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On this day the only April fools are my critics

Today marks a year since my life was turned upside down.

 

On this day, I accepted an invitation from the editor of The Prisons Handbook to write an article on my personal experiences of being a member of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) for the Prisons Handbook 2016.

Faith Spear outside UL Cambridge 9283 400px

Door of opportunity: University Library, Cambridge

If I wrote it, he promised to publish it, and he did! You can find it on pages 20-23, after Michael Gove’s Foreward and just before the transcript of David Cameron’s speech on prisons.

Little did either of us realise the scale of interest from that one article.

Even before the book went to press I was catapulted into the media both local and National.

The local IMB board, IMB Secretariat, President of the National Council and National Council itself all decided that I needed to be shut up and shut up quickly.

The bullying started then the intimidation then the lies and then the prejudicial character assassination.

One Hollesley Bay IMB member who is still a member had the audacity to tell me that it would have helped if I had cried in front of the board whilst apologising for writing the article.

Call me contrary, but I make no apologies for having written the article. It was well grounded and factually correct, corroborated by the contents of the report by Karen Page Associates which the Ministry of Justice itself commissioned.

I did apologise for any offence caused as that was not my intention. The issues I raised are as important now as they were a year ago, I haven’t seen enough progress in any of the points I carefully considered and wrote about.

Those who truly know me can understand why I spoke out so passionately and continue to do so. I was given a platform which I took eagerly but never expected the venom, backlash, and dirty tactics by the IMB and MoJ in trying to destroy me my reputation and my working life.

But I have remained and will continue to remain steadfast in the knowledge that I spoke the truth and ultimately that’s all that matters.

My life has been turned upside down but I’m in some way I’m grateful for that. I have had the privilege to meet some of the most extraordinary people both in and out of prison and I have no regrets.

So, I’m not shutting up and I’m not going away

I’m #justgettingstarted

Join the conversation on Twitter:  @fmspear #justgettingstarted

~

 

Over 60,000 allocated visits in prisons by the IMB

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

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

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

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

How many more prisons do not satisfy their allocations?

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

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

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

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

Annual Reports

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

Am I being harsh? NO.

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

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

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

Updated 07 March 2017

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Why our prisons need to be reformed

First published 05 January 2017 in East Anglian Daily Times under the headline ‘Prison reform is taking too long, say ex-Hollesley Bay IMB chairman and former inmate’

Had the authorities listened to the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at HMP Birmingham the riot on 16 December maybe could have been prevented. In their annual report the IMB wrote:

“the increasingly difficult behaviour of individual prisoners coupled with staff resource constraints give the Board cause for concern… Many staff are now concerned for their personal safety as well as for the safety of the prisoners… A solution is required urgently.”

Instead what happened was described by the Prison Officers Association as the biggest prison riot since Strangeways in 1990.

So why have prisoners behaved in this way?

Toxic combination

Sentencing guidelines have placed more people in prison for longer periods of time and has, therefore, inflated the prison population to record numbers. This in turn has given rise to overcrowding, and together with under-staffing and the emergence of psychoactive substances also known as “legal highs”, our prisons have become places of deprivation on a record scale. It’s a toxic combination.

Faith Spear

Faith Spear 

Less well publicised factors such as restricted access to education, to facilities, and the right of association with one another add to the frustration felt by those living inside. People being locked in their cell for 23 hours every day or sometimes for days on end during “lock down” creates a volatile atmosphere.

A high number of people in custody suffer from genuine mental health issues. They are imprisoned sometimes to protect society. But those are in the minority. Many people in prison with mental health issues are only there because the courts have no idea what else to do with them. For their sake and for the sake of society in which we all live, it is entirely the wrong place to send them.

IPP is defunct

Others are in prison under the now defunct rules on Imprisonment for Public Protection, known simply as “IPP”. These people don’t have a release date. Many prisoners today under IPP have already served time far beyond the normal tariff They are left to languish until the parole board decides it is safe to let them out.

I’m not saying we should open the prison doors and let everyone walk out. That would be reckless and irresponsible. But I am saying it is time to speed up the process of evaluation to make sure that those who don’t pose any risk to the public be allowed to go home as soon as possible.

What concerns me most is the utter boredom that so many of people in custody must endure. They are invariably portrayed as having a low IQ, a high percentage with a reading age of an 11year old; many have been in care and come from seriously complex situations. What isn’t realised is that many people in custody are intelligent, well-educated and have skills that could benefit other prisoners and need something worthwhile to do.

In other words, purposeful activity whilst in prison must be a priority. Lives are wasted here; I see it all the time.

So many organisations are involved in the ‘prison industrial complex’. Big money is made from those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Everyone wants a slice of the profits, but too little is re-invested in the prisoners and in the conditions in which they are held.

There are not enough links with the outside community, with colleges and University. Too few businesses are willing to give prisoners another chance, but without a fresh start it is impossible for them to be reintegrated back into society.

Beyond the Gate

I have seen the crushing stigma that ex-prisoners live under on release; the failure of a system that is meant to be there for them beyond the gate, the lack of accommodation, the difficulties of finding work, the list goes on.

It’s time for society to think differently towards people who find themselves in prison.

“Our prisons are in crisis and prison reform is taking too long.”

Art for arts sake/prison for prisons sake

I was in Liverpool at the weekend attending the ‘How violent is Britain’ conference, hosted by the University of Liverpool and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies which was attended by academia, policy makers and practitioners within the Criminal Justice System.

Whilst walking around the Tate in Liverpool, I recognised some unlikely parallels believe it or not between prisons and art galleries. It started by me thinking “who decided this was art? why is this piece of art here? and Oh that is a good idea” we all have our tastes, our ideas, our expressions, we are all different, individual. Every piece of art here is numbered, recorded and catalogued. Some piece have been transferred from other collections or other galleries, yet some are new. There are many flavours, many expressions and many tastes here. Security is high, you are watched.

Now let’s turn the page; walking around a prison my thoughts are “who decided this was a crime? why is this prisoner here? and that is a good idea” Every prisoner is numbered, recorded and categorised. Some have been transferred from other jails or other institutions and some are new to the system. Many nationalities many ethnic origins are represented here. Security is high, you are watched.

Which environment do I prefer?

In a gallery I look, enquire, have an interest, ponder, sometime write, buy postcards as a reminder to myself and to show others and then leave and return to my world.

In a prison I look, enquire, have an interest, ponder, write reports to remind me and to inform others and then leave.

The difference is I cannot just return to my world, what I see and hear surrounds my mind and my soul. I cannot just turn away, I want to be able to initiate change, see progress and ultimately see the Criminal Justice System reduced. That’s not to say that I want to close all prisons, sack all the police and let people live how they want. But there has to be an element of Restoration, just like a dirty canvas to reveal the true picture. I believe justice should restore and not just criminalize. Some pieces of art have a lasting impression on me the same can be said of certain prisoners. There is an uproar when we leave pieces of art to rot and in so doing deteriorate in front of our eyes so let’s not let people rot in jails and have greater problems on release than when they arrived.