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An antidote to the EU Referendum.
The nation goes to the polls today to determine whether we Leave or Remain, but that’s all I’m saying about the European Referendum. You can think of this post as an antidote to all the drivel you’ve heard, from both sides of the debate it has to be said. The claims, the counterclaims and the half-truths we’ve all heard uttered sometimes with spectacular bravado.
There’s a micro- In or Out conundrum going on over here in the East of England, coincidentally not far from the most easterly geographical point of the UK to continental Europe.
Let’s talk about In or Out of prison.
I used to be ‘IN’
There’s truth in the well-used idiom “with power comes responsibility”. The right of access all areas within a prison is one of those situations to which this applies. I never took it lightly. Having keys to the prison seems to be a thoroughly abstract concept for many, but as a public official appointed by the Secretary of State for Justice to monitor that’s exactly what you have. You’re appointed to be the eyes and the ears. And to record what you see and what you hear around the prison you monitor.
This isn’t some fanciful hobby for those with a lot of time on their hands. Long the brunt of jibes about beige Volvos, tweed twin set and pearls, being an independent monitor should not be a country club. This is the sharp end of monitoring how a nation treats those in its custody. And it requires people who have the big picture as well as an eagle eye for the detail. I’ve seen a lot and I’ve heard a lot. And as a monitor I only write what I see and what I hear. No spin and no opinion. Just the facts.
Remembering how thrilled I was to be accepted onto the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) when I first started. I absorbed the training, passed induction and quickly found my feet performing monitoring visits as part of the team rota. As a member, I derived considerable satisfaction from thinking that what I was doing was making a difference. It had to make a difference; there was no salary for the work so the only payback was the job satisfaction. And make no mistake, monitoring done properly is real work.
As a Vice-Chair, I served a frequently absent Chairman as if I were their very own personal assistant. It felt like it at times, especially the Saturday evening calls to my home number or the Sunday-for-Monday interruptions. My network became the area Chairs in other prisons. My responsibilities expanded and I took it all on board, in part relishing the challenge. Yet there were some niggles creeping in, as I was required to shoulder the thick end of the workload without being empowered with the authority to do much about any of it.
On one occasion I recall being put firmly back on my box by the then Chairman. “How dare you say you’re the acting Chair. You’re my Vice-Chair, not the acting Chair” they said, speaking down at me like an intolerant owner upbraiding a truanting cocker spaniel. Bit rich really, given that the then Chairman was the one for whom I had covered no less than 162 days absence in a single calendar year. Yes I kept a record! (as I told you, monitors record exactly what they see and what they hear, and tend to notice when the Chair is away for 44% of the time).
Believing the best and hoping it wouldn’t last, I went along with it. I wouldn’t go along with it now. Nor will I ever again in the future. I don’t recall many, if any, occasions I felt truly supported by them.
In retrospect, it’s a bit sad really, don’t you think?
When the time came, I embraced the opportunity to serve the Board as Chairman only after I was sure I was ready to fulfil the role and could gather dependable people around me. These positions are never ones to grasp at.
A colleague agreed that if I was willing to serve as Chairman then they would step up as Vice-Chair. Despite commitments running their own business the Vice-Chair was incredibly supportive in every way the past Chair wasn’t able to be. Or didn’t wish to be. And so it was from January 2016, following nominations the previous October, we set to work and gelled like dream team.
And together we worked hard to build the team around us. Sacrificing time from other priorities to come in to the prison often when it was inconvenient, why, because it just had to be done. These are the sort of things they don’t tell you about when they pitch volunteering to you. But we did it anyway, and cheerfully for the most part; it’s what you make if it.
Mentoring volunteers was very enjoyable but it took on dimensions I never thought would be part of the remit, for example, teaching an IMB member how to use a computer mouse for the first time in their lives, let alone the depths of Quantum, the NOMS secure intranet (Gawd bless it) or the CJSM email system (don’t get me started on that one).
More than matching time volunteered on monitoring with time volunteered on Chairman’s responsibilities (yes, even Chairs should perform monitoring visits), I expanded on my knowledge of the criminal justice system through taking up invitations to visit other prisons. I wanted to learn as much as I could about every category of prison and see for myself the conditions for those held in custody in those places, and better understand what monitoring looked like for them.
Additionally, to learn more on policy, I became a frequent visitor at the House of Commons Select Committee on Justice (Twitter @CommonsJustice) where I could see, hear and meet those giving oral evidence. I learned to fine tune my own sense of scrutiny, making less hasty judgements and leaping to conclusions without having first studied the facts.
I read widely on the subject of justice, even calling into The Institute of Criminology and the Cambridge University Library on occasions to check for myself the validity of references being cited in some of the material I was consuming. (The Tea Room there is as much an eye opener as the Rare Books section; you get to talk and make friends with rather influential and interesting people over a cuppa).
In short, I was fortunate to gain a well-informed view of the big picture and a well-grounded understanding of how that applied to specific areas, including monitoring.
As my understanding grew, very obvious holes in the system began to make themselves clear to me, making them compelling enough for me not to look the other way.
As I monitored, I looked and listened. As I worked, I saw. As I visited, I heard. As I studied, I realised. And as I realised, I knew – I knew that what I was seeing and hearing and learning was not all it is cracked up to be.
So I wrote, firstly about topics that caught my attention and my responses to them and then about good practice and about areas for improvement. Whereas these first appeared only in blog format now my opinions have been published in The Prisons Handbook 2016, the definitive guide to prisons in England and Wales for over 18 years.
Just imagine my amazement when, having gone beyond the call of duty and having delivered all this into a Board I thought I had alongside me, an ambush was set for me on 19 April 2016 for which nothing could have prepared me.
I’ve written before about this awful episode and yes, regardless of what may have been claimed by others, I have had to call it what it was, workplace bullying (remember, as a monitor I only write what I see and what I hear, no spin). Suffice to say it has become a tipping point in more ways than anyone would have anticipated.
But now I’m ‘OUT’
Suspending me pending an MOJ investigation is what the Prisons Minister decided to do when he received a report from The IMB Secretariat about me. I’ve no idea what was in that report; I’ve not been given sight of it and although I’ve asked for a copy, nothing has been forthcoming. Despite what the Minister himself wrote, I have now been told it is not a report, but a submission from The IMB Secretariat, and legislation has been quoted to try and prevent me from seeing it.
Barred from stepping foot on the prison estate without prior appointment and vetting, the system has spat me out. Where once there was free movement anywhere inside, now I’m bouncing off the perimeter unable to enter let alone monitor.
The story is not quite finished and I’m not leaving it there.
There now seems to a “war of attrition” but I’m not playing those games. Information about me is being withheld despite my requesting unredacted copies of it from the Minister and the MOJ, and they are trying to keep me in the dark.
I want to be reinstated.
The second letter went in to the Prisons Minister on 17 June. I’ve asked the Minister to reinstate me.
But I’ve also asked the Prisons Minister eleven questions which you the public have a right to hear from him on. Refer to page 2 and page 3. If he doesn’t reply to me, perhaps he will reply to you. Write to him and press him for answers on what’s happening with Hollesley Bay monitoring. Don’t accept “stock answers” copied and pasted into pre-templated letters; demand the facts in a personal letter from the Minister not his staff.
DOWNLOAD : Letter Spear to Selous 17 Jun 2016 public
It’s not about me. It’s always been about the issues
And the issues I raised in my original article published in The Prisons Handbook 2016 have never been disputed by the Minister or by the Secretary of State, yet seem to be enough to turn my fellow board members hard-fast against me, to raise the hackles in the IMB Secret-ariat (sic) and to cause a thunder storm inside the MOJ.
Of course I do want the personal cost I’ve paid, and that my family has paid with me since 19 April, to amount to something.
I don’t want to be a name that meant something to a handful of people once then was quickly forgotten or surreptitiously ‘air-brushed’ from record.
Being reinstated would mean the Board can get on with the vital job of monitoring, becoming a watchdog again, and being in the heart of the action to realise prison reform.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
In all candour, I’m so fearful that the net result of my speaking out in good faith will leave me at a massive disadvantage and consequently damage any prospects I might have had to find employment in anything related to the justice sector. Outside again, with a reputation on a par with the zika virus and with my self-esteem around my ankles tripping me up when trying to move forwards from here.
But my biggest fear of all is that nothing will change for those already in the sector.
Not calling out issues means no change for salaried civil servants spending immensely valuable time just going through the motions at taxpayers’ expense.
Keeping quiet on issues means no change for prison Governors with the Inspectorate breathing down their neck every so often without monitors there to provide real checks and balances.
Not calling out issues means no change for members of IMBs everywhere whose well-meaning sense of duty and willingness to volunteer is privately despised and whose voice is muffled by a dysfunctional Secretariat which is anything but independent.
Keeping quiet on issues means no changes to a pointless National Council whose nameless and faceless structure smacks more of a secret society with a presidency that’s widely regarded as irrelevant and a President even the public regard as yesterday’s man.
And whilst all that turbulence goes on inside the MOJ, not calling out issues means there’s no change for people in custody. In paying their “debt to society” through loss of liberty they also pay perhaps a higher price than most people imagine, banged up for 23 hours a day in institutions which for the most part are understaffed, unfunded and underperforming.
Penal facilities which neither correct, rehabilitate nor reduce reoffending are, in my considered opinion, facilities that should be the most closely monitored facilities of all.
I believe in monitoring.
And I want to be reinstated.
I want to be ‘IN’ all over again.