Saturday, 16 August 2014

Mr Grayling: Deckchairs on the MOJ Titanic

It is perhaps appropriate that Chris Grayling, the British politician who is so fond of the idea of ‘cracking down’ on prisoners, has found himself reduced to rearranging the deckchairs on the MOJ Titanic as each one of his so-called ‘reforms’ of the criminal justice system is exposed as being fatally holed below the waterline. Yet, the broken record of his meaningless PR spin drones on and on and on.

Not a care in the world
There is a general consensus that the UK’s prison system, as presently constituted, fails to achieve its stated objectives. Overall, it doesn't reform or rehabilitate offenders (as evidenced by the unacceptably high re-conviction rates, especially for prisoners serving short sentences). It does a poor job of preparing inmates for release and resettlement and, equally as important, often fails to address drug and/or alcohol dependency (and the underlying reasons behind them) which – as anyone who has first-hand experience of prisoners knows – is a major factor in offending behaviour. Moreover, it doesn’t have the resources to deal with the serious mental health problems that affect at least half of the prison population.

What the British prison system does do is provide costly temporary human warehousing, and it often does a poor job of that as the recent doubling of the number of suicides illustrates very graphically. Other than this, prison doesn’t really work at all yet the system grinds on, failing as it goes. I believe that the following quote is often attributed to Einstein: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” He wasn’t wrong.

So what has Mr Grayling done to address the gathering storm that is engulfing the prison system on his watch? Where are his brilliant solutions capable of turning around this rapidly sinking ship?

Time for the life-belts?
Well, he has grandly announced that he has banned foreign prisoners who are facing deportation from being transferred to D-cats (open prisons). A massive total of – wait for it – 20 inmates have been transferred back to closed conditions in the past two days. Not because any of them really represented a genuine threat to the British public, because if they did they probably wouldn’t be in open conditions anyway. So, they are effectively being subjected to additional punishment for having the wrong nationality or passport. That’s the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) spin machine in action for you.

Moving beyond the question of whether these 20 scapegoats are victims of a bit of UKIP-pleasing populism, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Mr Grayling’s grand initiative has impacted on just 20 inmates, out of the 85,700 plus people currently in HMPS custody. We are told that another 800 foreign nationals are currently facing deportation at the end of their custodial sentences, but in reality many of these guys will be serving long stretches for serious crimes and would probably never have got within sniffing distance of an open prison anyway. It’s all meaningless spin sneakily designed to get a desperately needed approving headline in the Daily Mail. Which, predictably, it did.

Sorry lads, wrong passports
And don’t forget, moving these 20 political footballs back to closed prisons will also cost the British taxpayer a wodge of extra dosh. It costs an average of £26,000 per year to keep a prisoner in open conditions compared to £30,600 in a C-cat and £33,600 in a B-cat. But then, it’s our money being wasted for political purposes, not Mr Grayling’s.

At this point, I could take readers on a guided tour of the wilderness of horrors that the English criminal justice system has now become. Defendants appearing unrepresented before the courts owing to Legal Aid not being available; barristers refusing to accept briefs because it’s not worth their professional effort for the peanuts on offer; judges being forced to take extraordinary measures to sort out representation and translation themselves; criminal trials coming close to collapse. But that’s not really my department. I’ll leave others better qualified than me to highlight the latest ideological lunacies imposed by Team Grayling at that end of the criminal justice system.

Prisons, however, I do know a thing or two about – probably a great deal more than Mr Grayling does. As I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts, there is an ever-increasing mountain – perhaps more appropriately in this case, an iceberg – of evidence that the prison system is coming close to collapse due to overcrowding, under-staffing and radical budget cuts. Something is going to have to give soon and when things really head south, it is going to be very nasty – perhaps even ‘biblical’ – a quote, appropriately enough, from the film Law Abiding Citizen.

HMP Lincoln... on the edge?
Due to what amounts to an information blackout from inside prisons, the media appears oblivious to what is really going on. For example, has it made the news that there was an ‘incident’ at HMP Lincoln on 9 August when a group of prisoners on the exercise yard refused to return to their cells in protest because staff shortages were impacting so severely on the daily regime? No? That’s because it didn’t turn violent and no-one – thankfully – was injured. This time.

In fact, as the Howard League for Penal Reform highlighted last month, the number of officers at Lincoln has been cut by 37 percent since September 2010, when there were 207 on the staff.  By 2013, that number had fallen to just 130. In reality this means that almost everything and anything is liable to cancelled without notice: education, work, exercise, legal visits, weekly visits to the prison library (that was another big fib, wasn’t it Mr Grayling), showers, access to payphones to call home. It’s hardly surprising that ‘incidents’ are occurring across the prison estate as nicks grind slowly to a halt and tensions rise to boiling point.

So what are the actual implications, other than cons being locked behind their doors for up to 23 hours a day? Records won’t be getting updated regularly in the Prison National Offender Management Information System (P-NOMIS). Cell-sharing risk assessments (which are supposed to reduce the risk of potentially violent inmates being housed in cells with more vulnerable prisoners) won’t be done on time or at all. Paperwork will be piling up on every desk.

The impact will be felt by every con on every wing. Applications (apps) will go unanswered. Well-behaved inmates who have applied for promotion to Enhanced level within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system will hear nothing for months, thus undermining morale and the whole internal structure for rewarding those who obey the rules with small, but significant privileges. Lose the cooperation of the well-behaved majority and it is but a short step to a potential loss of control of a wing or of an entire prison.

Mike Spurr... always grinning
As HM Inspectorate of Prisons is warning almost every week, violence, use of illegal drugs, bullying, self-harm and suicide is rising across most of the prison estate. Each new HMIP report seems to include a litany of fresh woes and dire warnings. All of which Mr Grayling and his minions - such as Mike Spurr, the head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) - seem to blithely ignore or else blatantly deny, even when the evidence is right in front of them.

Then there are the less visible impacts, primarily in prison Offender Management Units (OMUs), where tasks such as sentence planning, preparation of reports for the Parole Board, updates to the online Offender Assessment System (OASys), risk assessments and other public protection work isn’t getting done on time because there just aren’t enough trained staff to do it. This deficit will have a major impact on prisoners serving indeterminate sentences (lifers and IPPs) who are entirely dependant on recommendations being made by the Parole Board regarding re-categorisation and release on licence. Longer sentences for those who could be released back into the community, subject to appropriate supervision and risk management, just means further overcrowding in our prisons and an average annual cost to the taxpayer of £40,000 per con.

Transforming order into chaos
Moreover, prisoners in custody are supposed to build honest working relationships with their probation supervisors in order improve their chances of completing successfully their period on licence - usually half of their entire sentence in the case of those with fixed jail terms and for the rest of their lives for lifers. However, the current chaos engulfing the probation system thanks to the MOJ’s ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ (TR) agenda – ie partial privatisation of supervision of low and medium risk ex-inmates released back into the community – has left most prisoners as confused as everyone else. It will be instructive to see whether the figures for recall to prison suddenly start spiking upwards amid the present confusion and breakdowns in communications. If so, then Mr Grayling’s so-called ‘rehabilitation revolution’ is going to crash and burn, leaving the prison system to pick up the pieces.

Team Grayling's policies are leaving a disaster area at every level: the courts, prisons, probation. It takes skill and dedication to one’s ideological cause to inflict such pointless devastation across the entire criminal justice system, while playing fast and loose with public protection. Why bother with advocating an evidence-based approach to problem solving when you can rely instead on flights of ideological fancy, knee-jerk reactions, tabloid headline chasing and crisis management (without any actual management)?

Not grinning enough to be lifelike
Mr Grayling has caused such seemingly boundless embarrassment to the coalition government that one wonders exactly what dirt he has on who in the upper reaches of the Conservative Party. He is a Secretary of State for Justice who hasn’t a clue about justice and a Lord Chancellor who is blissfully ignorant about the rule of law (and seems to care even less about it).

However, none of that seems to matter... he just goes on his merry way causing chaos and leaving disaster in his wake. And yet he is so faceless that if the TV satire Spitting Image was still in business, it would be a challenge to find any characteristic - no matter how incidental - on which to create a vaguely recognisable puppet. A true nowhere man grinning inanely as he rearranges the deckchairs on the sinking MOJ Titanic to loud applause from readers of the Daily Mail.


  1. It's clear that the prison system is in crisis. On it's own the ridiculously high reoffending rate is indicative that very little rehabilitation is happening. Add to that the unacceptable rise in suicides, drug and alcohol misuse and the declining mental health of those inside - something needs to change.

    Incarceration has been a default punishment for thousands of years. Many other bizarre and inhumane punishments have been used and, thankfully, abandoned yet prison remains a default.

    During my time inside I met many fellow inmates who really didn't need to be in prison. Before I continue I will point out that some others really did need to be kept away from society! If a more productive punishment for low risk, non-violent first time offenders can be found then the burden on the whole prison system would be eased.

    Prison not only punishes the offender but has a much wider impact on families, especially children. Jobs, homes and relationships are too easily lost during a prison sentence. Warehousing people for the period of the sentence handed down without any rehabilitation is a very expensive unproductive use of taxpayer money - an average of £40,000 per annum per individual.

    I'm not suggesting that crimes should go unpunished. Prisons should be reserved for those who are a real danger to the public or are prolific reoffenders who cannot abide by the rules of a community sentence. If half of the current prison population could serve their sentences in the community - unpaid work (giving something productive back to society) home detention, fines etc. Families would not be broken up, jobs could be kept, children have a stable home and the recently released would not be relying on benefits having lost everything. This might sound like a soft option however my own personal experience is that my time in prison was easier than the period I spent on licence. For me a community sentence would be harsher than the time I spent locked in a concrete box with nothing productive to do. It would also have been so much easier on my completely innocent law-abiding family.

    In times of austerity the savings to the state would pay for an additional 40,000 police officers, probation officers, educators or mental health workers who could actually really help to rehabilitate where the prison system is currently failing.

    I personally do not have all the answers but it's clear that the prison system and a particular chap presiding over it don't either.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think that part of the problem is fuelled by the media, especially the right-wing tabloid press. If almost anyone is convicted of a criminal offence and is then given a non-custodial sentence, the red-tops whip themselves up into an absolute frenzy demanding to know why the 'soft' judge 'let them off'. For that reason, I think that prison has become a default penalty even when the person who has been convicted is a first-time offender and has been assessed as presenting a low risk of re-offending.

      For example, when I was in prison I met two older gentlemen - and I use the term advisedly - who were both inside because of their responsibility for motoring accidents. Now, I accept that their offences, in which drink-driving had led to tragedies, were serious. However, both were in their late 60s or early 70s and neither had a previous criminal record. Neither had set out to cause suffering to others.

      Both were assessed very early in their sentences to be suitable for open conditions and, in fact, I met them in a D-cat prison where they had been sent very soon after conviction. This indicates that neither was believed to pose any risk to the public or of committing a new offence. Therefore, I can only see one possible reason for handing down a custodial sentence and that as a deterrent to others. Will the knowledge that two pensioners (one in seriously ill health) have been sent to prison deter others from drink driving? Fat chance. I doubt either of their cases even merited a paragraph in the local press.

      So what will prison achieve in these cases? Rehabilitation? Nope. Both were absolutely mortified and consumed by guilt over the human cost of the road accidents they had caused. Public protection? Nope. Both had been banned for driving, effectively for life, and neither ever wanted to get behind the wheel again. Preventing re-offending? I seriously doubt it, since both had been professionals and neither had previously had as much as a police caution.

      So what was the point of their imprisonment at a cost to the taxpayer of £26,000 a year? Maybe it was a perceived need for revenge on behalf of the victims' families, or maybe it was because the judges were afraid of getting a pasting by the Daily Mail or The Sun. In either case, it shows why prison - at least for non-violent people - is usually a complete and utter waste of public money and resources.