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Sat immediately behind the new Secretary of State at the Justice Select Committee (@CommonsJustice) on 07 September, I registered a lot of awkwardness that was beyond mere nervousness felt by many a new joiner.
Just like Gove’s debut in front of the same Committee where he rattled on about “we’re reviewing it” (yes, I was there for that one too), Liz Truss (@trussliz) talked largely about the formulating of “plans” but on the day said nothing about tangible actions she will take.
How many more reviews do we need?
Has Truss inherited a poisoned chalice passed from one SoS to the next? Her department has a huge accumulated mess to sort out and doesn’t know what to do about it. Is she wondering what to tackle first? The paralysis of too many priorities?
Her critics say she’s doing things wrong. Look at it for yourself and you’ll see some of the priorities she is confronted with:
- Extremism and radicalisation in prison
- Violence against other offenders and against prison staff
- Over population
- Under staffing of prisons
- Death in custody
- Drugs and drones
- Education and purposeful activity
- Resettlement and homelessness on release
You would think her advisors would know what the order of priorities are. They don’t, or if they do, they obviously prefer the relative safety of “talking shop” over the tough task of taking concrete action on these priorities.
The key question people are asking is has she actually got the shoulders for the job; she has the high office and gilded robe of the Lord Chancellor but does she have the support of those working within the criminal justice system?
Soon after her appointment from Defra to Ministry of Justice, Liz Truss paid token visits to two prisons but cannot be expected to become an instant expert on the prison system.
What other mess does the SoS need to deal with?
The system of prison monitoring is in a mess. The IMB Secretariat is in utter disarray. They say they have policies and procedures but don’t always follow them themselves. For the most part, IMBs are doing their own thing. There’s no real accountability anymore. It’s a disgrace and it’s deplorable that it’s been allowed to get as bad as it has.
For my critique of prison reform and Independent Monitor Boards, I’ve been put through two MOJ investigations. Each one takes away a little piece of me. But for me it’s always been about the issues. That’s why they can’t and won’t shut me up.
The message of prison reform has become urgent and has to get to the top. If no one else will step up and if it falls to me to take it then so be it.
No accountability anymore? Give me an example.
You want an example? Here’s one of many: At HMP Garth, the IMB Chair issued a Notice To Prisoners 048/2016 dated May 2016 without the authority to do so, and apparently without the Board agreeing it. The Chair acted unilaterally outside of governance. I found out about it because a copy of that prison notice was sent to me as it happened to be about the article “Whistle Blower Without a Whistle” that I’d written for The Prison Handbook 2016 that the IMB Garth Chair was pin-pointing, (accusing me of a “rant” whilst both his prison notice and covering letter were dripping with distain).
I’m still standing by all I said in my Whistleblower article even though writing it has been at a high personal cost. In all candour, any pride I may have had in writing it has been completely sucked away from me. It’s back to the bare metal. The inconvenient truth of what I wrote remains. Readers will find that my main themes also feature prominently in the findings of the report by Karen Page Associates, commissioned by the MOJ at a cost to the taxpayer of £18,500.
An invite I received from Brian Guthrie to the forthcoming AGM of Association of Members of IMB says it all. It read:
“From the Chair Christopher Padfield
AMIMB – the immediate future
IMB needs a voice. We believe that without AMIMB this voice will not be heard. AMIMB intends to raise its voice, but needs the support of our members.
An outline plan for the immediate future of AMIMB will be put up for discussion at the forthcoming AGM (11 October 2016 at 2 Temple Place). It aims to respond both to the main needs and opportunities, and to the practicalities of the current situation.
The greatest need, as the executive committee of the AMIMB sees it, is to achieve a public voice for Independent Monitoring Boards – to let the British public know what we, as monitors, think about prison and immigration detention policy and practice in England and Wales and the impact this has on the men, women and children detained; to achieve some public recognition for the role of IMBs; in short to speak out about what we hear and see. We have urged the National Council to do this itself, but to no avail. In character, the NC propose as their contribution to the Parliamentary Justice Select Committee’s current consultation on Prison Reform, a response to a procedural question: ‘are existing mechanisms for … independent scrutiny of prisons fit for purpose?’ If the NC cannot or will not speak out, AMIMB should.”
Mr Padfield has served as IMB Chairman at HMP Bedford but to my knowledge has never been suspended pending investigation by the Prisons Minister like I was for speaking out on such things.
And therein lays the dilemma: whereas the official line is to encourage monitors to speak out, the reprisals levelled at you when you actually do are still shocking.
Is this what happens to women who use their voice?
People want you to get back in the box.
To shut up.
To go away.
The IMB doesn’t need a makeover; that would only hide most of the systemic problems behind filler and veneer. So rebranding clearly isn’t going to be the answer any more than putting lipstick on a pig.
People who think I want to abolish the IMB have totally misjudged me and the situation. I don’t want to abolish it. Far from it. I want the IMB to perform like it was set up to under OPCAT and to be all it should be as part of our NPM.
The clue is in the name: Independent. Monitoring. Board.
Have you noticed that the MOJ is haemorrhaging people at the moment?
Maybe Liz Truss could use that as an opportunity to enlist the help of those who do give a damn about the conditions in which people are held in custody and who do have a clue about strategies to stem radicalisation in prison, minimise violence, reduce prison over population, have the right staff and staffing levels, reduce death in custody, counter drones and drug misuse, revitalise education and purposeful activity, and last but not least, resettle and house people after their time in custody.
Join the conversation on Twitter @fmspear @trussliz @CommonsJustice #prisons #reform #IMB #AMIMB #SpeakUp
First published 17 Sept 2016.
Edited 18 Sept 2016.
It is always good to reflect back on experiences.
Well here goes
Yesterday I attended the G4S AGM at the Excel Centre in London, I was not prepared for what I saw and experienced. I felt oppression as soon as I entered the building; it was as though I was being ‘kettled’ into an area to be contained. Security was very tight and uncomfortable, my every movement was watched, and it was intimidating! Before being allowed into the actual room for the AGM, G4S security eye-balled you, the atmosphere was heavy and everyone remained silent!
I sat down 5 rows from the front on the left and quickly the seats were filled around me. I felt nervous, apprehensive and uneasy. A G4S security guard sat beside me and another guard that was lined up along the wall had his eyes focused on me. I had dressed smartly in a suit, was polite, yet I seemed to be targeted by the staff. Within minutes of the start of the meeting I saw the heavy-handedness of the G4S security staff and after only 20 minutes or so 3 shareholders had been pulled and dragged from beside me. One man was dragged over my legs pinning me to my seat and I was unable to move away. I was horrified as the staff showed no respect and no due care and attention. The majority of the board of 12 members in front of us remained silent. To be honest I felt rather scared and wondered if for my own safety I should leave at that moment. I was visibly shaken by the whole experience, but I was determined that I would put my question to the board so I pulled myself together and prepared for my opportunity.
When the Chairman John Connolly finally noticed my hand I took the microphone, stood up and addressed the board by saying “I would like to go back to the subject of caring for prisoners…
One year ago (10–21June 2013) the Report on an unannounced inspection of HMP Oakwood by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons stated that…
“Against all four of our healthy prison tests, safety, respect, activity and resettlement, the outcomes we observed were either insufficient or poor”
Why is it that after a year, there are still major issues within that prison? An example is that the Government released figures in April revealing that more than 600 incidents of self-harm had been recorded in HMP Oakwood in 2013, yet the web site for HMP Oakwood states: we aim to inspire, motivate and guide prisoners to become the best they can be.
My question was not answered, the CEO said that he was aware of the recommendations of the report and that it was normal to have teething problems with a new jail. In reference to the alarmingly high levels of self harm all that was said was there are self harm issues in all prisons.
I was closed down and unable to respond to his feeble answer, twice!
There was no remorse for what was happening in this prison, the CEO didn’t seem to be that concerned even though we are talking about lives.
On the train heading home I re-lived the afternoon and was still shocked at what I experienced. I am not put off, I plan to follow through my genuine concern for how G4S runs prisons in this country and I will be better prepared for next year’s AGM.