and procedures but don’t always follow them themselves. For the most part, IMBs are doing their own thing. There’s no real accountability anymore. It’s a disgrace and it’s deplorable that it’s been allowed to get as bad as it has.
For my critique of prison reform and Independent Monitor Boards, I’ve been put through two MOJ investigations. Each one takes away a little piece of me. But for me it’s always been about the issues. That’s why they can’t and won’t shut me up.
The message of prison reform has become urgent and has to get to the top. If no one else will step up and if it falls to me to take it then so be it.
No accountability anymore? Give me an example.
You want an example? Here’s one of many: At HMP Garth, the IMB Chair issued a Notice To Prisoners 048/2016 dated May 2016 without the authority to do so, and apparently without the Board agreeing it. The Chair acted unilaterally outside of governance. I found out about it because a copy of that prison notice was sent to me as it happened to be about the article “Whistle Blower Without a Whistle” that I’d written for The Prison Handbook 2016 that the IMB Garth Chair was pin-pointing, (accusing me of a “rant” whilst both his prison notice and covering letter were dripping with distain).
I’m still standing by all I said in my Whistleblower article even though writing it has been at a high personal cost. In all candour, any pride I may have had in writing it has been completely sucked away from me. It’s back to the bare metal. The inconvenient truth of what I wrote remains. Readers will find that my main themes also feature prominently in the findings of the report by Karen Page Associates, commissioned by the MOJ at a cost to the taxpayer of £18,500.
An invite I received from Brian Guthrie to the forthcoming AGM of Association of Members of IMB says it all. It read:
“From the Chair Christopher Padfield
AMIMB – the immediate future
IMB needs a voice. We believe that without AMIMB this voice will not be heard. AMIMB intends to raise its voice, but needs the support of our members.
An outline plan for the immediate future of AMIMB will be put up for discussion at the forthcoming AGM (11 October 2016 at 2 Temple Place). It aims to respond both to the main needs and opportunities, and to the practicalities of the current situation.
The greatest need, as the executive committee of the AMIMB sees it, is to achieve a public voice for Independent Monitoring Boards – to let the British public know what we, as monitors, think about prison and immigration detention policy and practice in England and Wales and the impact this has on the men, women and children detained; to achieve some public recognition for the role of IMBs; in short to speak out about what we hear and see. We have urged the National Council to do this itself, but to no avail. In character, the NC propose as their contribution to the Parliamentary Justice Select Committee’s current consultation on Prison Reform, a response to a procedural question: ‘are existing mechanisms for … independent scrutiny of prisons fit for purpose?’ If the NC cannot or will not speak out, AMIMB should.”
Mr Padfield has served as IMB Chairman at HMP Bedford but to my knowledge has never been suspended pending investigation by the Prisons Minister like I was for speaking out on such things.
And therein lays the dilemma: whereas the official line is to encourage monitors to speak out, the reprisals levelled at you when you actually do are still shocking.
Is this what happens to women who use their voice?
People want you to get back in the box.
To shut up.
To go away.
The IMB doesn’t need a makeover; that would only hide most of the systemic problems behind filler and veneer. So rebranding clearly isn’t going to be the answer any more than putting lipstick on a pig.
People who think I want to abolish the IMB have totally misjudged me and the situation. I don’t want to abolish it. Far from it. I want the IMB to perform like it was set up to under OPCAT and to be all it should be as part of our NPM.
The clue is in the name: Independent. Monitoring. Board.
Have you noticed that the MOJ is haemorrhaging people at the moment?
Maybe Liz Truss could use that as an opportunity to enlist the help of those who do give a damn about the conditions in which people are held in custody and who do have a clue about strategies to stem radicalisation in prison, minimise violence, reduce prison over population, have the right staff and staffing levels, reduce death in custody, counter drones and drug misuse, revitalise education and purposeful activity, and last but not least, resettle and house people after their time in custody.
Join the conversation on Twitter @fmspear @trussliz @CommonsJustice #prisons #reform #IMB #AMIMB #SpeakUp
First published 17 Sept 2016.
Edited 18 Sept 2016.
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.