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An interview with Phil O’Brien by John O’Brien
Phil O’Brien started his prison officer training in January 1970. His first posting, at HMDC Kirklevington, in April 1970. In a forty-year career, he also served at HMP Brixton, HMP Wakefield, HMYOI Castington, HMP Full Sutton, HMRC Low Newton and HMP Frankland. He moved through the ranks and finished his public sector career as Head of Operations at Frankland. In 2006, he moved into the private sector, where he worked for two years at HMP Forest Bank before taking up consultancy roles at Harmondsworth IRC, HMP Addiewell and HMP Bronzefield, where he carried out investigations and advised on training issues. Phil retired in 2011. In September 2018, he published Can I Have a Word, Boss?, a memoir of his time in the prison service.
John O’Brien holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Leeds, where he specialised in autobiography studies.
You deal in the first two chapters of the book with training. How do you reflect upon your training now, and how do you feel it prepared you for a career in the service?
I believe that the training I received set me up for any success I might have had. I never forgot the basics I was taught on that initial course. On one level, we’re talking about practical things like conducting searches, monitoring visits, keeping keys out of the sight of prisoners. On another level, we’re talking about the development of more subtle skills like observing patterns of behaviour and developing an intimate knowledge of the prisoners in your charge, that is, getting to know them so well that you can predict what they are going to do before they do it. Put simply, we were taught how best to protect the public, which includes both prisoners and staff. Those basics were a constant for me.
Tell me about the importance of the provision of education and training for prisoners. Your book seems to suggest that Low Newton was particularly successful in this regard.
Many prisoners lack basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. For anyone leaving the prison system, reading and writing are crucial in terms of functioning effectively in society, even if it’s only in order to access the benefits available on release.
At Low Newton, a largely juvenile population, the education side of the regime was championed by two governing governors, Mitch Egan and Mike Kirby. In addition, we had a well-resourced and extremely committed set of teachers. I was Head of Inmate Activities at Low Newton and therefore had direct responsibility for education.
The importance of education and training is twofold:
Firstly, it gives people skills and better fits them for release.
Secondly, a regime that fully engages prisoners leaves less time for the nonsense often associated with jails: bullying, drug-dealing, escaping.
To what extent do you believe that the requirements of security, control and justice can be kept in balance?
Security, control, and justice are crucial to the health of any prison. If you keep these factors in balance, afford them equal attention and respect, you can’t be accused of bias one way or the other.
Security refers to your duty to have measures in place that prevent escapes – your duty to protect the public.
Control refers to your duty to create and maintain a safe environment for all.
Justice is about treating people with respect and providing them with the opportunities to address their offending behaviour. You can keep them in balance. It’s one of the fundamentals of the job. But you have to maintain an objective and informed view of how these factors interact and overlap. It comes with experience.
What changed most about the prison service in your time?
One of the major changes was Fresh Start in 1987/88, which got rid of overtime and the Chief Officer rank. Fresh Start made prison governors more budget aware and responsible. It was implemented more effectively at some places than others, so it wasn’t without its wrinkles.
Another was the Woolf report, which looked at the causes of the Strangeways riot. The Woolf report concentrated on refurbishment, decent living and working conditions, and full regimes for prisoners with all activities starting and ending on time. It also sought to enlarge the Cat D estate, which would allow prisoners to work in outside industry prior to release. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t yet come to pass sufficiently. It’s an opportunity missed.
What about in terms of security?
When drugs replaced snout and hooch as currency in the 1980s, my security priorities changed in order to meet the new threat. I had to develop ways of disrupting drug networks, both inside and outside prison, and to find ways to mitigate targeted subversion of staff by drug gangs.
In my later years, in the high security estate, there was a real fear and expectation of organised criminals breaking into jails to affect someone’s escape, so we had to organise anti-helicopter defences.
The twenty-first century also brought a changed, and probably increased, threat of terrorism, which itself introduced new security challenges.
You worked in prisons of different categories. What differences and similarities did you find in terms of management in these different environments?
Right from becoming a senior officer, a first line manager at Wakefield, I adopted a modus operandi I never changed. I called it ‘managing by walking about’. It was about talking and listening, making sure I was there for staff when things got difficult. It’s crucial for a manager to be visible to prisoners and staff on a daily basis. It shows intent and respect.
I distinctly remember Phil Copple, when he was governor at Frankland, saying one day: “How do you find time to get around your areas of responsibility every day when other managers seem tied to their chairs?” I found that if I talked to all the staff, I was responsible for every day, it would prevent problems coming to my office later when I might be pushed for time. Really, it was a means of saving time.
The job is the same wherever you are. Whichever category of prison you are working in, you must get the basics right, be fair and face the task head on.
The concept of intelligence features prominently in the book. Can you talk a bit about intelligence, both in terms of security and management?
Successful intelligence has always depended on the collection of information.
The four stages in the intelligence cycle are: collation, analysis, dissemination and action. If you talk to people in the right way, they respond. I discovered this as soon as I joined the service, and it was particularly noticeable at Brixton.
Prisoners expect to be treated fairly, to get what they’re entitled to and to be included in the conversation. When this happens, they have a vested interest in keeping the peace. It’s easy to forget that prisoners are also members of the community, and they have the same problems as everyone else. That is, thinking about kids, schools, marriages, finances. Many are loyal and conservative. The majority don’t like seeing other people being treated unfairly, and this includes prisoner on prisoner interaction, bullying etc. If you tap into this facet of their character, they’ll often help you right the wrongs. That was my experience.
Intelligence used properly can be a lifesaver.
You refer to Kirklevington as an example of how prisons should work. What was so positive about their regime at the time?
It had vision and purpose and it delivered.
It was one of the few jails where I worked that consistently delivered what it was contracted to deliver. Every prisoner was given paid work opportunities prior to release, ensuring he could compete on equal terms when he got out. The regime had in place effective monitoring, robust assessments of risk, regular testing for substance abuse and sentence-planning meetings that included input from family and home probation officers.
Once passed out to work, each prisoner completed a period of unpaid work for the benefit of the local community – painting, decorating, gardening etc.
There was excellent communication.
The system just worked.
The right processes were in place.
To what extent do you feel you were good at your job because you understood the prisoners? That you were, in some way, the same?
I come from Ripleyville, in Bradford, a slum cleared in the 1950s. Though the majority of people were honest and hardworking, the area had its minority of ne’er-do-wells. I never pretended that I was any better than anyone else coming from this background.
Whilst a prisoner officer under training at Leeds, I came across a prisoner I’d known from childhood on my first day. When I went to Brixton, a prisoner from Bradford came up to me and said he recognised me and introduced himself. I’d only been there a couple of weeks. I don’t know if it was because of my background, but I took an interest in individual prisoners, trying to understand what made them tick, as soon as I joined the job.
I found that if I was fair and communicated with them, the vast majority would come half way and meet me on those terms. Obviously, my working in so many different kinds of establishments undoubtedly helped. It gave me a wide experience of different regimes and how prisoners react in those regimes.
How important was humour in the job? And, therefore, in the book?
Humour is crucial. Often black humour. If you note, a number of my ex-colleagues who have reviewed the book mention the importance of humour. It helps calm situations. Both staff and prisoners appreciate it. It can help normalise situations – potentially tense situations. Of course, if you use it, you’ve got to be able to take it, too.
What are the challenges, as you see them, for graduate management staff in prisons?
Credibility, possibly, at least at the beginning of their career. This was definitely a feature of my earlier years, where those in the junior governor ranks were seen as nobodies. The junior governors were usually attached to a wing with a PO, and the staff tended to look towards the PO for guidance. The department took steps to address this with the introduction of the accelerated promotion scheme, which saw graduate entrants spending time on the landing in junior uniform ranks before being fast-tracked to PO. They would be really tested in that rank.
There will always be criticism of management by uniform staff – it goes with the territory. A small minority of graduate staff failed to make sufficient progress at this stage and remained in the uniform ranks. This tended to cement the system’s credibility in the eyes of uniform staff.
Were there any other differences between graduate governors and governors who had come through the ranks?
The accelerated promotion grades tended to have a clearer career path and were closely mentored by a governor grade at HQ and by governing governors at their home establishments and had regular training. However, I lost count of the number of phone calls I received from people who were struggling with being newly promoted from the ranks to the governor grades. They often felt that they hadn’t been properly trained for their new role, particularly in relation to paperwork, which is a staple of governor grade jobs.
From the point of view of the early 21stC, what were the main differences between prisons in the public and private sectors?
There’s little difference now between public and private sector prisons. Initially, the public sector had a massive advantage in terms of the experience of staff across the ranks. Now, retention of staff seems to be a problem in both sectors. The conditions of service were better in the public sector in my time, but this advantage has been eroded. Wages are similar, retirement age is similar. The retirement age has risen substantially since I finished.
In my experience, private sector managers were better at managing budgets. As regards staff, basic grade staff in both sectors were equally keen and willing to learn. All that staff in either sector really needed was purpose, a coherent vision and support.
A couple of times towards the end of your book, you hint at the idea that your time might have passed. Does your approach belong to a particular historical moment?
I felt that all careers have to come to an end at some point and I could see that increasing administrative control would deprive my work of some of its pleasures. It was time to go before bitterness set in. Having said that, when I came back, I still found that the same old-fashioned skills were needed to deal with what I had been contracted to do. So, maybe I was a bit premature.
My approaches and methods were developed historically, over the entire period of my forty-year career. Everywhere I went, I tried to refine the basics that I had learned on that initial training course.
Thank you to John O’Brien for enabling Phil to share his experiences.
In her Twitter bio it states: A passionate prison reformer. Interests: collaborative research, personal growth, creative action research, relationships, Nordic prisons, prison reform.
Just reading this I knew we would have a connection and a great conversation together.
What does it mean to you to be a prison reformer?
What I do has meaning, consumes me, its a purpose that is constantly in my blood and mind.
Collaboration matters to me, so does inclusion and having an unconditional regard for people. My inspiration comes from Elizabeth Fry, however, there are many with her passion. We need to work together to make a collective impact, not rely on one individual to drive change in prisons. I also believe that reform is not only situated in prisons, but in the community at large.
I don’t want to consistently bash the Criminal Justice System, but we need to be realistic about the problems whilst instilling hope. We need to meet people where they are at.
Prison reform needs to be a social movement in order to create a climate outside of raising awareness and drawing people together for a common purpose.
Prisons can be a transformative place.
Do we need any more research on prisons, are there gaps or do we just need to push for changes based on existing knowledge?
Yes to both.
We know enough to know what works. The difficulty is how we apply that knowledge. Academia needs to move out of its ivory tower and on to the shop floor. There’s plenty of research, you need to create a growth environment (climate) and capture this impact with understanding. Research takes so long, from ethics approval to peer review to publication. More creativity is needed with research, capture stories, motivate staff.
Academic research needs creativity, inclusion, and we must learn from our mistakes.
Do you see yourself as an academic?
Yes, but I’m a bit of an odd ball in academia, being an academic is part of my identity, but it doesn’t define me.
You mention personal growth, can you elaborate on this?
Growth for me is inclusion, growth in the community and families. People can reform, but you need to create hope and invest in unconditional relationships.
Growth, which includes love, acceptance and trust is also about unconditional support, nurturing and building relationships.
How important is it to establish relationships with prisoners/prison staff?
From determing the level of trust, to how people talk about their feeings, their fears and trauma. It’s the key to prison reform, desistance, cleanliness, safe environment, trust and many more…
What are some of the elements from the Nordic prisons that can be easily incorporated into prisons in England and Wales?
To never enter a prison and think people are broken with no hope.
Would you describe yourself as resilient?
I’m strong through stubbornness, but I am focused on what I want to achieve. Resilience means you bounce back, I’m susceptible to tiredness and pain due to health conditions, but this won’t stop me. I refuse to give in, so by overcoming obstacles I adapt to my environment.
Where does your strength come from?
My husband is my rock, my team, friends and importantly my sense of direction.
In an article in the InsideTime newspaper, June 2020, Sarah stated:
“My lifelong mission is to create a more humane system, which provides conditions where people can find meaning, have hope in the future and be happy”
In relation to this statement where do you see the prisons in England and Wales?
We are far away from that, further than we think. We have the ability to change, yet we underestimate the collaborative abilty of staff and prisoners alike. Culture and climate are important. A more humane system will not happen on its own, we need investment and training.
I have 100% hope in the future, that’s my logic.
We want people to live and not just survive.
With your work in schools, do you believe it is possible to instil meaning, hope and happiness into children’s lives?
From my experience it is easier to teach children than adults. The idea of the “Growth Project” at Guys Marsh was one of nurture, principle of growing and a purpose and peace in children. Divert them from prison by focusing on these building blocks around relationships, in order to protect them in later life.
You mentioned the “Growth Project”, how did this come about and how do you see it progressing?
The Norway Project took place in 3 Norwegian prisons and started as a photographic exhibition about how I captured collaboration. I spent 3 years researching Norwegian prisons and during the fieldwork I created a research team to understand their exceptional prison practices and priciples of growth. Out of this the Growth Project was born in England and Wales. We now have a collection of passionate people forming a steering group with prisoners and their families involved. We discuss issues such as diversity and inclusion in both prisons and society alike.
The aim of the “Connection Campaign” is to bring the inside and outside together, how are you managing to break down the walls to achieve this?
We are looking at where there is disconnection and the needs of young people. We magnify a voice that is quiet from various criminal justice areas. But we are not about blaming or shaming prisons. We wanted senior management to have conversations with prisoners families. Our strategy is to meet people where they are at and how to be a bit more compassionate, a critical friend.
Is rehabilitation possible within the current prison set up?
They need to be habilitated in the first place. Rehabilitation is a managerialistic term which often sets people up to fail. Like a game of trying to catch people out which is not conducive to change and no growth can happen. It can be harmful as no one wins.
Do we need radical reforms, if so what are the possibilities, if not, why not?
We need an authentic meaningful longterm investment in those principles that are encouraged in the Nordic model, applying the principles of growth in a meaningful way within our own context.
Irrespective of ideology, we want to strive for a just and humane system. This needs to happen, we need to change the narrative around prisons, prisoners and prison staff. But it must be sensitively executed. It’s not just about success stories.
Working within the prison estate can be rewarding but also can be disappointing, exhausting and demoralising. How do you deal personally with the complexities you face?
I see and hear a lot of stuff. However, I have such a strong mission.
Yes it is. Absolutely.
We have lost 2 growth members, 1 person through suicide after prison and 1 whilst he was in prison. It was a painful experience, I knew their families and the ripple effect was hard because their lives matter.
The question I really wanted to ask Sarah was: Is your underlying message of hope?
I believe in people.
I dont quite believe in the system yet.
I have hope in individuals.
I believe in them.
We need to be actively hopeful in people. Let them know “I believe in you”
I have hope in people.
How/why did your involvement in the CJS come about?
I turned down my place to study for a degree and instead moved from Lincolnshire to Essex at the age of 19. My first “proper” job was in admin with NACRO in Colchester. I worked primarily in wages and finance. At that point NACRO provided 6 months work placements in painting and decorating or in gardening teams etc for those who had just come out of prison. I heard amazing stories from those men and some brought newspaper cuttings to show me of their various escapades, including a headline “Most wanted man in Britain” They made me laugh and some made me shed a few tears. But for me I had many questions that were never answered.
What happens after 6 months?
What about their families, how can they support them financially?
Was this really a way for integration back into society?
Why is only manual labour available?
Fast forward 25 years, I was accepted into University. I became a full-time student studying Criminology with 2 kids at school, 1 at college, a part time job and my husband working full time and studying also, I embarked on a very busy 3 years of multi-tasking!
For my first presentation I chose to speak on Women in prison and the Corston report, I researched thoroughly but was marked down because no one was interested in prisons and especially not women in prison, it was deemed not an exciting enough subject. Great start. My next presentation was about Restorative Justice and yet again I was questioned as to why I was interested, one lecturer even said, “What’s that?”. A pattern was emerging of my interest into those within the CJS and those that had been released increased. I was not put off and in my 3rd year the title for my dissertation was: Restorative Justice: Is it delivering strategic change in England and Wales or just a cost cutting exercise by the Government?
To understand the significance of Restorative Justice I arranged interviews with experts in the UK, NZ and USA, even Howard Zehr widely regarded as the Grandfather of RJ agreed to help. I consumed document after document on RJ and was a frequent visitor at the Cambridge University Library, floor 6 (those stairs almost killed me!) and the Institute of Criminology Library.
I graduated with an honours degree in Criminology and looked for my next step.
I joined the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay and in just three years became the Chair.
I wrote about the things I saw and heard but what I didn’t expect was what happened next. I was confronted with a prejudicial character assassination brought against me, a fight to clear my name, being investigated twice by the Ministry of Justice, called in front of a disciplinary hearing in Petty France and the involvement of not one but two Prison Ministers. I felt that I was on my own against a bastion of chauvinism. Not the last bastion of their kind I would come across. Welcome to the IMB!
My continuing journey can be found in my blog: The Criminal Justice Blog www.faithspear.wordpress.com
Because my story is fairly unique it has been covered by BBC News, Channel 4 News, BBC Radio Oxford, BBC Radio Suffolk, 5Live, LBC as well as National and Local newspapers, law journals and online publications etc.
Religion is clearly important to you, what role does God play in your life?
I remember going to Chapel with my grandparents as a young child and hearing my Dad and Grandfather sing the old hymns with deep sincerity. Christianity has always been part of my life. My faith in God has often been tested.
How do you balance work and life responsibilities?
I often say I’m a Mum first, always have been always will be. My husband and my kids are the most important people in my life, I have a great relationship with them all. They understand who I am and what motivates me to do what I do. They understand the bigger picture and that for me it is a cause and not merely a job. That in itself I realise is exceptional and I find I am continually grateful because I know that the level of family support I have is sadly not available to everyone. I can’t do this stuff on my own. They are also aware of the work I do behind the scenes and the many hours of support I give freely.
What role, if any, has luck played in your life?
Things happens for a reason, we don’t always know or understand the reason why. We all have issues to face and hurdles to climb and times of joy and celebration. Luck doesn’t fit in my life at all.
Not only have you been a source of inspiration to me in certain areas, I have also seen you inspire others and would like to know who inspired, or inspires you and why?
A few years ago, I wrote a journal article with a friend of mine, Dr David Scott about a remarkable woman, Lady Constance Lytton, commemorating 100 years since her book Prisons and Prisoners was published. In it she presented one of the most significant challenges to 20th Century anti-suffrage politics. Her book is a harrowing personal account of her four prison sentences as a militant suffragette. It is also a compelling insight into the mind of a young woman consumed by a cause which would prove to be instrumental in prison reform and votes for women, as well as tragically being a contributory factor to her death. My inspiration, which comes from her being consumed by a cause, makes me wonder if that is still possible. This wasn’t a phase she was going through or a pastime, it was a lifestyle.
I admire her courage and determination. I see this in so few people but when I find it, it is unmistakable. Let me give you an example, Tracy Edwards MBE. At the age of 26 she was the skipper for the first all-female crew for the Whitbread Round the World Race. It is not so much the fact that she sailed around the world, although that in itself is remarkable, but it is the reason why that I find compelling. She said “First time in my life I stood up for something I believed in” I have met and chatted with Tracy, she is an inspiration to me without a doubt.
What would you say is your greatest accomplishment and/or achievement is?
I think that my greatest accomplishment is staying true to myself, maintaining integrity and not bowing to pressure to conform.
In terms of my greatest achievement let me give you a couple of examples. First, being nominated for the Contrarian prize 2017 especially when you realise the key criteria that the judges look for are Independence, Courage and Sacrifice.
Second, last year I was deeply moved and excited to learn that I had been counted as one of the 100 inspirational Suffolk women alongside people such as Dame Millicent Fawcett.
As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?
On one of my visits to the House of Parliament I took time to seek out one of the most outspoken MP’s known for saying it as it is. I sat down next to Dennis Skinner and asked him a very simple question. I asked, “How do you get heard in this place?”. Mr Skinner looked me straight in the eye and offered me advice I will never forget. With his characteristic directness, he said, “You have to be seen to be heard”. I’ve taken his advice and applied it to all I do. This has not come naturally to me as people who know me will tell you.
Everybody wants to have their say and everyone has an opinion. But there is a big difference between those who say their piece ad nauseum and those who have something to say.
In one sense all that people have heard from me so far is simply learning to overcome the barriers of not being heard. When I have learned enough then I am sure I will have gained the clarity with what I have to say.
If you were given the prisons and probation ministers role, what changes would you make?
I would scrap the titan prison building programme and instead invest in smaller local units, making families more accessible and start to break down the barriers between those in prison and those on the outside.
I would encourage industry to step out of their comfort zone and give more people with convictions a second chance. To remove the stigma of a criminal record so that it is not forever hanging around people’s necks. We are a deeply divided and hurt society that is full of prejudges.
I would ban all industries within prisons that do not provide purposeful activities and a decent wage. People need to be work ready on release with housing and job options already in place. Families should be able to stay together and be supported, children should be prioritised.
I would make sure everyone working within the CJS were trained sufficiently for their roles and supported in their jobs.
As a prisons minister you can only change what is in your field of influence to change. In other words, you need to be precise, you need be pragmatic and you need to learn whose advice you can trust. Then act on it.
One of my priorities as Prisons Minister would be to take advice to demonstrate better things to invest in. Diversion, or Restorative Justice or Community.
Put money into early years, into youth etc.
We have to stop this madness of believing that we can change people and their behaviour by banging them up in warehouse conditions with little to do and not enough to eat and sanitation from a previous century.
As Prisons Minister I would initiate change that would lead to every prison Governor carrying personal accountability for the way they run the prisons they are responsible for. It’s not their prison, its ours and they must run it properly, giving people in their care decent conditions and personal dignity regardless of what crime the courts have sent them to prison for. The moment Governors carry that personal accountability is the moment you will see astonishing changes in HMPPS.
I will ensure under performing Governors leave the service and are not continually rotated around the prison estate or promoted to more senior positions. They have to know the weight of the accountability they carry.
Finally, what are you hopes and aspirations for the future of the criminal justice, and also for you?
Transparency and Accountability should underline every decision made. No more carpets where issues are swept under. No more excuses for the crisis within the system. We talk too much, we deliberate too much and have too many committees. There are too many roundtable events, conferences, discussions where everyone is saying they are experts yet so much remains the same. We produce too many reports, reviews and paperwork that gets filed away. Now is the time for action, for investment in people and for priorities to change. Lets just get on with it and stop competing and instead work toward a common objective, such as drastically reducing the prison population
In the next five years, I will continue to speak up truthfully and will add my voice to the very many voices calling for change. I will support policies introduced by the current Prisons and Probation Minister or by their successor where those policies do bring about real change. However, I shall not hesitate in bringing a strong critique where those policies gloss over the hard questions or where they shirk the implementation of measures for real reform. I will finish on this:
Vision is often personal, but a cause is bigger than any one individual
People don’t generally die for a vision, but they will die for a cause
Vision is something you possess, a cause possess you
Vision doesn’t eliminate the options; a cause leaves you without any options
A good vision may out live you, but a cause is eternal
Vision will generate excitement, but a cause generates power
[Adapted from Houston (2001)]
Is whistleblowing a band wagon to jump onto?
Usually you don’t suddenly wake up in the morning and say, “Today I’m going to be a whistle-blower”. The negative connotations surrounding whistleblowing such as being an informant, betrayer, or even a backstabber is not something to aspire to.
Yet, these descriptions cannot truly explain why there are those in the minority that will put their head above the parapet, will risk their reputation and often lose their job through speaking out.
So, have we become largely a society that will cower rather than stand up, do we lack courage or integrity or both?
Fear of reprisals can cause us to retreat, to stay silent but in so doing are we not being true to ourselves. It takes more than just determination to be vocal about issues you are passionate about. Unfortunately, when living in such a punitive society, the norm is to shut people down rather than to listen.
Having sat at an employment tribunal with an experienced Prison Officer listening to their case of dismissal, my thoughts were not that they wanted revenge, not at all. I saw passion, I heard a very determined individual with a story that has affected not only their work, their life but possibly their health too.
It’s too easy for society to ignore the reality in our prisons in England and Wales, where violence, instability and a lack of investment over decades has reduced them to warehouses of the vulnerable. Numerous are inhumane and on the point of crisis.
Equally, let’s not point the finger at those that want transparency in the Criminal Justice System, instead we should push for accountability and not lose sight that one day those in prison may be a loved one or will become our neighbour.
Time to stop shooting the messenger
Recently I met Michael Woodford, the inaugural winner of the Contrarian Prize and former CEO of Olympus who exposed a $1.7 billion fraud at the heart of Olympus and was sacked for doing so. He had more than most to lose by speaking out.
According to: https://www.gov.uk/whistleblowing
“As a whistleblower you’re protected by law – you should not be treated unfairly or lose your job because you ‘blow the whistle’.
You can raise your concern at any time about an incident that happened in the past, is happening now, or you believe will happen in the near future”
But is this really so?
It also states:
“You’re a whistleblower if you’re a worker and you report certain types of wrongdoing”
But what if you are a volunteer?
Yes, you work and often very hard, but where is the protection mechanism?
In my experience, being a volunteer for many years offers little protection especially when dealing with the Ministry of Justice. Even going through the “normal” channels produces little response. Suddenly people become hard of hearing, blind to what is happening all around them and stick their heads in the sand.
I’m not like that, I am very aware of many untold stories and issues within the justice system.
I put my head above the parapet once, I have no regrets even now still living with the consequences.
I would do it again.
And plan to do shortly!
We have heard from the Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke and the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart that we need to get back to basics where prisons are concerned. HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay is no exception.
Reading through the latest Inspectorate report shows clearly that only 15 of the 30 recommendations from the previous inspection in 2014 have been carried out.
Should alarm bells be ringing?
There are four tests for a healthy prison
- Purposeful Activity
- Rehabilitation and release planning (previously Resettlement)
Comparing the two latest reports, I noticed that some aspects once regarded as a safety issue are now a respect issue such as basic living conditions and making available a court video link. Probably why the recommendations in that category has fallen from 9 to 4. Looks good on paper but you have to read between the lines.
Four years ago, there were no recommendations for purposeful activity yet this time there are 5. From making sure prisoners get impartial careers advice, to providing detailed and constructive feedback on practical work to help prisoners improve, to ensuring that those engaged in prison industries are able to study and achieve qualifications related to their job. The answer is in the name “Purposeful” activity not just something to pass the long often monotonous days.
Surely these are basics of an open Cat D prison and is HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay failing?
It is worrying that there are many arriving at the prison without an up to date risk and needs assessment. Likewise, is the number of prisoners sent back to closed conditions, approx. 15 per month with some decisions not clearly evidenced.
And yet there are those that are released with little or no sustainable accommodation and this isn’t sufficiently monitored by the CRC’s.
With only one mental health staff, weak public protection procedures and with already 10% presented as medium or high risk to children there needs to be some serious changes before the planned arrival of those convicted of sex offences.
“New prisoners who potentially posed a risk to children were not always promptly assessed, and contact restrictions were not always applied in the interim”
There are so many issues to flag up:
“The anti-bullying representatives’ role was unclear, poorly advertised and lacked formal training”
“The strategic management of equality was less well developed than at the time of the previous inspection. There was no local equality and diversity strategy and the equality action plan was limited. There were no specific consultation groups running for prisoners with protected characteristics, other than the equality action team meeting”
The latest report shows increase in drug misuse with prisoners moving away from new psychoactive substances (NPS) and that cannabis was now the preferred drug. In addition the use of cocaine and steroids was an emerging problem.
Can HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay adapt to the changing needs and problems?
Let’s hope we are not seeing the gradual demise of this prison.
Recommendations 2018 inspection
- All use of force incidents should be scrutinised by senior staff to ensure that force is only used as a last resort.
- Body-worn cameras should be used during all use of force incidents.
- Risk assessments to determine if a return to closed conditions is necessary should be multidisciplinary and should show sufficient exploration of all relevant factors relating to the risks presented.
- Decisions to use handcuffs should be based on an individual risk assessment. (Repeated recommendation 45)
- The negative perceptions expressed by some prisoners that a small number of staff were punitive in their approach towards them should be explored and addressed.
- Basic living conditions on the Bosmere unit should be improved to ensure decency, including refurbished and well-maintained showers.
- Prisoners’ views about the quality of the food should be explored in greater depth and, where possible, changes should be made to increase their level of satisfaction.
- The issues with the prison shop should be resolved, so that prisoners receive their correct order.
- A court video link should be available. (Repeated recommendation 3)
- The prison should routinely consult prisoners in the protected groups to ensure that their concerns and needs are identified and, where possible, addressed. (Repeated recommendation 25)
- Managers should consider both local and national equality monitoring data, and address inequitable outcomes.
- Reasonable adjustments for prisoners with disabilities should be swiftly completed. These prisoners should have access to practical support, such as a buddy scheme, which supports them in their day-to-day life at the prison
- There should be a regular health care representative forum to inform service developments and enable collective concerns to be addressed.
- There should be regular, systematic health promotion campaigns delivered in conjunction with the prison.
- Prisoners should have timely access to optician and dental services. (Repeated recommendation 68)
- There should be a memorandum of understanding and information sharing agreement between agencies, to outline appropriate joint service working on social care.
- Prison managers should ensure that they have accurate information on the education, training or employment that prisoners enter following their release, so that they can evaluate and monitor fully the impact of the curriculum on offer.
- Prison managers should ensure that prisoners receive impartial careers advice and guidance when they arrive at the establishment and throughout their time in custody, so that they can plan their future after release more effectively.
- Prison and People Plus managers should ensure that vocational tutors provide detailed and constructive feedback on practical work, to help prisoners to improve.
- Prison and People Plus managers should ensure that vocational tutors challenge prisoners to achieve high standards of professional workmanship that meets commercial expectations.
- Prison managers should ensure that prisoners engaged in prison industries have an opportunity to study and achieve a qualification related to their job.
Rehabilitation and release planning
- Visits provision should meet demand.
- Prisoners on resettlement day release to maintain family ties should not be required to be collected and returned by family members in a car unless the risk assessment suggests that this is necessary.
- The prison’s needs analysis should make full use of offender assessment system (OASys) and P-NOMIS data, in order to identify and address gaps in provision.
- Prisoners should only transfer to open conditions once a full and up-to-date assessment of their risk and needs has been carried out.
- There should be sufficient places available in Bail Accommodation and Support Service accommodation to allow prisoners to be released on home detention curfew on their eligibility date.
- Meetings to discuss a prisoner’s suitability for open conditions should be multidisciplinary. Decisions to return prisoners to closed conditions should be clearly evidenced and defensible.
- For prisoners returning to closed conditions, recategorisation to C should be supported by clear evidence.
- The prison should undertake a comprehensive analysis of needs, to establish the range of offence-focused interventions required.
- The community rehabilitation company (CRC) should monitor the number of prisoners released to sustainable accommodation (12 weeks after release), to understand the effectiveness of provision.
- The CRC should ensure that interviews to review resettlement plans are conducted by a trained member of staff.
Recommendations 2014 inspection
- Recommendation: The Bosmere unit should be upgraded or replaced with permanent accommodation
- Recommendation: OASYs and ROTL procedures should be sufficiently rigorous to ensure risks to the public are effectively managed.
- A court video link should be available.
- Prisoners should receive a private first night interview with a member of staff.
- The prison should investigate prisoners’ perceptions about safety and address any concerns raised.
- The safeguarding adults framework document should be finalised and staff should understand safeguarding procedures for adults at risk.
- Decisions to use handcuffs should be based on an individual risk assessment.
- The drug strategy action plan should be updated, inform developments and detail lines of accountability.
- The controlled drugs administration room should be more welcoming and security arrangements should be in line with what is required in open conditions.
- The shower areas in the Stow unit should be refurbished.
- Staff and personal officers in the Bosmere unit should check on and interact with prisoners in their care.
- The EAT should investigate when monitoring data consistently suggests inequitable outcomes for minority groups.
- The prison should routinely consult prisoners in the protected groups to ensure their concerns and needs are identified, and where possible, addressed.
- Suitable adapted accommodation should be available for prisoners with disabilities.
- All staff should have regular managerial and clinical supervision, as well as appropriate continuing professional development underpinned by a current performance appraisal.
- There should be sufficient clinical rooms to provide a comprehensive service and all areas, including the dental suite, should comply with infection control guidelines.
- Triage algorithms should be available to ensure decisions made are consistent and appropriate.
- Prisoners should have timely access to optician and dental services.
- Prisoners should have access to pharmacist-led counselling sessions, clinics and medication reviews.
- The dental service should be informed by an up-to-date needs assessment.
- Custodial staff should receive regular mental health awareness training.
- Self-catering facilities should be improved, particularly for prisoners on long or indeterminate sentences.
- There should be no administration charge for catalogue orders.
- Formal supervision should be provided to all OSs.
- Sentence planning objectives should be specific and focused on outcomes.
- All prisoners should have planned case management meetings with their OS proportionate to their risk and needs. Meetings should be recorded.
- When prisoners are returned to closed conditions there should be a clear record of who made the decision and the rationale for it; re-categorisation from D to C should only take place if there is clear evidence that this is required.
- The content and information on the virtual campus should be reviewed to ensure it is relevant for prisoners looking for work on release.
- There should be robust discharge planning processes in place to ensure continuity of care.
- The prison should develop a strategic action plan that aims to ensure all prisoners have the opportunity to stay in contact with family and friends.
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.
What is the Unlocked Grads programme?
According to the website for University of Suffolk (10 September 2018) :
“Unlocked Graduates is a two-year programme and students who complete the programme are awarded an MSc in Leadership and Custodial Environments from the University of Suffolk”
When you look past all the ‘blurb’, in a nutshell, the programme starts as a Summer Institute comprising two week’s training as a prison officer and the beginning of a Master’s degree, followed by a two-week placement in a prison and finishes with two more weeks training. The taught modules at the Summer Institute leading to Prison Officer Entry Level Training (POELT) are based at the University of Suffolk, Ipswich.
It’s especially surprising to see that it is positioned as “a prestigious programme with influential supporters” when it is based here as the University is ranked 128 out of 131 Universities listed by The Complete University Guide.
Advice given for recruitment: “Fundamentally they need to be made of the right stuff to survive on the landings from Day 1… only a fairly ruthless and demanding selection process will guarantee you have the right people”
Part of the interview process includes having an interview with a former prisoner, but questions have been raised as to how this would be perceived and if unskilled interviewers could get the best out of the candidates.
The 2017 Cohort
The 2017 cohort started in Summer 2017 with placements in HMP Brixton, Coldingley, Downview, High Down, Isis and Wandsworth.
I was invited to sit in on a training session at the Summer Institute in 2017. I spoke with staff members to get a feel and understanding of the programme. I had a one-to-one with Natasha Porter, CEO of Unlocked Grads.
But I came away with so many questions.
Why were those prisons selected and why were they all in the South of England?
So how can the safety of these young novice trainees be assured? In the latest Government Annual Prison Statistics, it shows that Brixton is rated 1 for safety with Wandsworth and Isis rated 2.
Again, in the same report, looking at stats for Purposeful Activity, Brixton, Isis and Wandsworth are rated 1; that’s an awful lot of people likely to be stuck in their cell, frustrations brewing, leading to mental health issues. Not forgetting the domino effect upon families of prisoners and families of staff.
So that’s the prisoners but what about the staff in these prisons.
Staff sickness for Wandsworth shows that 5918 days were lost in the 12 months to 31st March 2018 that’s on average 12.4 days lost per FTE. High Down is not much better with 4146 days lost in 1 year on average 10.4 days lost per FTE.
Whilst it is unclear why so many days are lost to sick leave, you can imagine that many of these sick days are as a result of the stress placed upon the officers, the increased violence on the wings, inhaling psychoactive substances and the exhaustion.
But if there are such acute staff shortages how is replacing experienced members of staff with newly qualified Unlocked Grads going to make a positive difference?
Andrea Albutt, President of the Prison Governors Association spoke out last year and said:
“large numbers of new recruits can actually add to the instability in prisons rather than improve it”
So, what exactly is this programme wanting to achieve?
We are told that the Summer 2017 candidates in the 1st cohort all passed their POELT training. Was the bar set too low, it makes you wonder? However, the first cohort 100% pass rate did not include those who dropped out early on, after their first visit to a prison.
One of the first sponsors wrote: “This is clearly an incredibly challenging leadership programme. Unlocked Grads will have to develop advanced communication skills, diplomacy and resilience as well as the creative entrepreneurial flair to bring new ideas to prisons. These are the skills I look for in my sector.” (Sir Martin Sorrell, former CEO of WPP).
Sounds all well and good, but there’s no scope for entrepreneurial flair inside a prison; it’s a process driven role, dependent on regime and written Prison Service Instructions (PSI’s).
The candidates didn’t appear to be encouraged to stay once they acquired their master’s degree.
This seems incredibly short-sighted of the MoJ. Why are they investing in these grads yet encouraging them to move on after two years and not retaining them?
Sam Gymiah, the then Prisons Minister wrote:
“Some bright, passionate & capable recruits joining the prison service to help fix our prisons. Well done @unlockedgrads” (Twitter, 21 August 2017)
Hardly able to “fix our prisons” just through this two-year scheme.
I was informed by Natasha Porter that these grads were not included in the 2,500 new staff members that were being recruited.
The 2018 Cohort
This year 105 candidates attended the Summer Institute and yet again Ipswich was suddenly the place to be, a tourist attraction for anyone in the ‘Justice arena’. Now that HMP Berwyn in no longer ‘flavour of the month’, Ipswich appears to be the place to be seen.
Between 29th July and 6th September, guest speakers galore appeared at the University to give talks: from Gethin Jones to Michael Spurr to Erwin James.
Recently, when visiting the Ipswich Waterfront, I spotted dozens of mainly young men and women dressed in standard issue prison officer uniform complete with boots. Some were hiding their epaulettes with their hands and others showed their key chains.
It was the next instalment of the Unlocked Grads programme.
They were milling around on a lunch break (see photo) so I went and had a chat. I asked how they were finding the course and we briefly discussed the crisis within the prisons, as the HMIP report on Birmingham had just been published.
One of the 2018 Cohort said: “Oh but that’s just the media,” dismissing the squalor, violence and drugs in prisons as if it was some sort of fallacy.
Seriously, are they being taught about the reality of what is happening inside prisons?
Another eagerly said: “We are going to do something different; we will be on the landings, but it will be based on rehabilitation.”
If the Unlocked Grads are focusing on rehabilitation as “something different” then what is everyone else doing now?
And how many of them will stay long enough to make this “something different” happen?
If they are going onto the landings and have been told they will be focusing specifically on rehabilitation how will that go down with other members of staff, when they are so stressed that even the minimum requirements are hard to achieve?
Will there be a clash in their work expectations, disruption or problems with team dynamics, an “us and them”?
What people are saying about Unlocked Grads
I asked a former Prison Officer about his thoughts on this scheme, this is what he said, word for word:
“Hi Faith, my feelings are that most of them will be eaten alive by inmates, as grads won’t be from the same background as most inmates. A lot of grads would have been brought up with a “silver spoon in their mouths” and inmates will spot this a mile off and some inmates will sense this and will make their lives hell, I can’t see grads staying in the job for long, HMP need to employ people who are over 25 years old with some life experience”
I also spoke to someone who has been working in Education in prisons for years. They told me:
“The YO’s will make mincemeat of these university kids. And the older men will not like being told what to do by a kid. The whole enterprise seems absolutely mad, ill-thought out and with absolutely no thought given to basic – really basic – psychology”
Another quote, this time from a senior civil servant within the MoJ, who told me:
“the ideological approach is now wearing very thin”
One of the 2018 Cohort told me Unlocked Grads have a contract for 6 years and they described the 2017 Cohort as “guinea pigs”.
A few said they were going to be working in HMP Wandsworth, and they seemed somewhat amazed that I could describe in clear detail the layout, and the condition I personally encountered there at Wandsworth on numerous visits I had made.
Yet not one of them asked me who I was.
Curiously, I was told by a speaker at ICPA 2017 that, in his plenary address Michael Spurr said, without actually name-dropping Unlocked Grads, that he didn’t believe the principle of employing grads was the answer to the issue.
Given that Mr Spurr was invited to speak at Unlocked Grads Summer Institute in front of both the 2017 and the 2018 Cohorts, this is utterly remarkable and serves to remind us that Unlocked Grads doesn’t appear to have universal acceptance – even within HMPPS.
Overall, it all appears to be secretive, behind closed doors; many in the Justice sector I speak to about it is saying the same.
On 9th September, I listened to the BBC report by Danny Shaw about the Unlocked Grads and questioned whether it was advertising? Where was the balance, where was the incisive journalism we have come to expect from BBC News’ home affairs correspondent?
In his report, Danny Shaw said: “Governors have found it hard to find and retain staff.”
Governors need to find and retain staff, right, but are the Unlocked Grads planning to stick around?
Also, I noticed in that report a focus on ‘Sophie’ from the 2017 Cohort deployed at HMP Coldingley. Half way through the video reportage where it says: ‘Now Sophie is helping to train the next set of recruits’. This seemed a bit odd; how developed is her jail craft after one year and why is someone who is not fully trained themselves, not a qualified trainer or an instructor, doing the training?
Further on in the reportage, Natasha Porter says:
“If you can deescalate a landing full of prisoners…”
That’s a big expectation, placing massive pressure on you as a new recruit.
It appears to me that the Unlocked Grads leadership scheme encourages the participants to see it is a stepping stone to a career elsewhere. This follows the same pattern that has occurred in the MoJ over the last few years with a continuous change of Secretary of State for Justice and Prisons Minister.
Does this just perpetuate the problem of lack of continuity in the Justice sector?
Retention, Retention, Retention
Unlocked Grads Programme purports to fill a gap in frontline prison staff but if these grads walk into other opportunities after 2 years, with other Government departments or with Private sector sponsors, then it defeats the objective of positioning it as anything with real-world ‘Custodial Environments’ credibility.
One young man on the 2nd Cohort said to me he hadn’t made up his mind if he would stay after the two years. Another said:
“I’m going to be Prison Officer for two years”
Therefore, if they are not contributing long-term, are they inadvertently placing a drain on already-scarce resources?
Academic standards and expectations
Unlocked Grads is delivered mainly as an online programme to an MSc with a summer school at the beginning of year one and the chance to write a policy document in the second year.
Job adverts have been posted asking for criminology dissertation supervisors that don’t necessarily have to be academics.
So apparently now we have those that are not trainers, training and those that are not academics supervising academic work at a Masters degree level !
Is it a prison officer training programme or an educational programme?
A member of Unlocked Grads staff said to me last week that the Ministry of Justice will no longer evaluate the programme. So how will it now be evaluated and by whom?
[If the link has been taken down, just click on the image here to read what the job advert said]
The University of Suffolk has been chosen to run this top-flight programme for training prison officers, yet where is any information?
If such a “prestigious” course is being run there why is nothing about it shared with the local press?
Local media were unaware of the start of the second cohort.
Were Sandy Martin MP for Ipswich (in whose constituency the University of Suffolk is located) or Tim Passmore, Suffolk’s Police and Crime Commissioner, invited for the launch?
What is it really all about – filling up desk spaces inside Petty France with Faststreamers?
Or is it even a short-term solution for Prison Officer shortages?
Yes, we do need leadership but that has to come through experience, surely?
Unlocked Graduates is currently incubated within the registered charity called Catch 22 Charity Limited, Charity Number 1124127. It is not a stand-alone charity even though on the Unlocked Grads website it states: “Unlocked is a charity…” (see image below).
It is funded by Unlocked Graduates which is financed by the Ministry of Justice.
In other words, these young people are being offered Master’s level qualifications paid for from the public purse.
This necessitates openness and fully transparency, doesn’t it?
And yet in the Annual Report and Accounts to 31 August 2017 for Catch 22 Charity Limited, Company no. 6577534 there is a simple mention of Unlocked Grads on page 21 and page 25 but there is no reference to the specific activity of Unlocked Grads in Notes to the Accounts, either as restricted funds or as unrestricted funds.
The Unlocked Grads website asserts that:
“The Unlocked Graduates programme was one of the key recommendations of the Coates’ Review of prison education, a report that argued that education needs to be put at the heart of the prison service if Government is serious about the rehabilitation of prisoners.”
I have read the Coates’ Review, and nowhere in the review does it cite that the Unlocked Grads programme was a key recommendation. In fact, the publicly available version of the Coates’ Review doesn’t include the words “Unlocked Graduates” at all, anywhere.
Therefore, this is a misrepresentation of what the review states. Below is the actual recommendation:
A new scheme to attract high calibre graduates to work in prisons for an initial period of two years should be introduced. The role should be as a prison officer with an additional remit to support education at the heart of the prison regime.”
Natasha Porter, CEO of the Unlocked Grads programme, was on the review panel for the Coates’ Review and Dame Sally Coates is on the board for Unlocked Grads.
How very convenient.
The Coates’ Review was published on 18th May 2016 and the Unlocked Grads scheme was launched on 21st Dec 2016. Why are these dates important, shouldn’t this exceptionally rapid time to market be commended?
In normal circumstances, yes, such as in the private sector, but this is Government and we all know that the government rarely, if ever, moves that quickly on justice-related issues. Take for example, the Corston Report ‘A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system’ from March 2007; on the shelf for over 11 years and counting.
As this is a Government contract, and we have learned they have it for 6 years what was the procurement process and where is the publicly available tender?
I cannot find it on Official Journal of European Union (OJEU). If it was a non-competitive tender, why was only one private-sector provider aware of it? No other educators I have spoken to were ever approached.
Surely nothing is stopping any other private education company from setting up a similar training scheme. BPP University was the first private educator to be granted the ability to award recognised degrees in 2013. What is stopping them, or a similar organisation, coming up with a Graduate programme using prisons?
Launched so quickly after the publication of the Coates’ Review, it is completely out of character for public sector procurement processes to have been satisfied within such a short timescale.
Which leads us to have to question whether prior knowledge played a material part in either the establishing of the Unlocked Grads programme or the inclusion of Recommendation 11, or both, or neither.
Wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Is now the time for a scheme like Unlocked Grads to place quantities of inexperienced officers in the frontline when the Inspectorate have just issued their 4th urgent notification to Secretary of State for Justice?
In the latest urgent notification for HMP Bedford, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, states:
“A lack of staff and experience undermined the work of the offender management unit.
…77% of available officers had less than one years’ service. There was a corresponding lack of experience at all levels, and it was clear that this was having a significant impact on many areas of prison life”
One young female Unlocked Grad in the 2018 Cohort told me her parents were worried about what she was doing. I’m not surprised, as a parent I would be too.
It made me think why is the Unlocked Grads scheme putting young people’s lives in possible dangerous and hostile surroundings such as HMP Wandsworth after only a few weeks training? They are ill-equipped and not sufficiently trained for what may lie ahead.
We have unskilled interviewers marking candidates on their suitability, we have untrained trainers training the latest cohort, and we have the possibility of non-academics as supervisors for the Master’s dissertation.
In addition, we have a course led by a member of the review panel of the Coates’ Review.
Moreover, was recommendation 11 of the Coates’ Review written to fit the Unlocked Grads Programme or was the Unlocked Grads programme written to fit recommendation 11?
In the public interest, I think we all have the right and duty to question this to assure that Government reports have not been manipulated by private sector commercial interests or non-government organisations.
The question needs to be asked and the answer given, in plain English that everyone can understand.
In reality, very little real information is available in the public domain about the Unlocked Grads programme. In drafting this blog, I have taken great care to gather, collate and corroborate information in which I could personally have sufficient confidence. The objective of this blog is not to criticise any individual but to question the soundness of this programme and the way in which it is conducted. I commend the young people for their ambitiousness and intellect; the issue is not with them. It is with those policy makers, who have approved this programme – they are the ones to whom questions should now be addressed.
SITUATION UPDATE 28 SEPT 2018
Subsequent to publishing this post on 22 September 2018, it has come to my attention that the leading local newspaper East Anglian Daily Times has published not one but two articles about Unlocked Grads.
27 Sept 2018 ‘‘No substance’ to claim uniform policy threatens prison guard trainees‘ by Tom Potter (tweeting as @TomPotterEADT)
28 Sept 2018 ‘Could Netflix’s Orange is the New Black be attracting more British women to become prison officers‘ by Jessica Hill (tweeting as @jessjanehill)
This is an astonishing turn of events. Either Unlocked Grads and University of Suffolk have moved quickly to resolve the question I asked “If such a “prestigious” course is being run there why is nothing about it shared with the local press?” and to dispel concerns of secrecy, or these were pre-scheduled PR pieces.
Either way, it raises more questions.
A bright summer’s day. A short car journey, a train, 2 tubes, 2 more trains and I finally arrived after more than 5 hours of travelling, into Wrexham. I’ve come to HMP Berwyn. I’m here with an open mind and at the invitation of the No 1 Governor, Russell Trent.
HMP Berwyn is not very well signposted, it’s as if the locality is reluctant to admit such a place exists in their own backyard. On the way here, I asked some locals for their opinion on the prison, its location and its size given that it is not yet at full capacity. Many local people were hesitant in speaking about it. Others were really bemused when I said I was on my way there to meet the Governor.
“Well, they need to build a bigger car park”, one local said.
On arrival, from the outside, it resembles a business park not a prison.
Entering through large open doors I was greeted by a uniformed officer with a friendly face who showed me the lockers for my bag and phone, and the door to enter the prison. But it was the wrong door. I wasn’t asked why I was there or even who I was. I was sent back outside to another door, this time I approached a glass window and said I was here to see Russell Trent. Simple.
Unfortunately, the officer there had no record of my visit. Great start. I was then asked to put my driving licence onto the window, so they could read my name. Bingo, the glass screens opened, and I was inside.
I fully expected to be patted down. I wasn’t. I expected an officer to pass a wand over me. They didn’t. This surprised me.
The site is huge. I was immediately impressed by the overall cleanliness, both inside and out, the wide-open spaces between communities and grass, yes real grass, and flower beds. There was even a small area where they hold services of remembrance.
V = value each other and celebrate achievements
A = act with integrity and always speak the truth
L = look to the future with ambition and hope
U = uphold fairness and justice in all we do
E = embrace Welsh language and culture
S = stick at it
Sitting on a comfortable sofa opposite Number 1 Governor Russell Trent in his office, he pointed out the motivational quote on the wall.
“When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows not the flower”
But motivational quotes are everywhere throughout the prison, on stairwells, in corridors alongside photos of Wales. Another one that caught my eye was:
“You have got to be the change you want to see”
The Governor handed me a small pack of cards; each card represents a different Berwyn practice for each day of the month.
Day 1. We recognise achievements and celebrate successes #thankyou
Day 2. We actively listen to each other and make eye contact #respect
Day 3. We offer and ask for help and feedback #support
You get the idea.
This is a first, I have never brought anything out of a prison that I haven’t taken in and I have never seen such motivational material in quite the same way in any other prison I have visited. And I’ve been to every category of prison, more than once.
Having the opportunity to accompany Governor Trent as he did his rounds meant we could talk as we toured communities, healthcare, college, library, horticulture, accommodation, etc.
I watched as well as listened, as I always do, with my notebook at the ready for contemporaneous note taking. Governor Trent appears to be on the ball, knowing the names of the men and their sentence. Many politely came up to him with a query or problem they wanted resolving. If he didn’t have the answer, then he signposted or agreed to meet them later. I did find it odd when he was called “Russ” and even “Trenty”. I thought that was a bit over-familiar considering the whole ethos was of respect. Something didn’t quite add up.
In various conversations, the name of a certain community came up more than once and so did the name of a member of staff. It appeared some men felt fobbed off by this individual. I chose not to probe this but preferred to watch how it was dealt with.
I was introduced to the prosocial model of behaviour, a rehabilitative culture, making big feel small, the principle of normality and much more. Yes, Governor Trent is driven and considering over 90% of frontline staff have never worked in a prison before he has to sell his regime not only to the men but to the staff also.
The Ministry of Justice is very good at musical chairs, moving leaders around the prison service. It makes me wonder how long Governor Trent will remain at Berwyn.
Can Berwyn culture function without him and will the vision live on without his oversight?
Or will the settling cracks be more prominent or permanent?
In March 2018 there was a Death in Custody at Berwyn. The Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) is still investigating and this death is unclassified as the cause is not yet known. I will not jump to any conclusions.
What I can say is during my visit I neither saw nor heard nor smelled any signs of drug abuse or spice.
Health and Wellbeing
Page 12 of ‘Rehabilitative Culture at Berwyn‘ states that “promotion of health and wellbeing is the responsibility of all whether they are living or working at Berwyn”. I think that collective ownership like this is a good thing because it means that the sole responsibility is not just carried on the shoulders of the healthcare team. The reason why this is good is because it replicates what goes on in the wider society.
I saw team sports in action, outdoor gym equipment and the outdoor running track. One initiative that caught my interest was the ‘Governor’s Running Club’. Men were proudly wearing their t-shirts which they were entitled to have once they had attended 5 successive weeks. Governor Trent emphasised to me that it was more about the commitment than the fitness.
Whilst all this looks favourable, one question I still have is the level of staff sickness at Berwyn. In ‘Annual HM Prison and Probation Service digest: 2017 to 2018, Chapter 15 tables – Staff sickness absence’ for the period 1st April 2017 to 31st March 2018 there were 3,628 working days lost (see Table 15.1, Column U, Row 18). It raises a concern as to why this is, given that Berwyn is not at full capacity and new communities are only opened once sufficient staff are in place.
It’s all very well having unlock at 08:15 and lockup at 19:15 but if the industries, education, workshops, purposeful activities are not there then what?
And what do we mean by purposeful activity?
I saw one of the workshops, sewing prison regulation towels. A monotonous task, processing the same off-white coloured towelling. I’ve seen the same activity in other prisons such as HMP Norwich. Why is this happening in Berwyn? If sewing is to be one of the “purposeful activities” then surely this could be expanded to sewing something less bland and uninteresting using acquired skills that may be genuinely useful on release. For example, Fine Cell Work showcases how this is possible both inside and after release with their post-prison programme.
In another workshop I saw, I felt I was looking at something more purposeful; it was a call centre, provided by Census Group, run by a woman who was keen to praise the men in her group. I could see how skills learned here could translate into meaningful employment on the outside as well as provide interest, variation and a challenge for those participating in this activity.
I briefly stepped into the College building housing the prison library. If it wasn’t for the jangling of keys you could have been in any educational institution.
Whereas I had expected the heat, because my visit was in August, I had not expected the temperature levels inside on the landings of the communities and in the rooms I visited. It must have been at least 30 degrees.
I had heard a lot about the rooms here and saw many photos. However, you need to walk in one to fully understand the scale. For the rooms which are single occupancy they are compact, but I’ve seen smaller. A raised bed, with storage underneath, a desk with monitor, a plastic moulded chair. It has a shower/toilet/wash basin in the corner with a short curtain acting as a screen. And a small safe for locking away any medical supplies and that’s your lot.
Unfortunately, with only 30% of the rooms in Berwyn built for single occupancy the majority of the men have to double up.
In the double-occupancy rooms, it is the same layout for two but only slightly wider and another small bed with storage underneath. To share a room with someone you have never met and to have so little privacy going to the toilet or having a shower is entirely unacceptable for a new build prison in the 21st Century.
Here is where I have a problem with Berwyn as a model for Titan prisons.
According to ‘The Report of the Zahid Mubarek Inquiry’ published in June 2006, (download the PDF here) there were three main recommendations concerning enforced cell-sharing:
- The elimination of enforced cell-sharing should remain the objective of the Prison Service, and the achievement of this goal should be regarded as a high priority.
- The Prison Service should review whether the resources currently available to it might be better deployed towards achieving this goal, without compromising standards in other areas, and should set a date for realising this objective.
- If the resources currently available to the Prison Service are insufficient to produce a significant decrease in enforced cell-sharing, central government should allocate further funds to the Prison Service to enable more prisoners to be accommodated in cells on their own.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to be astonished that after 12 years these recommendations were not incorporated into the planning of Berwyn. They were made long before the architects’ drawings were prepared and before any ground works were dug.
How can the concept of a Titan prison be a showcase, a flagship, when recommendations such as these are willfully overlooked? Was it in pursuit of lower unit cost per prisoner?
Economies of scale
If it is such a flagship of the Ministry of Justice, a social experiment, a regime extraordinaire, or whatever you wish to call it, why hasn’t the Secretary of State for Justice or the Prisons Minister visited? I will urge them to come and see Berwyn for themselves.
I already have my doubts that Berwyn will ever reach its full capacity so in that case what is stopping it from turning all double rooms into single occupancy?
It has been built to 70% double, 30% single rooms, like a Walmart of the Prison Service, pack them high, sell them cheap
During my visit I was informed that the cost per head was £14,000. Afterwards, I contacted Berwyn to confirm and was told £13,500 per head. Compare this to the average annual overall cost of a prison place in England and Wales at £38,042 in 2017, according to Ministry of Justice report on ‘Costs per prison place and cost per prisoner by individual’, £35,182 in 2016 (download the 2017 PDF here and the 2016 PDF here). See: Table 2a, Summary Comparison
I wouldn’t be surprised if the figure was more like £11,000 – £12,000 per head at Berwyn, its “economies of scale” achieved by factors such as low salaries of frontline staff in their first year of service being the predominant workforce here.
The Berwyn Way
All the men arriving into HMP Berwyn are given Enhanced IEP status. The idea behind this is that the men then have to take some personal ownership to maintain that level. In other words, it leaves no room for incentives to improve status but only punishment if you don’t make the grade. In my opinion, it makes a nonsense of the IEP system and is inconsistent with many of the sending prisons of which there are 65. Is this demotivating those who have worked hard to achieve Enhanced elsewhere?
I remember when the last changes with IEP came into effect with Chris Grayling. Working in a prison where most of the men were on Enhanced yet half of them did not fulfil the new criteria to be on Enhanced. This brought about a two-tier system when people were transferred into the prison as they had to adhere to the new rules. This issue alone can have a big impact on the culture and effective daily operations inside a prison. I feel the same pitfall maybe true of Berwyn, albeit inadvertent.
I noted later that in the document ‘The Berwyn Way’ 3. Strategic priorities, Rehabilitative culture.
3.8 An important part of the realisation of Berwyn’s rehabilitative culture will be changing behaviour by reward, not punishment and everyone will work hard to uphold this ambition.
How can this be so when the IEP system is used not to reward, but to punish?
There is a clear disconnect here.
Respect: to get it you must give it
I noted that on one occasion entering a community, staff immediately stood up as we entered. My immediate thoughts, was this just a mark of respect or fear of reprisal later?
I rather hope it is the former rather than the latter.
But I have been in enough SMT meetings in other prisons, where Governing Governors have mouthed off over even a trivial matter, to know how that could have been out of fear.
I shook hands with many members of staff and the men housed there. Some men apologised for their language even though it wasn’t aimed at me. This showed self-awareness which is a vital characteristic in life as well as in living in a prison.
I came away with a brochure about the rehabilitative culture at Berwyn, a document on ‘The Berwyn Way’, a desk top flip chart and pack of cards of the Berwyn Values.
I’m commenting on a regime, I’m not criticising any individual. I’m evaluating and analysing what the consequences might look like for Berwyn based on what I have personally seen and heard.
The model of single-occupancy rooms is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
It is time HMPPS stops putting profit before people.
Positive reinforcement of behaviour works much better than penalties.
In my opinion I would have to say, on the balance of probability, there should never be another prison built on the scale of Berwyn.
This visit to HMP Berwyn took place on Thursday 2nd August 2018.
My time and expenses were entirely self-funded.
Thrown into the media limelight through false accusations, I’m sure we have all seen a photo of Liam Allan splashed across the front pages of the newspapers. His case became a bellwether of incomplete disclosure of evidence. As a student who has recently graduated with a degree in Criminology and Criminal Psychology he wasn’t immune to the injustices that are prevalent within our Criminal Justice System.
Regardless of age, many are so hurt and damaged by the trauma of false accusations that they have completely lost faith in the system. It’s not surprising when your life has been turned upside down to want some form of apology, recompense or even revenge.
But, remarkably this is not the case with Liam, speaking with him a few days ago I was astonished by his lack of counterattack and malice. He is trying to live a normal life and planning for his future in studying for a Master’s in Psychology.
He spoke clearly, with compassion, with a hint of frustration but most of all with a vision and purpose.
He shared with me the need for public awareness about miscarriages of justice, and his desire to help those who are innocent. It’s only working together and through education can there can be prevention of more false accusations coming to court and destroying individuals and families alike?
“I don’t want to take anything away from actual victims”
“Everyone is becoming aware that they are not being listened to”
“There has to be some form of punishment for false accusers”
Liam and his friend Annie Brodie Akers have founded a new initiative called Innovation of Justice. Through its work they aim to present a united powerful, collaborative, and collective voice to the Crown Prosecution Service, Police, Justice Committee and decision makers.
Plan of Action
To host conferences to allow an opportunity for everyone to communicate, relax and create strong bonds that will help bring about the right changes together.
- To unite as many people as possible, and work with the Police and Crown Prosecution Service to create a dialogue for change
- Formation of a board of elected representatives: to meet with the leading stakeholders, Police leaders and the Justice Committee. to discuss the proposals for change, as one united voice to the media
- Focus solely on helping the innocent people that have been wrongly convicted and resolve the issues within the CJS
Ways to get in touch and support
Twitter: @liam_allan95, @abrodieakers or @cmcgourlay #innovatingjustice
Just Giving page: https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/innovation-of-justice
Register your interest in the following conferences:
Photo courtesy David Mirzoeff / Press Association / The Times, 30 July 2018