Friday 4 August 2017

The Last Post…

Dear readers,

This will be my final post on this blog. In the three years since I started Prison UK: An Insider’s View it has had a global audience that I could never had anticipated when I tentatively started writing on prison issues. I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts and experiences about our prison system, as well as my views on what needs to be done to address the crisis.

Prison UK started its life as a more permanent record of my comments on prison issues that first appeared on The Guardian’s online pages. These attracted interest and I felt that there was a genuine curiosity among many members of the public about what goes on inside our prisons.

It also became clear that there wasn’t much first-hand information available to people who might be facing a custodial sentence. Family members and friends of prisoners also wanted to ask questions or to gain an insight into the lives that their loved ones might be experiencing behind bars. I did my best to fill in some of the gaps, as well as sharing my personal experiences.

The blog also attracted many hundreds of comments and questions, which I – and others – tried to address. I also learned a great deal from many of these contributors who wanted to share their prison experiences, either as a prisoner or as a family member or as a member of staff. We exchanged many ideas on a wide range of subjects and I would like to thank you all for your contributions.

As some of you may be aware other events have recently overshadowed me and my work, so I have decided to cease blogging on this site. I shall also be withdrawing for any further involvement in prison issues, including comments to the media. My focus in future will be on my family and on pursuing my appeal against conviction so that I can finally clear my name.

As I said recently to one well-wisher it does feel that I’m finally being released from prison myself. I’ve lived and breathed prison issues since 2012, including standing up for other prisoners when I was still inside. As I’ve made clear in earlier posts this advocacy did not make me popular with the prison authorities.

I have decided to leave the posts up as a historical record of what I hope has been a worthwhile project. However, new comments will not be posted or replied to. I am very definitely moving on.

Saturday 22 July 2017

YOI Aylesbury: The Inside Story

Although it is common knowledge that our prison system is in deep crisis, the actual details of what is going on behind prison walls are often hidden from public view. Appalling events take place, but these stories are rarely told because of the suffocating blanket of official secrecy from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) that has come to envelop our jails like a thick mist. Transparency is a pipe dream.

HM YOI Aylesbury
Yesterday (Friday July 21) there was a serious incident of violence at HM YOI Aylesbury. We have learned this not by reading about it in the local or national newspapers or from seeing it on the television news, but only because reliable, professional sources inside the system have passed on the details to a private blogger who has an active interest in the prison crisis. That’s why the news was broken on my Twitter account this afternoon and why you are reading about the incident on this blog.

In a nutshell, a group of over 30 young inmates located on one wing became involved in a mass brawl yesterday morning. Rather than rewriting one of the accounts I’ve received, I’ll simply let the person (who has to remain anonymous for obvious reasons) tell the story for themselves, with their permission. This may be the only accurate account of this incident you’ll ever read, so it’s important the truth is told.

The incident yesterday was horrific. The wing has been brewing for a while. The worst, most difficult wing is being run by new officers. We are 30 staff down and now will be even more. 

The wing is over run with problems of gangs and gang violence. There has been a big rise in weapons and drugs in the jail. The governors were warned. The wing in question houses most gangs in the jail on one wing. 

A mass brawl broke out yesterday morning, calling on all officers available lots of times. We didn't have the staff. Prisoners were attacking each other with weapons – and staff. 

Staff were trying to save their lives and got battered. Some were seriously injured. Another officer was on the landing unconscious. We had ambulances and fire service in trying to help alongside our healthcare department. If anything had happened elsewhere in the jail we wouldn't have been able to cope. 

Aylesbury is at breaking point. Eleven officers had to go to hospital and others are injured. 

I'm so angry by what has happened to be honest! The government do nothing. The public should know what really happens! I have never seen anything as bad as this in the years that I have worked there. Members of staff are in danger.

I enjoy my job and enjoy working with the lads, but yesterday was different. They had no fear and they didn't care. The staff tried their best and they worked incredibly hard. They put their lives on the line to save the lads’ lives when they seemed to just want to kill each other! 

To be fair our number one governor is good and she's trying hard but she's battling against a broken system. We have so many new officers that work hard but they are so young and they just aren't getting the support from their seniors. Older members of staff are burnt out. 

We have prisoners who are over 22 stuck in the jail because we barely have any offender supervisors to do the work and no adult jails will take our lads. The wings are rife with spice, cannabis, steroids and weapons. 

And we have had a few near miss suicides recently, alongside a serious fight earlier in the year in which a brick was used to smash a lad’s skull in. I don't understand how the MOJ can sit there and justify what they do.

The staff try hard but what's three new staff on a wing of 70 lads mainly gang members? It's unsafe. I know staff are not eating and throwing up after work because they are so anxious to go to work.

I’m dreading going to work, having to try and help the people that have hurt my friends. What worries me now is some of the lads involved I would have put money on them being decent guys. They weren't the 'typical' disruptive prisoners.

So now the truth is out there. It can no longer be covered up by the bureaucrats and press officers down in at the MOJ in Petty France.
Wing inside HM YOI Aylesbury

No-one can say that the deteriorating security situation at YOI Aylesbury has come as a surprise.  In its most recent annual report for 2015-2016 published in January this year (see here), the YOI’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) states clearly that: “The current staffing level, significantly reduced over the last five years, has made the prison a more dangerous place for staff and prisoners. Additionally, due to the prominence of gangs across the establishment, the complexity of delivering programmes, education and training, coupled with difficulties in delivering prisoners to their activities, suggest staff levels need to be improved considerably if goals are to be met.”

There should be no attempt to sugar coat the bitter truth. What has just happened at YOI Aylesbury is an absolute disgrace. Eleven members of staff have been injured – two seriously enough to have been unconscious and taken to hospital – largely due to inadequate levels of staffing, including deployment of officers with insufficient experience to cope with the particular dangers of this establishment.

Rt Hon David Lidington
It is not enough for the MOJ to recite its usual mantra that ‘lessons will be learned’. Clearly they have not been and explicit warnings from the local IMB have been ignored. Ministers – particularly Sam Gyimah, the Prisons Minister, who has been in post since July 2016 – must accept responsibility for the Ministry’s appalling political decision-making over the past seven years.

Fortunately, this time, no-one has been killed at YOI Aylesbury. However, unless urgent action to address this ongoing crisis, sooner or later there will be the risk of loss of life, whether a prisoner or member of staff.

We also cannot allow the MOJ to lockdown information on serious incidents in our prison estate. Without freedom of information, there can be no genuine political or institutional accountability.

David Lidington, the new Secretary of State for Justice, needs to get a grip on the culture of silence and obstruction of the media within his department. In the meantime, he should visit Aylesbury in person as a matter of urgency and speak to both frontline staff and young prisoners in private to understand why this establishment is in deep crisis. Failure to act will be an abdication of his responsibility.

Monday 17 April 2017

Sam Gyimah: Droning On

It seems our dysfunctional Ministry of Justice (MOJ) never learns the truth of the old saying that when you have already dug yourself a very deep hole, it’s best to stop digging. This week it’s hapless Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah who is the star of the clown show.

Sam Gyimah: Prison Minister
The issue of drones being used to courier drugs, mobile phones and other contraband into our out-of-control prisons has already been the cause of much mirth following the excruciating faux pas by Justice Secretary Liz Truss in the House of Commons back in December. In the aftermath of the merciless mockery she has endured in both the national news and on social media in response to her bizarre comments about barking dogs deterring drones, you might be forgiven for imagining that she would never want to hear mention of the subject again. Not so, apparently. Now Mr Gyimah (who very obviously barely suppressed his own urge to laugh out loud at his boss in the Commons) is in on the act.

“We are absolutely determined to tackle the illegal flow of drugs and mobile phones into our prisons and turn them into places of safety and reform. The threat posed by drones is clear, but our dedicated staff are committed to winning the fight against those who are attempting to thwart progress by wreaking havoc in establishments all over the country,” he proclaimed.

Call for the Flying Squad
As anyone who knows anything about prisons and the problems posed by the smuggling of contraband will confirm, remote controlled drones represent a very, very small part of a much bigger security crisis across our prison estate. Virtually every report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) confirms what is already well known: jails in England and Wales are awash with drugs and mobile phones. And the vast bulk of this contraband is not being flown in on flimsy little drones that cost less than £100 in Argos.

Nevertheless, the MOJ – always anxious to be seen to be ‘doing something’ – has just announced the launch of a ‘national initiative’ that will see prison authorities pool intelligence about drones with the police. An astonishing £3 million is likely to be earmarked to set up this new task force, while the much bigger issue of how the vast majority of contraband consignments actually get into our chaotic prisons remains largely ignored.

Contraband this way...
I have written previously about the highly controversial subject of corruption among prison staff (uniformed and civilian) – see here – and recent prosecutions of corrupt staffers confirm that their pivotal role in what has become an incredibly lucrative business cannot simply be ignored. HMPS employees have a degree of access to prisons that outsiders can only dream about.

Time and again I’ve had it confirmed by long-serving members of the prison staff that there is often little or no searching of staff by security officers. As one remarked to me recently, “I’ve worked in prisons for over eight years and I have personally NEVER been searched going into my workplace.”

This means that unless a corrupt individual is extremely unlucky, the risk of being caught red-handed is likely to be incredibly small. It’s my suspicion that those staffers who do get apprehended with holdalls full of drugs, mobile phones and SIM cards have already been the subject of tip-offs in the run up to their arrest.

Not likely to be 'plugged'
However, the relatively small number of HMPS employees who are caught, prosecuted, and often jailed for their crimes, cannot account for the vast expansion in the availability of illicit mobile phones inside our prisons. Last year alone, MOJ figures state that over 20,000 mobile phones and SIMs were seized by officers, an incredible amount, and up nearly 20 percent on the number of seizures made in 2015 (that year it was nearly 17,000 handsets and SIMs). Back in 2014, the total was just 9,745. Someone, somewhere is making enormous profits from this vast criminal enterprise since even basic phone handsets are changing hands inside for up to £600.

Moreover, not all of these phones are tiny so-called ‘BOSS-buster’ handsets that can be concealed inside bodily orifices and beat the BOSS chairs that are supposed to scan for illicit electronic contraband in jails. As is evident from mobile footage being shot in prisons and then posted on social media, many prisoners are in possession of full size smart phones, including iPhones.

Busted by BOSS?
I defy anyone of normal human physique to ‘plug’ an iPhone 6 without requiring subsequent surgical intervention. Such items are also not being chucked over prison walls or landed by drones. Someone with authorised access is walking these phones through the gate and making a substantial profit on the deal.

Of course, not all contraband is smuggled into prisons by bent staff members. There are plenty of alternative routes as was shown at HMP Northumberland in 2015 when quantities of Class A drugs were discovered concealed inside old mattresses being brought into the prison as part of a recycling operation. It is true that drones are also being used, although the current numbers of incidents is certainly not sufficient to justify spending £3 million of taxpayers’ money on a specialist unit, rather than tackling contraband smuggling as a whole.

Sam Gyimah: trying not to laugh
Unfortunately, the MOJ is currently in the grip of a PR meltdown. Fellow cabinet ministers are busy briefing against the hapless Liz Truss and she has become a figure of fun in the national media. Even the Daily Mail hasn’t been able to resist having a pop at the ridiculous comments that so often just seem to slip out of her mouth. In a desperate effort to regain a shred of credibility, the embattled Secretary of State has now approved the launch of what is likely to become known as the Anti-Flying Squad.

In reality, this public money would be far better spent on developing an effective national anti-corruption unit that would do serious intelligence work to combat the pernicious spread of drugs and phones throughout the prison estate. Highly mobile security teams should be deployed without notice at jails to search anyone coming into prisons, including governor grades, focusing first on those prisons where HMIP have identified serious problems. Such an initiative would cost money, but at least it wouldn’t be wasted on a Keystone Cop-style pursuit of a few dozen drones. It might also tackle the tsunami of crime and corruption that is drowning our prisons in drugs, contraband, bullying, debt and violence.

Sunday 19 March 2017

Firestarters: Burning With Anger

Our dysfunctional prisons are so deeply in crisis that the usual tabloid topics – violence, suicides, drug taking, illicit mobile phones – seem to have been exhausted. In the past few days the focus has been on jail fires, which appear to have become something of an everyday occurrence.

In the real world – that is outside prison walls – arson is considered to be a very serious offence, threatening as it does not only property but also human lives. The maximum penalty for deliberate fire-starting is life imprisonment, even if no one has been killed in the resulting conflagration.

Not much to burn
During my time inside I met a handful of prisoners who had been given Indeterminate Public Protection (IPP) sentences for this very offence. A few were fairly ordinary blokes who had been involved in ‘domestic’ dramas and had then vented their frustration by burning down the family home. One had actually set fire to a police station.

Mercifully there were no casualties in any of these cases, but arson is clearly one of those offences that gives rise to a judge’s suspicion that the arsonist is liable to do it again in the future, hence the handing down of draconian sentences of a notional 99 years (most of the arsonist IPPs had a minimum tariff of a couple of years). As far as I could tell, none of those inmates I met seemed to be serial fire raisers, just average joes who had poor anger management and who had made very bad decisions in a personal crisis.  

Prison fires on the other hand rarely carry serious penalties. In fact the practice now seems to be fairly routine. According to recent media reports, Ministry of Justice (MOJ) figures indicate that there were 2,580 such incidents inside our prisons during 2016. A quick bit of mental arithmetic and that equates to an average of 50 fires each week. According to a BBC report, the MOJ claims that most of these cases were “fairly minor”.

Fire during HMP Birmingham riot
What is more revealing is that some of the worse affected prisons are those that have seen serious disturbances and other types of violence recently, including HMP Birmingham (G4S) and Swaleside. According to MOJ figures, HMP Birmingham recorded 82 fires last year, while Swaleside managed to rack up 73. Other troubled establishments included HMP Nottingham (78) and Serco run HMP Doncaster (75).

Of course, some of these incidents are likely to have been accidents (down to careless smokers or electrical faults), while others occurred in the context of wider protests by prisoners. For a minority, setting fire to a hated prison is the equivalent of an act of violence against ‘the system’. Nevertheless, the overall total has more than doubled compared to the average annual recorded incidents during the period 2005 to 2013. In fact, each year since 2013 has seen a substantial rise. It does seem that as our troubled prisons have become more and more dangerous and dysfunctional, so the incidence of setting fires has risen.

Plenty of combustible items here
Almost all deliberate fires in prisons occur in cells. Although most furnishings are fire-retardant (such as mattresses, blankets and sheets), other commonly available items such as WC paper, clothing and newspapers can go up a treat, especially if assisted by the contents of disposable cigarette lighters which are available from the canteen in those prisons that haven’t yet banned smoking. Given that an estimated 80 percent of adult prisoners smoke, there is plenty of scope for starting a blaze.

The reasons why a minority of inmates decide to burn what few possessions they have are many and varied. Some prisoners undoubtedly get bored and setting a fire is one of the few things (along with causing a flood) that can’t just be ignored by wing staff. No matter what prison officers are doing, they have to respond to smoke pouring out from under a locked cell door. The prisoner gets attention and will be asked by a manager or governor grade what his particular grievances are. Like self-harming, arson produces quick results for frustrated men who may be locked behind bars for 22 or 23 hours each day.

Other prisoners who light fires may be experiencing from a serious mental illness or could be desperate for a transfer out of an establishment in which they are being bullied or victimised. In such cases starting a small cell blaze can be a way of fast-tracking a move either to the safety of the Block (segregation unit) or to another prison.

Fire hose port
Every cell door features a fire hose port that can be unscrewed by staff using a special tool. This enables them to douse the cell with water without opening the door, although in practice the top priority is usually to extract the prisoner(s) from the cell to avoid having to deal with the dangers of smoke inhalation. Very few, if any, prisoners actually intend to commit suicide by self-immolation, so there is rarely a serious casualty as a result of cell fires.

Once available paperwork and wooden furniture has been consumed, there is little chance of the concrete fabric of the cell being damaged. As with most fires, smoke is the actual danger to human health.

At troubled HMP Birmingham a recent cell fire threatened to cause much more widespread disruption because of the design of the ventilation system. When one cell was set on fire, the smoke started filling up the vent and then seeped through into other cells on the wing. Imagine the terror of being confined in a tiny concrete box where windows don’t actually open, as smoke pours through a vent high up on the wall. Fortunately this incident was dealt with without having to evacuate the wing, yet the risks – especially to prisoners who suffer from serious breathing problems – are very real.

HMP Ford burning in January 2011
Prison roof fires are potentially even more dangerous. Back in January 2011 whole prison blocks were torched at HMP Ford in Sussex, while in July 2015 a prisoner managed to set fire to one of the prison’s flat roofs by throwing burning toilet paper up from his cell window. Older jails, particularly open prisons located in former army or air force barracks, still contain a substantial amount of seasoned wood. That’s one reason why very few open establishments are willing to accommodate convicted arsonists who have made it to Cat-D status.

Earlier this month HMP Guys Marsh in Dorset had to be partially evacuated after a protesting inmate got onto the roof, stripped off his clothing and used the garments to set fire to a sizeable section of the wing roof causing serious damage. It’s worth noting that this is a troubled prison where prison inspectors found in 2014 that staff had “all but lost control”.

It seems clear that deliberate arson is an increasingly common feature of prisons in crisis. Prisoners are rarely prosecuted for lighting small fires unless substantial amounts of structural damage have resulted. Most just end up cooling their heels in the Block for some days.

Fire tender at HMP Birmingham
The much greater risk from fire comes when there is serious disorder in a prison and staff members have withdrawn from the affected wings and landings. Full-scale riots often involve the burning of documents from ransacked offices – as happened in December at HMP Birmingham – or cell furniture that is often piled up in the middle of wings to form makeshift barricades. Setting fire to a prison is an effective way of ensuring that it remains out of action for months. It’s worth noting that the most severely damaged wings at HMP Birmingham are still under repair three months on.

Acts of arson are symptoms of the much wider crisis across our prisons. Staff control in a whole list of jails – particularly Cat-B locals – is often tenuous and could be lost at any time, without warning. Prisons that are now routinely short-staffed are particularly vulnerable.

Virtually every prison outside the high security estate runs on a day-to-day basis only because a sufficient number of inmates are willing to cooperate in their own incarceration. There is now clear evidence that this tacit agreement is breaking down on an almost daily basis and the number of violent incidents is soaring. The destruction of wings at HMP Birmingham should be a warning to us all of what lies ahead unless the prison crisis is taken much more seriously.

Monday 6 March 2017

Treating – or tricking?

One of the issues that often causes people genuine concern in the modern age is the question of security of their personal data, especially confidential medical information. In recent years there has been a lively debate over proposals for data sharing between the NHS and other agencies, yet when it comes to prisons and prisoners there seems to be something of a ‘black hole’ where elementary patient rights are ignored.

Does it go beyond the door?
The specific issue of professional confidentiality in our prisons seems to be very poorly developed or understood. In theory, at least, prisoners are supposed to be provided with the same level of patient care and treatment as is available to all other users of the NHS, yet we know from successive reports from HM Coroners’ inquests that, sadly, on occasion there have been some very serious shortcomings when individual prisoners have died in custody. I am personally aware of one case in which the healthcare manager in a specific prison resigned following a particularly damning inquest verdict that highlighted medical neglect.

Again – in theory – prisoners’ interactions with professionals working in prisons, including doctors, nurses and psychiatric staff, should be treated in the same way as in the local health centre or clinic in the community. While certain types of information sharing are permissible (particularly to protect the vulnerable or children at risk) I think it is fair to say that most of us would take a very dim view of a local GP or nurse who chose to write a sensational ‘treat and tell’ book exposing our confidential medical information to the wider world, or even in a tabloid newspaper, especially when the patients are identified by their real names.

HMP Altcourse - a G4S prison
I was reminded of this today when I saw that a former psychiatric nurse who had worked at Liverpool’s HMP Altcourse – and who states that she has 38 years of clinical experience – has published a book about her time working at this private prison managed by G4S. The book has since been picked up by a leading tabloid and, in an article, very specific details concerning this nurse’s professional interactions with one particularly notorious prisoner are explored.

Reading the article – although not the book (which I am also not naming as I don’t feel I should be giving it the oxygen of further publicity) – I was struck with a sense that this is clinical information that really shouldn’t be in the public domain. This is not only because of the potential impact on the prisoner concerned, but also because of the likelihood that the newspaper coverage will come to the attention of the victim’s family. Details of a particularly grisly crime, including photos of both the prisoner and the victim, are included in the article.

Healthcare: behind bars
I think it is also important to note that this does not seem to be a scientific study that might be of use to criminologists or forensic psychiatrists, but it is rather an exploitative and sensational book that appears to have been self-published for sale online. To be honest, I was shocked that a qualified health professional who claims to have 38 years of experience couldn’t see the potential conflicts of interest, let alone a probable violation of a duty of care to a former patient who is portrayed as particularly vulnerable.

There would be serious ethical issues involved even if every prisoner mentioned in such a publication had given free consent, yet I very much doubt that this was obtained, let alone permission from the families of victims involved in specific crimes. Perhaps if names had been changed or anonymised, the potential breaches of trust might have been largely avoided, yet it is clear that real names and specific offences are being described in gory detail.

In my view the publication of this book – and others like it – are a serious indictment both of our present prison system and of the professional bodies that are supposed to regulate staff members that provide medical and clinical care to prisoners. I believe strongly that this duty of care and confidentiality should not cease when either a prisoner is released or a healthcare professional retires. Surely this should be reflected in staff employment contracts?

Asking the right questions
The potential pitfalls should be there for all to see. If serving prisoners become aware that even a tiny minority of healthcare staff might be intent on publishing sensational books or giving interviews about them to the tabloid media then it is hard to see how any degree of trust can ever be established between patient and practitioner. What negative impact could that have on inmates seeking medical help in a time of crisis or illness? Should prisoners forfeit the right to basic levels of clinical confidentiality simply because they are in custody?

I recall that when I was in prison I was asked by a healthcare department to sign a document giving my permission for the sharing of my medical data with the prison authorities. I declined, not because I had anything I wished to conceal about my own health but because no one could explain why this access would be of any specific benefit to me. Indeed, I have come across cases where the sharing of prisoners’ medical information - for example a diagnosis of autism - has impacted negatively on indeterminate sentenced inmates’ chances of parole.

Let's talk about medical ethics
This sort of book merely feeds to public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for sensational information about prisoners who have committed notorious crimes. As always there is a wide gulf between wanting to know private information about others and the right to have access to it.

Surely at a time when we have a well documented mental health crisis across our prison estate, any publication that further undermines the very fragile relationship of trust between prisoners and prison medical staff should be a matter of concern for the Ministry of Justice and for the wider prison service. So, will any action be taken to be prevent unauthorised disclosure of clinical data? I’m afraid I’m not taking a deep breath.