Prison

Prison

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Choudary Conundrum

It seems to be an unhappy coincidence, but recent news of the conviction of Anjem Choudary, the British Islamist radical leader, on charges of ‘inviting support for a proscribed organisation’ (namely so-called Islamic State) has come at around the same time as the Ministry of Justice announced its new plans to segregate extremist leaders in prisons in order to reduce the risk of other prisoners becoming radicalised and inspired to commit acts of terrorism. So what are the chances that this new strategy can deliver?

Anjem Choudary
I have blogged before on the impact of radicalisation in our dysfunctional prison system back in 2014 and 2015 (read posts here and here). In the intervening period little or nothing appears to have been done to address this issue, although the previous Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, did commission a report on the matter. This was prepared by former prison governor Ian Acheson and a summary of his findings – although not the whole report – was released on 22 August.

When compared with our bloated and overcrowded prison system, the actual numbers involved look relatively small. We currently have around 85,100 people in custody in prisons England and Wales. Of these, only 137 are Muslims convicted of terrorism-related offences. However, those who identify as Muslims within our jails number around 12,600 and the overwhelming majority are either serving time for a very wide variety of criminal offences other than terrorism or are being held on remand.

Sir Humphrey... a Civil Service master
It is this population – along with hundreds of young, impressionable or vulnerable non-Muslim inmates – that presents would-be radical recruiters with an audience that contains at least some individuals who are ripe for recruitment or conversion to the most extreme interpretations of current Islamist thought and practice. To date, as Mr Acheson’s report acknowledges, HM Prison Service has not been “effective” in tackling extremism within the prison estate. He is obviously a master of the traditional Civil Service gift for understatement. Sir Humphrey, the star of Yes Minister, would be so very proud.

During my own time inside between 2012 and 2014 I was very much aware of just how little most prison staff were aware of what was going on under their noses when it came to radicalisation (and this applied not just to Islamist extremists, but far right groups too). However, even when it was clear that some pretty severe bullying and aggressive proselytisation was going on across the wings, many staff members seemed at a loss what to do about it. I sensed an all-pervasive fear of getting involved with anything that might be interpreted as interference with, or obstruction of, religious practices or even racism.

Might be useful for staff
Having previously lived and worked in several Muslim countries, including Dubai and Iran, I was probably much more attuned to what was going on than most uniformed staff members. I served my single sentence in six prisons and during that time I am certain that I never met a single member of the frontline staff who was a Muslim or who spoke Arabic or any other relevant language such as Urdu, Pashto or Persian. Of course, it is possible that the prisons’ security departments were keeping tabs on those who were involved in ‘grooming’ younger, more vulnerable inmates, but if so I saw little or no evidence of anything being done on the wings.

I also met other prisoners who had fallen foul of radical gangs in different prisons and, rather than break up the tight cliques that effectively took control of spurs (small corridors) or even entire wings, governors and custodial managers appeared more willing to transfer the non-Muslim prisoner to another establishment rather than actually challenge dominant groups controlling large swathes of territory in the prisons under their charge. I certainly gained the impression that as long as radical gangs were not openly disrupting the daily regime or engaging in open violence, especially against staff, there was a tacit approach of leaving well alone.

Perhaps a major part of that was due to the current policies that deal with equality and non-discrimination in our prisons. As a peer mentor I worked closely with other inmates who were equality and diversity reps and it seemed that rank and file officers were often unwilling to challenge Muslim radicals (or some other very visible groups that had the advantage of numbers on the wings) because of a fear that they might face formal accusations or complaints of harassment or racial discrimination. Even if entirely unjustified, such allegations can be both stressful and time-consuming to contest via internal prison channels.

Distinctive Muslim dress in prison
A general lack of knowledge about Islam and its central tenets among prison staff certainly didn’t help matters. I lost count of the number of occasions officers who queried specific practices or activities were told by prisoners: “It’s my religion, guv!”

There is no doubt in my own mind that in quite a few cases inmates were manipulating and even intimidating wing staff who actually had no idea whether what they were being told was true. A few did refer issues to the part-time Muslim chaplain, but to be honest this involved yet more bureaucracy and paperwork, by which stage the original issue was often long forgotten. It was easier to give the benefit of the doubt when it came to unfamiliar religious issues or demands.

However, beyond these more practical questions, there was a wider concern over what these tightly-knit groups or gangs were discussing behind closed cell doors or in informal meetings outside of formal organised prayers led by Muslim chaplains. Where there was a critical mass of prisoners from specific countries or regions, language could be used as a badge of separation. I was in one Cat-B prison where perhaps 12 or 14 prisoners regularly communicated among themselves in various dialects of Arabic, completely unintelligible to those who didn’t speak the language, including other inmates and the entire wing staff.

Instrumental music is banned
In most group structures there was also evidence of dominant or influential leaders who set the tone for the behaviour of the other members of their circle. In some cases the level of influence or control was quite significant, encompassing issues such as listening to instrumental music (considered haram or forbidden as ‘un-Islamic’ by many radical Sunni Salafi sects), sharing prison cells with non-Muslims (‘kuffar’), issues of modesty in the communal showers and even associating on friendly terms with other prisoners. I saw various books and pamphlets being circulated within these groups, often in foreign languages that I was sure no member of the prison staff could possibly have read or checked.

In one prison, Muslim prisoners sought to take control of specific corridors (including the small wing kitchens and shower blocks) in order to bar entry to non-Muslims. This was justified by reference to the need to keep kitchen equipment ‘uncontaminated’ and suitable for the preparation of halal food. By excluding non-believers from the shower blocks, standards of Islamic ‘modesty’ could be imposed. This level of segregation was entirely self-imposed by members of the group.

Drugs found in prisons
Against this background, it is easy to understand the concerns that have been highlighted in Mr Acheson’s report. There can be no doubt that in some cases the gang culture also embraces a range of criminal activities such as drug trafficking and supply to other prisoners, especially non-Muslims. This is a specific area where particularly vulnerable prisoners, such as weak or addicted young men, can be groomed and brought into the orbit of the dominant group or gang.

There is also a very real risk of individual members of prison staff – uniformed and civilian – being threatened, intimidated or drawn into compromising situations by well-organised gangs of extremists. This is a specific security problem that is rarely mentioned or acknowledged, but given the recent number of prison staff convicted of misconduct (a total of 10 in the past 14 weeks, usually for smuggling contraband) it cannot be ignored. I attribute the easy availability of prohibited mobile phones and SIM cards in most of our prisons to porous security, too often aided and abetted by corrupt members of the prison staff, both uniformed and civilian, who supply smuggled items in return for cash payments outside the prison walls.

So will the latest proposals being brought forward by Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for Justice, address the threats posed by radical leaders – so-called ‘emirs’ – in our prisons? At one level, containment of the problem is probably the best that can be achieved. By introducing small, specialist units that isolate known or suspected radical leaders and recruiters their direct influence on wings may be reduced, if not entirely eliminated. By creating a number of such units in high security prisons, it may also allow governors to move such inmates around the estate regularly, thus disrupting groups of prisoners that they may create or lead.

Separation in special units
The wider issues will remain, however. A significant number of prisoners arrive in our prisons bringing radical, anti-establishment ideas in with them. Periods in custody do little or nothing to combat ideologies or religious fervour. In fact, it is usually quite the opposite. Bored and disgruntled, some inmates seek solace in regarding their incarceration as a form of ‘martyrdom’. Christians and adherents of most other major world faiths have gone down a similar path for millennia, so it is unlikely that Islamists will not do the same.

Imprisonment, particularly in harsh conditions, is very unlikely to persuade radicalised inmates to abandon their views and come to love the British state and its institutions. Our prisons have been dubbed ‘hate factories’ for a very good reason. Almost all of these individuals will eventually be released back into the community and many will emerge even more radicalised and filled with hatred for ‘the system’ than they were when they were sent down.

Claimed solutions – such as offending behaviour courses or even radical ‘deprogramming’ – are very unlikely to work with most extremists of whatever persuasion. In any case, these interventions are very costly and require levels of specialist staff that HM Prison Service simply doesn’t have. Given its past track record of failure, I think it is very unlikely that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) will be able to resolve a crisis situation that it has allowed to develop and fester across our prison system for many years.

The MOJ: too little, too late?
Moreover, creating a new unit within the MOJ headed by an anti-extremism ‘tsar’ seems to smack of the usual ‘Something Must be Done-ism’ that all too often dominates political thinking when it comes to our prisons. It is likely to be a costly bureaucratic response to a problem that would be better served by recruiting more frontline prison staff, including qualified specialists capable of strengthening the intelligence and security departments of specific prisons where radicalisation has been identified as a serious threat. If such prisons don’t have staff members who can read and understand Arabic and other key languages, as well as understanding current Islamic faith and practice, the intelligence battle will be already half lost.

So how will Mr Choudary fare inside the slammer? Having already firmly established his persona as a leading ‘public enemy’ via the ever-helpful British media, the likelihood is that he has already settled into his new role as an Islamist ‘martyr’, oppressed by the infidel, godless UK state he claims to loathe so much. This is his golden opportunity to fight his own personal jihad from the relative comfort of a prison cell. Even in the comparative isolation of one of Ms Truss’s specialist segregation units he will no doubt enjoy the opportunity to take the leadership his tiny flock of like-minded individuals, spreading hated and mistrust as he goes round the prison system.

As a well-educated and articulate former solicitor he will almost certainly become one of the best prison cell lawyers and then run rings round the prison authorities, while causing the unfortunate governors and managers no end of time-consuming trouble and voluminous paperwork. I’d also be amazed if he doesn’t take the government to court sooner to later over the restrictive conditions in which he will be held. And, above all, he will no doubt find a way of smuggling out his sermons and fatwas as a rallying call to his remaining supporters outside the prison walls. If anyone thinks they have heard the last of Mr Choudary and his dangerous ideology, I fear they will be very much mistaken.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Porridge... Attack of the Drones (2016)

The following parody on the much-loved BBC classic Porridge has been contributed by Jonathan Robinson, author of In It and On It, two books about his own experiences in prison and after. No infringement of any copyright is intended.





Porridge: Attack of the Drones (2016)

A parody by
Jonathan Robinson

(with love, respect, admiration and apologies to Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais)


(Prison Interior Cell. Evening. The Door is unlocked. 
Godber enters. 
Fletcher is sat at the table reading the paper)

GODBER
Watcha Fletch!

FLETCHER
Hmmm...

GODBER
Not the normal bonhomie then... What’s bothering you? What you looking at?

FLETCHER
Catching up on the news on the outside my son. One’s got to keep abreast of the situation, innit?

GODBER
Oh, page three.

FLETCHER
You mind your insolence you nerk. I’m reading the news. This is important. That Justice Minister who was making a stink about prison education has been booted out.

GODBER
Gove’s gone goodbye?

FLETCHER
Gove’s gone goodbye Godber.

GODBER
Great. That’s my level three qualification out the window then.

FLETCHER
Maybe not.... I’ve had an idea... Have it come through the window.

GODBER
(sitting down – enthusiastic)
Yeah? How?

FLETCHER
Drones.

GODBER
Drains?

FLETCHER
Drones, you nerk. In the old days we’d get stuff in and out through drains. Now they use drones.

GODBER
Drains – like in Shawshank?

FLETCHER
Yes, but them days have gone down the drain. Now it’s drones. We’re gonna use our noddle – or rather my noddle – and get Grouty’s Flying Corps to airlift in your level three paperwork.

GODBER
Grouty’s Flying Corps?

FLETCHER
Grouty’s got more drones flying in and out of here than you can shake a stick at. The skies over this nick are busier than Heathrow Airport. He’s even selling landing slots now. D wing has been earmarked as Terminal 5. Richard Branson’s terrified.

GODBER
What do they bring in?

FLETCHER
Spice my son. Grouty’s got more spice than David Beckham’s record collection.

GODBER
Oh, the old spice.

FLETCHER
Old spice? That was Henry Cooper and Barry Sheene mate. This stuff is what the youngsters crave these days. Splash it all over. Then they go berserk. Evil stuff.

GODBER
What about the screws?

FLETCHER
What screws? Haven’t you noticed there aren’t any – or hardly any left? And those that are herearen’t
interested – apart from Mackay and Barrowclough.

GODBER
Suppose not.

FLETCHER
I’ll have a word with Grouty...

(Fade out on Fletcher looking thoughtful)
(Prison Interior. The Landings. Evening. Fletcher is walking to the end cell. Prisoners stand about talking. Lukewarm taps Fletcher on the arm)

LUKEWARM
Ooooh. Hello Fletch. Are you going to come along to my evening class? Lots of lovely men have signed up.

FLETCHER
Not now, thanks Lukewarm – but I’m glad it’s going well. Nice one, my old son.

LUKEWARM
The prisoners love it, the little dears. My Graham says he’s very proud of me.

FLETCHER
Yeah, that’s great Lukewarm, but I’ve got to trot along – I’m in a hurry see? I’ve got to go and see
Grouty.

(Snap-cut to Mackay who has been observing this conversation)

MACKAY
FLETCHAAAAAAAAR! Don’t moooooooooooove.

FLETCHER
Oh, gawd.

MACKAY
What are you two undesirables plotting? What hideous devious criminality are you discussing during
your overlong undeserved association time?

LUKEWARM
We were discussing my evening class Mr Mackay. That’s all.

FLETCHER
Yes, Mr Mackay. We were discussing Lukewarm’s evening class. You should go. All prison officers
should go. You’re perfect for it.

MACKAY
(Real sceptical Mackay look and flinch)
What class is that? Knitting lessons?

FLETCHER
No, it’s Turning Pages. Teaches illiterates how to read. Like I said – perfect for prison officers.

(Snap-cut to Mackay’s Looks-Could-Kill reaction. Fletcher makes his escape. 
Lukewarm grins) 

(Fade)

(Prison Interior. Cell. Evening. The Door is unlocked. A heavy stands guard. Fletcher knocks)

GROUT
(off camera)
Enter.

FLETCHER
(entering)
Evening Grouty.

GROUT
Oh, Fletch. How very nice it is to see you. What a pleasure. For you, of course.

(Grouty’s cell is decked-out with luxuries – as per the 70’s series – but up to date items: flat Screen TV, DVD player, iPlayer stereo etc. A poster of Prime Minister Theresa May has pride of place above the (four-poster) single bed. On the back of the cell door is a poster of Jeremy Corbyn – it has a dart board covering the middle of his face. By the desk, adjacent to some books, is a framed picture of Michael Gove, the glass in the frame has recently been cracked. 
Above the lavatory is a photograph of Chris Grayling)

FLETCHER
Yes, well, I just thought I’d pop along and have a chat... you know...

GROUT
Fletch, in all the years I’ve known you, whenever you ‘pop along’ to see me, it’s because you want
something...

FLETCHER
Oh, dearie me. Am I that fickle? Apologies, Grouty. I’ll try and make my appearances more regular. Like the food in this place does to us.

GROUT
Wouldn’t know. I have a hamper delivered each week from Harrods.

FLETCHER
Oh nice. Very nice.

GROUT
What do you want Fletcher? I’m very busy. I’m about to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones.

FLETCHER
Oh, right. It’s amazing who crops up in that, innit? Can I sit down?

GROUT
No.

FLETCHER
Right then... well, it’s about your dro.... (checks himself – doesn’t want to incriminate himself – or cause aggravation) ...about your... er... aerial delivery services...

GROUT
(closing up a file on his desk which says DRONE DELIVERIES on the front)
Nothing to do with me Fletch.

FLETCHER
No. No, of course not Grouty, of course not. But you being the main man in this nick, you know – the
kingpin – apart from the governor of course...
(Snap cut to evil look from Grout)

FLETCHER (Continued)
...well of course he looks up to you too, don’t he? So yeah, that does make you this prison’s kingpin don’t it? Yeah.
(Snap cut to delighted look from Grout)

FLETCHER (Continued)
...so you being numero uno – and all that – I wondered if you could use your influence – and get something in for me, via your dro... via your aerial serv... via the aerial services that someone else is running in this nick.

GROUT
(smugly – butter wouldn’t melt)
Aerial services? Is that how stuff is getting in these days? There’s a notion.

FLETCHER
Yeah. Drones.

GROUT
Really? Drones? What will they think of next?

FLETCHER
Yeah, hundreds of them. I hear there’s so many coming and going that plane-spotters have started
hanging around outside this prison.

GROUT
Oh Fletch, you’re always so witty...

FLETCHER
So I wondered if you could arrange... if it could be arranged... for something to be brought in?

GROUT
(highly suspicious)
What exactly?

FLETCHER
Paperwork.

GROUT
(leching)
Smutty paperwork?

FLETCHER
Oh no – NO – we get that from the screws. And Channel Five. This is educational material – for the lad – you know, young Godber. He wants to do his level three qualification – and as you know; no way is that happening in this nick – or any other nick, come to that.

GROUT
Yes, our education in prison is a disgrace.

FLETCHER
There’s no hope for the youngsters in clink – even the ones who want to engage with the system. The head of education here goes about banning stuff – even the good ideas – and I want to help give young Lennie Godber a leg-up. He’s got potential that lad. Naffing system does naff all to encourage it.

GROUT
You know Fletch, I wonder if we’d been educated properly on our first stretch – whether or not we’d have kept coming back...

FLETCHER
Yeah, good point Grouty.

GROUT
How many stretches you done Fletch?

FLETCHER
Dunno. Lost count. More stretches than a yoga instructor.

GROUT
Very droll Fletch. Very droll. Leave your request with me and I’ll see what I can do.

(Fade)

(Prison Interior. The Landings. Evening. Fletcher is walking back to his cell. Prisoners stand about talking. Prison officer Barrowclough is standing mid-landing with (new) prison officer Selous. Fletcher spots them, rolls his eyes and approaches...)

BARROWCLOUGH
And this, Mr Selous, is our notorious long-time resident Mr Fletcher.

FLETCHER
Evening Mr Barrowclough. Showing the new-boy the ropes?

BARROWCLOUGH
Yes, Fletcher, this is officer Selous. He unfortunately lost his old job, so he decided to become a prison officer. Isn’t that nice of him?

FLETCHER
Oh, very charitable. Well, Mr Selous, welcome to our world.

SELOUS
Really impressed by the vision and dedication of officers and staff.

FLETCHER
Pardon?

SELOUS
Really impressed. Very high standard of furnishing and a great lifestyle for all the residents here.

FLETCHER
I’m sorry?

SELOUS
Pleased to see the improved regime.

FLETCHER
(to Barrowclough)
Does he always talk like that?

BARROWCLOUGH
He’s only just been trained.

FLETCHER
How long is the training for our new officers now Mr Barrowclough?

BARROWCLOUGH
Still only a number of weeks – but some minister or other increased it by 14 days.

FLETCHER
Oh, that’ll make all the difference then, won’t it.

(Fade)

(Fletcher makes his leave and we track him walking to the prisoner phones. 
He looks around to make sure he is not being watched or listened to and picks a phone up. 
He put the receiver to his ear and begins to dial in a number...)

(Prison Interior Cell. Evening. The Door is unlocked. Fletcher enters. 
Godber is sat at the table) 

FLETCHER
Well I think – think – young Godber, that I may have cracked it for you to get your level three qualification sorted.

GODBER
Oh, thanks Fletch. I don’t know what I’d do without you.
(Fletcher climbs up to his bunk – but doesn’t answer. Godber realises something is on Fletcher’s mind so continues his enthusiastic thanks)

GODBER (Continued)
...I mean I’m just a lad from Smethwick. Mucked up. Ended up in nick. I want to improve myself. I don’t want to come back here... but the system doesn’t want to help... it’s only because of your help that I might be OK. Thanks Fletch...

(No response from Fletcher)

GODBER (Continued)
...Did you hear me Fletch?

(No response from Fletcher)

GODBER (Continued)
Fletch, are you alright?

(Fletcher sits up on his bunk. Makes a heavy sigh)
FLETCHER
Yeah, I’m alright... it’s just something Grouty said has made me realise something.

GODBER
What did he say?

FLETCHER
He said he wondered if us old cons had been educated properly when we first came to stir – whether that would have straightened us out – and stopped us coming back.

GODBER What did you say?

FLETCHER
Nothing. But I think he might be right. If I’d got my head down when I was in nick when I was your age... if the system had let me get my head down... I wonder whether I’d be here now... what a waste...

(Tap on door. Fletcher and Godber look up. 
Bunny Warren (the illiterate prisoner) is at the door – grinning)

WARREN
Evening lads.

GODBER
Hi Warren.

WARREN
(entering)
I’ve got a message for you Fletch. From Grouty. I memorised it from his note.

FLETCHER
Memorised it? You can’t read you nerk.

WARREN
Wrong, Fletch.

FLETCHER
What?

WARREN
(grinning)
You are wrong. Incorrect.

GODBER
What do you mean Warren?

WARREN
(proudly)
I’ve learnt to read. With Lukewarm. And Turning Pages. I’m intellectual now.

FLETCHER
God preserve us.

GODBER
Well done Warren!

FLETCHER
What did the note say?

WARREN
I dunno – I couldn’t read his handwriting. So he just told me to tell you to be at your cell window – making sure it’s open – tonight at 1030. Make yourselves very obvious – wave or something and flash your telly on and off...

(Fade)
The next day...
(Interior governor’s office. Hasn’t changed much since the 70’s series – but a new bar graph has appeared on the wall behind his desk headed Self Harmers – it shows a huge increase in numbers over the last 12 months.
The governor is sitting at his desk. He is ticking some boxes.
Off Camera we hear Mackay’s voice (loud) and he, Fletcher and Godber enter shot...)

MACKAY
Two prisoners for adjudication to see the governor! MOOOOOVE YOURSELVES. One-two, one- two, one-two.

(Fletcher and Godber march up to, and halt, in front of the governor’s desk. 
Fletcher panting, Godber looking highly agitated)

MACKAY (continued)
One, two! HALT!!!!!! Face the FRONT!!!! Stand STILL! Prisoners Fletcher and Godber on adjudication SAH! Charged with operating DRONES in and out of the prison SAH!

GOVERNOR
This is very serious. Very serious indeed. What happened Mr Mackay?

MACKAY
Six – SIX – robotic aerial drones, or the remains thereof, were discovered outside these two prisoners’ cell window. Crashed – and smashed to SMITHEREENS. It’s a downright liberty and I’ve got you bang to rights Fletcher. Copious quantities of spice packets have been found STREWN across the courtyard.

GOVERNOR
Where outside their cell window?

MACKAY
In the IMB carpark sir. Four Volvos have been irretrievably damaged – they are beyond repair.

FLETCHER
It’s nothing to do with me or the lad, sir.

(Snap cut to Godber: wide-eyed and terrified)

MACKAY
NONSENSE! Don’t come it with me Fletcher. It’s been like the Battle of Britain around here recently. Your aerial blitz is OVER!

FLETCHER
If they were ours Mr Mackay, why was our window not open when you came blasting into our cell?

GOVERNOR
Their window wasn’t open?

MACKAY
(realising his case has just collapsed).
Er... No... No sir, it wasn’t.

FLETCHER
(to Mackay)
And where were we both when you came crashing in to our humble abode?

MACKAY
(to governor – woefully – the battle is lost).
They were both standing by their television sir, Godber was changing the channels. Repeatedly.
Fletcher was jumping up and down.

FLETCHER
It’s called channel hopping.

GOVERNOR
If their window wasn’t open – they don’t have a case to answer to Mr Mackay. The good news is that the awful drones won’t be bothering us anymore. Fletcher and Godber, you are dismissed. Thank you Mr Mackay.
MACKAY
(Livid)
SAH! Right you two, ABOOOOOOT turn! QUICK MARCH! One two, one two, one two...

(Fade)

(Prison Interior. Corridor outside the governor’s office. Morning. 
Mackay (furious), Fletcher and Godber (who can’t believe they’ve got away scot-free) stop. 
Mackay spins on his heel and confronts Fletcher)

MACKAY
Fletcher, we both know that you’ve been up to something. You may have got away with it – again – but I’m going to stick like glue to you now.

FLETCHER
I don’t know what you’re talking about Mr Mackay.

MACKAY
Yes, YOU DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

FLETCHER
Mr Mackay. Instead of berating me and the boy, you should be happy that there’s no more drones
droning around your prison.

MACKAY
(with the Mackay flinch)
I – without any doubt whatsoever – KNOW you were something to do with this. I’m now going to
(Mackay exits)
inspect the wings...

MACKAY
(Off camera)
IVES... GET YOUR HAIR CUT!!!!
GODBER
I don’t believe this. You set Grouty up so his drones would crash into our window – to stop spice coming in.

FLETCHER
(smugly)

Might have...

GODBER
You’re a flippin’ marvel Fletch. Didn’t get my naffing level three paperwork though. FLETCHER
Yes, you did.

GODBER
Eh?

FLETCHER
I made a phone call yesterday.
(Fletcher removes envelope from inside his jacket)

FLETCHER (continued)
I arranged for your naffing paperwork to be posted in. Arrived this morning. Barrowclough just gave it to me. With all the drone palaver, no one could be bothered to check what was in it.
(Fletcher passes envelope)

FLETCHER (continued)
You’re up and running, lad. Level three here we go. The skies the limit for you... but not for Grouty no more...

GODBER
Fletch. You haven’t changed a bit.

FLETCHER
It’s still us and them, lad. Us and them. And buck the system...

(Fade. Titles)

Thursday, 30 June 2016

So Where Now For Prison Reform?

Michael Gove has done the dirty on Boris Johnson and is standing for the Conservative Party leadership. If successful, he could become the next prime minister. Where will this leave his plans for prison reform?

Gove: Boris didn’t even see it coming
As regular readers will know, I’ve blogged previously on why I feared Mr Gove would prove to be a big disappointment when it came to reforming our overcrowded, understaffed prisons (read here). After making all the right noises when he was appointed as Secretary of State for Justice in May 2015, there were a few quick wins (mainly reversing the most ridiculous policies of his unlamented predecessor Chris Grayling, such as the ban on posting in books to prisoners), but overall progress has been painfully slow.

True, there has been the much vaunted announcement of six ‘reform prisons’ where governing governors will enjoy far greater autonomy than their counterparts in non-reform establishments, but it’s unclear whether this experiment will deliver a model that could be rolled out across the whole dysfunctional system. It remains early days, yet with the current crisis engulfing prisons in violence on a daily basis time may fast be running out.

It is also worth noting that Mr Gove has encouraged governors to make more use of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) as part of the resettlement process. This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, ‘Calamity Chris’ who responded to a handful of serious incidents by doing his best to eliminate any potential risk to the public by imposing restrictions on the granting on ROTL. These include requiring time-consuming psychological evaluations, as well as increasing the amount of bureaucracy involved prior to the granting of temporary release. The end result has been to set back resettlement work at many jails, especially Cat-Ds (open prisons).

IPP: no laughing matter
Mr Gove has also asked the new chair of the Parole Board, Nick Hardwick, to review the way in which prisoners who are still serving the widely discredited indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) are treated. Although the sentence – introduced in 2005 by former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett – was discontinued in 2012, around 80 percent of the 4,100 IPPs continue to be held beyond the minimum tariff handed down by the courts. This alone costs the taxpayer an estimated £500 million per year.

Of these prisoners, 400 or so have now served sentences five times longer than their tariff, often because offending behaviour courses are unavailable or because they live with mental health conditions that hold back their progress. It is also well documented that IPPs have disproportionally higher rates of suicide and self-harm than other inmates.

However, it is should also be noted that behind these positive initiatives lies a prison system deep in crisis. Anyone still in any doubt about this should take a long hard look at the report issued in May by Parliament’s Justice Committee, the body of MPs that oversees the work of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).

Justice Committee: damning conclusions on prisons
The Committee’s damning conclusions were summarised by committee chairman Bob Neill MP: “The Ministry of Justice hope that prison safety would stabilise. In reality it has deteriorated further and continues to do so.” He also warned that without swift action, the entire prison reform programme would be undermined.

Violence – both between prisoners and against members of staff – has continued to dominate our prisons, while suicide and self-harm statistics remain appallingly high and show no sign of abating. Moreover, overcrowded wings are quite literally awash with drugs of all kinds and illicit mobile phones are readily available to keep criminal businesses operational from behind bars. These challenges are evident in the pages of almost report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons or the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

In the last couple of years our prisons have become much more dangerous places. Incidents of ‘concerted indiscipline’ – which can range from a few prisoners refusing to return to their cells, right up to full scale riots that leave whole wings uninhabitable – take place behind the high walls out of public view. Few cases actually make it into the media unless one or more prisoners actually manage to make it up on to the roof where the authorities can’t keep it quiet. Often it is only the local papers that report on the disturbances taking place.

Tactical response: a cell extraction
In May, Parliament’s Justice Committee heard evidence that HMPS’ Tactical Response Group – often dubbed ‘the riot squad’ – is now being called out 30-40 times per month to deal with prison unrest. One of the most recent serious riots took place at HMP Erlestoke, a Cat-C establishment near Devizes, on 11-12 June. Two wings were reportedly trashed and around 140 inmates transferred to other prisons. Whether or not there was a direct link between the smoking ban, which began at Erlestoke on 23 May, remains to be confirmed officially. However, such tensions are unlikely to have helped matters.

A significant amount of violence in prisons is gang-related, as well as linked closely to the drugs trade and cycles of debt that this encourages. Although the new Psychoactive Substances Act, which became law on 26 May 2016, criminalises the possession in prison of what were once called ‘legal highs’, it is probably too early to predict what the impact on the availability and use of such drugs in prisons will be. Past experience with other illegal drugs suggests that the affect may well be marginal, other than putting the prison disciplinary system under further strain.

EU prisoners face tensions
It also cannot be ignored that the current tensions over the Brexit debate might fuel violence in at least some of our prisons. Most establishments have prisoners from other EU countries who tend to band together for protection or for social support and given the current levels of disorder and violence in our prisons, clashes between individuals or groups of nationals cannot be ruled out.

Many prisons also remain understaffed and this continues to have a negative impact on the daily regime provided, leaving more and more inmates locked in their cells for up to 22 or 23 hours per day, thus fuelling resentment and anger. At the same time, the recruitment drive to plug gaps in staffing at prisons in England and Wales was not delivering very impressive results. Of the 2,250 prison officers recruited in 2015, only 440 remained in post, a situation attributed to poor retention rates.

Whatever the outcome of Mr Gove’s bid for the Conservative Party leadership, it seems a fairly safe bet that his time at the MOJ is effectively over. It could be argued that in the 13 months he has been in post he has at least initiated various policy reviews and that some of these will take time to come to fruition. Supporters will no doubt cite the launch of the ‘reform prisons’ as evidence that there is at least the potential for fundamental change in the way our prisons are managed at a local level. Critics point out that many so-called new initiatives have actually been attempted previously, but have been abandoned for a range of reasons, including cost or political expediency.

HMP Wandsworth: overcrowded
On the other hand, our prison population remains stubbornly high, at 85,130 this week in England and Wales, although this is slightly down on the 85,576 incarcerated in the same period in 2015. Many prisons are also grossly overcrowded, such as HMP Kennet which is currently as 188 percent of normal capacity (329 inmates compared to 175 certified normal capacity) or HMP Wandsworth at 170 percent (1,600 compared to 943).

Bold initiatives, such as granting early release to many prisoners who are serving short sentences for non-violent offences, or greatly reducing the number of unconvicted people being held on pre-trial remand do not seem to be on the MOJ agenda. It is worth noting that on average only 17 percent of the 10,000 remand prisoners will actually receive a custodial sentence at court. The remainder will either have charges dropped, will be acquitted or will be given a non-custodial penalty. Each prisoner still costs the taxpayer an average of £36,260 per year, innocent or guilty.

Then there is the vexed question of foreign national prisoners who usually account for around 10,000 of the prison population at any time. The Early Removal Scheme (ERS) which offers foreign nationals who volunteer to leave the UK up to 270 days ‘discount’ on their sentences does exist, but as the Justice Committee has regularly highlighted, it is very poorly managed and numbers taking advantage of it remain low. In addition, there is a lengthy list of categories of prisoner who are not eligible for this incentive (which is separate to the bilateral system for transferring foreign nationals back to their home countries to continue serving their sentences).

MOJ: more budget cuts to come?
Finally, there are the budgetary implications of prison reform, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty following the recent referendum vote to leave the European Union. If the impact of austerity was severe for the prison sector in England and Wales, it remains to be seen what further damage a lengthy recession and reduced public spending could inflict. Reducing the overall prison population may become more than a reforming objective. It may become an unavoidable economic necessity.  

If Mr Gove’s time at the MOJ is indeed coming to an end, he will leave a poisoned chalice for his successor. Expectations for fundamental reform of our prison system remain high and, as the Justice Committee has warned, the current situation is simply not sustainable. On the other hand, staff morale is at rock bottom and the strategy for recruitment and retention of new officers is not proving a success. Whoever takes over may find that there is a very long, hot summer ahead regardless of the weather outside.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Guest post: Employment with a Criminal Record

A View from the Front Line

By Kate Beech, Managing Director of Chance 2013

(This guest post has been contributed by Kate Beech who is the Managing Director of Chance 2013, a national employment agency that recruits for employers from only among people who have a criminal record. The views expressed below are Kate’s and there is no commercial relationship between Chance 2013 and Prison UK: an Insider’s View).

In 2013 I set up Chance 2013 as an employment agency exclusively for people with a criminal record. Oh boy, was I naïve at the start. I had no experience of the criminal justice system and had never even been inside a prison until 2012. So you may ask: why on earth did I start it? I have to admit that I’ve thought that myself many times when let down by yet another potential client who changes their mind about giving people a chance or when a potential candidate for a job doesn’t turn up for interview or else fails a routine drug test.

Naïvety made me think that Probation (both NPS and the CRCs) would welcome me with open arms as part of their rehabilitation role must surely be to help with employment. I was so wrong. After three years there are still many probation officers who claim to have nobody on their caseload who is looking for work. I’m not saying that they are all bad but it seems that a significant proportion are not interested in helping those they supervise and are merely ticking boxes. The work programme providers are a mixed bunch as well, even though there are vast amounts of money involved to get their clients into work.

Getting involved with the criminal justice sector and seeing how it works is fascinating. Why can some prisons offer opportunities for prisoners to obtain useful qualifications and tickets such as Personal Track Safety (PTS) or Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) cards, when other establishments seem horrified at the idea and continue with courses that are as useful on the outside as a chocolate teapot?

PTS card: required to work on the rails
We’re talking to prisons about courses that would be helpful on release and have the trainers ready, but surely that isn’t really our job? There is an acute skills shortage in many areas including engineering, civil engineering and construction so WHY aren’t more prisons addressing this as a priority, thus enabling people to find legitimate paid work quickly on release? Since finding and keeping gainful employment is recognised as a major factor in reducing reoffending after release from custody, then surely it is an obvious way forward.

Getting a job is difficult for many these days, but it can be nearly impossible if you’ve got a criminal record. Even the most self-confident individuals can feel intimidated and be made to feel stupid by the very young, often inexperienced advisors at Job Centres.

JobCentre Plus: not always pleasant
I had the misfortune of having to sign up with a local Job Centre 25 years ago and the person who I had to deal with was probably one of the nastiest that I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. The truly shocking fact is that the staff do not appear to be any better in 2016, even with all the training and support they get prior to dealing with their clients. Going to sign on is not a pleasant experience for anyone who wants to work and having to disclose an unspent conviction must make it even worse.


It’s all fine and good for the directors or owners of large corporations and businesses to say that they support the current ‘ban the box’ campaign and that they have no problem with taking on employees who have a criminal record, but the actual person - perhaps relatively low down in the business HR department - who handles the initial application may not be aware of this policy. Why can’t we as a society be more grown up about this and accept that when someone’s sentence, whether custodial or non-custodial, has been served it’s time to move on and put it in the past where it belongs? Hopefully, our agency removes barriers that include having to write disclosure letters - we’re not interested in them - and our clients aren’t either, as they trust us to put forward appropriate candidates for the vacancies.

Banning the Box: does HR know?
Now that we’re working with reputable, well-known local and national companies yet another issue has arisen. It’s always been a case of which to concentrate on first: the candidates or the jobs? However, now we’ve got stacks of jobs on offer where are the candidates? Statistics I’ve found seem to show, maybe incorrectly, that there are approximately 250,000 people being supervised by Probation or CRCs at any one time, so again I ask, how can we reach them and help put them on the path to legal employment?

Advertising vacancies only open to those with criminal records could be seen as discriminatory, yet at the same time many companies and employers can still discriminate against those with unspent convictions. And it’s not only those who have more recent convictions who may need help. How many of the 9.2 million people in the UK with a criminal record are stuck in a job they hate or are too well-qualified for because they are afraid to rock the boat and fear the possibility of their past history with the criminal justice system coming to light? With enhanced checks how relevant is it that an applicant for a role as a carer was caught shoplifting 20 years ago?

We’re having success stories and here are just a few I’d like to share with blog readers:

The first guy we placed 2 years ago with a very well known civil engineering firm has just been promoted, with a large increase in salary. He is so different now and has grown in confidence immensely. Life is great for him and he’ll be their managing director in the future (well, I have to keep him on his toes!)

DT - started with another civils company on a trial basis for three months. After a couple of weeks they were so impressed with his work that they started sending him on courses. He’s now working full time with them and loving the job. He says we’ve not only changed his life, but also those of his children. I ask you, can there be any better reward than that?

PS & MC are now fully trained “superstars” (according to their bosses) in traffic management. Again following a three-month trial period they’re now both working full-time and will go far I’m sure. They now also have qualifications which should mean they’re never out of work again.

So to end. Where are the enthusiastic candidates for the positions Chance 2013 are seeking to fill for our clients? My absolute mission is to prove once and for all that people with a criminal record are no different than those without and will prove to be an asset to an employer. Before you shout, of course there may be some failures, but surely that’s just life and is the same for any employment agency.

On a personal note I’m so proud of every success and keep in touch with everyone who has been placed by our agency. Anyone who fails or is struggling continues to get our support, as well as that of the charities and agencies we link with. We don’t want anyone to just slip unnoticed back into old ways just because there is nobody there to help.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Dickensian Disasters: Wormwood Scrubs

The Scrubs in London has been a byword for grim Victorian-era prisons, yet the latest HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) report has managed to exceed all expectations. From drugs and rampant rats to filthy wings and a pervasive climate of fear, HMP Wormwood Scrubs seems to have it all.

By any standards this is a failing prison in crisis and the report highlights some of the reasons for the culture of idleness, violence and squalor that would not be unfamiliar to Charles Dickens himself. In fact, some of these revelations might have actually managed to shock him, especially the violence, idleness and easily availability of drugs and illicit alcohol behind bars.

Just in case anyone doesn’t fancy trawling through the 120-odd pages of the inspectors’grim report (read here), I have selected a just few of the choice highlights:

Half of the prisoners felt unsafe, with many too afraid even to leave their cells
Recorded assaults against staff and other prisoners had doubled
Drugs were easily available, with 15 percent of prisoners failing mandatory drug test (MDTs), although there is no testing for new psychoactive substances (NPS)
There was significant evidence of gang-related activity and debt
The vast majority of inmates – 75 percent – were confined to their cells for 22 or more hours a day, while only 25 percent were engaged in activities.
600 prisoners out of 1,258 were unemployed
Most prisoners had not been assigned an offender supervisor
There was a backlog of risk assessments

Broken window, broken system
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the physical conditions of the prison are poor and the place is infested by rats. The endless litany of structural problems includes broken windows in which paper had been stuffed in a bid to keep out the wind and rain. Prisoners at risk of suicide were being held in cells with jagged glass shards from shattered panes easily accessible, an invitation to disaster if ever these was one.

The report also highlights staff shortages and a toxic combination of poor relations between the prison management and the Prison Officers Association (POA) which have been involved in a bitter dispute over working practices. It is noted that attempts by the governor to sort out the daily regime (timetable) had been a source of friction and extended negotiations. Despite an eventual agreement between the two sides, even the revised schedule wasn’t being delivered consistently.

Against this backdrop, there was little incentive for prisoners to behave, not least because if they did get ‘nicked’ (put on a charge for breaching the prison rules) there was such a long backlog of governor’s adjudications that many charges had to be discontinued because the process simply ran out of time. Presumably some prisoners serving short sentences were actually released before they could attend an adjudication. In other words, the internal discipline system was basically a farce.

Scrubs: not much rehabilitation here
It is also of concern that support for any meaningful rehabilitation or resettlement was noted as being very poor. Despite repeated warnings about the risks of privatising much of the Probation Service, the former Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, went ahead regardless. If proof were needed that the resulting Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) just don’t deliver, then the evidence is here in this report. Formerly, 95 percent of prisoners being released from the Scrubs had some form of accommodation to go to. Now the figure has fallen to 60 percent. Given that stable accommodation is universally recognised as a vital factor in reducing reoffending, this should be of concern to everyone.

The report should also be a red flag for the current Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, since he has repeatedly stated that education should be at the heart of rehabilitation. According to HMIP, there has been deterioration in education, training and employment at Wormwood Scrubs.

In the interests of balance, it is only fair to note that in the latest report the chaplaincy is assessed as performing strongly, while mental health services are judged to be good. However, those are particularly noteworthy because of the abject shortcomings documented across the rest of the establishment.

The Scrub's most contented inmates
No-one who knows anything about our penal system is under any illusions that Cat-B local prisons are easy to manage. They aren’t. By their very nature they have a continually changing population of prisoners (some on remand, many convicted) who arrive directly from the courts, bringing with them a wide variety of problems, including drug and alcohol dependencies and mental health problems, many undiagnosed. Some new receptions will just be starting long sentences, with all the tensions and frustrations that usually involves. However, the Scrubs seems to be trapped in a culture of institutional failure.

Of course, it is not alone. In the past two or three years there have been very few outstanding examples of successful establishments that are delivering against the Prison Service’s own targets. Most HMIP reports highlight a need for improvement, yet even by the generally dismal standards of prisons in England and Wales, Wormwood Scrubs is a genuine disaster area.

Ironically, according to the Guardian, a leaked earlier draft of this report was even more damning about the prison’s failings (read here). This raises potentially embarrassing questions about why the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke – a former senior police officer and the preferred candidate of Mr Gove – saw fit to tone down criticism of the Scrubs. This leak also suggests that someone inside the Inspectorate isn’t happy with the decision to water down the report’s conclusions, so perhaps future leaks may occur.

In these difficult times, a tame chief inspector could prove to be the undoing of the HMIP’s credibility. Unless the official watchdog barks loudly enough, those further up the food chain are unlikely to listen or take action.

Watching the watchdogs
There were already serious concerns that the HMIP under Mr Clarke might be more ‘accommodating’ to the government’s political sensitivities than it was during the tenure of his predecessor Nick Hardwick. The charge of ‘sexing down’ the report is a serious one and some explanation will be required.

Nevertheless, the report as it stands is a shocker. So why have things gone so badly wrong? Simply blaming antiquated Victorian-era buildings isn’t really an excuse. True, ageing, crumbling brickwork with bad drains and dodgy plumbing doesn’t make managing a prison any easier or cheaper, but relations between staff and inmates – and between frontline officers and senior management – are actually much more important, as is establishing a workable, dependable daily routine.

Prisoners are generally prepared to put up with grubby, dismal cells as long as they get time out from behind their doors to work (and earn a few pounds), attend the gym to let of some steam, get to the library and have visits from their families. Keep the regime running and cancelled activities to a minimum and most prisons can be kept on an even keel even when resources are scarce. Fail to achieve those objectives and any establishment – even a state of the art modern jail – can quickly descend into chaos, frustration and even serious violence. The acknowledged history of poor industrial relations between the POA and the prison management at the Scrubs suggests that, as is often the case, prisoners have been caught in the middle of a toxic dispute over working practices.

We have heard a great deal in recent months about Michael Gove’s reputation as a prison reformer. Even the prime minister has enthused about the need to sort out our failing, dysfunctional prisons. However, over 11 months into the current government’s mandate, the deep cracks are so evident at jails like Wormwood Scrubs that urgent action is needed to demonstrate all this talk of reform isn’t merely puffs of meaningless hot air from Westminster.

Andrew Selous MP: in the firing line?
Moreover, surely someone needs to be held accountable for the deplorable state our prisons have been permitted to descend into. No amount of pious platitudes from ministers, or from Michael Spurr, the head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is going to fix this mess. Action is required now.

Sadly, criticisms of this particular jail are nothing new. Back in September 2014 the Scrubs was condemned by the inspectorate as ‘filthy and unsafe’. Five prisoners had committed suicide there in 2013 alone. Yet two years on the situation has continued to deteriorate. Why? Is this the result of incompetent leadership at governor level or does the root of the malaise go far deeper - and higher?

It also raises the question as to why Andrew Selous MP, the prisons minister since July 2014, has not been summoned to Parliament to answer for this catalogue of institutional failure which has occurred – and is still occurring – on his watch as a junior minister. If any political head should roll over this shameful excuse for a prison, then Mr Selous would seem to be a prime candidate for the loss of his, followed by a swift return to the obscurity of the Tory back benches. Whether anyone else would step up to take on the poisoned chalice of our prisons is another question, but the time has surely come for someone in the Ministry of Justice to take responsibility?