Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The 'Comical Ali' of the Ministry of Justice

One of the more memorable scenes from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the then Iraqi Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, denying vociferously that US tanks were rolling into Baghdad. As he addressed the press conference, the tanks were just a few hundred metres away. No wonder he earned himself the mocking nickname ‘Comical Ali’. He stands as a testament to the power of total self-delusion in the face of cold, unforgiving reality.

'Prison riots? What prison riots?'
Now, 11 years later, we are being treated to a similar spectacle on the BBC. Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice and Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, has given a defensive interview on BBC Radio 4 in which he stated the following: “We’ve got challenges of an increased population that was not expected in the last 12 months. We're meeting those challenges, we’re recruiting those staff but I'm absolutely clear – there is not a crisis in our prisons… There are pressures which we’re facing but there’s not a crisis.”

‘Comical Chris’ seems determined to continue denying what is absolutely clear to everyone else: there is a serious crisis facing the UK’s prison system. He has also committed the potentially fatal error for any politician of using the word “crisis” himself, more than once. 

By repeating it, he has evoked echoes of the famous headline that appeared in The Sun in 1979 during the Winter of Discontent: “Crisis? What crisis?” Although these three words were widely attributed to the then Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, he never actually uttered them. It was a brilliant headline writer on The Sun who effectively fired what proved to be a dart to the heart of Callaghan’s ailing government. 

'Sunny Jim' Callaghan
What Callaghan does have in common with ‘Comical Chris’ Grayling is that he denied the country was facing “mounting chaos” even though pretty much everyone in the UK knew that this was a massive whopper. The evidence of their own eyes told them so. His denial made the failing Prime Minister look weak, weaselly and completely out of touch with reality. The tabloid media smelt blood and the rest is history.

Mr Grayling is making a fool of himself if he really believes that the tsunami of official reports on what is really going on inside UK prisons on his watch can be kicked quietly into the long grass during the Parliamentary recess. In addition to the regular warnings being issued about unsafe prisons by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) highlighting the rising suicide rate, more and more horror stories are leaking out about the real state of British jails. 

The key problems are substantial budget cuts, front-line staff shortages and serious overcrowding on prison wings following the closure of a number of prisons, including some historic, high cost ones like Shepton Mallet and Shrewsbury. Having painted himself, the MOJ and HM Prison Service into a corner, ‘Comical Chris’ is now determined to deny the reality of the crisis he and his team have largely created. I qualify this statement because some of these policies had actually been started under the last Labour government.

Crisis, did I mention the crisis?
What is even worse, however, is that in addition to the cost-cutting Team Grayling also embarked on a series of ideologically-driven initiatives to make prison ‘tougher’. This has been motivated by purely party political gestures designed to appeal to the traditional Tory ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ brigade. In fact, forcing adult male prisoners back in prison uniform has actually added new pressures on each prison’s budget, completely unnecessarily. It is pure grandstanding and a misguided PR stunt that is backfiring.

Even when he acknowledges the rocketing suicide rate among prisoners, a figure that he admits is “far too high”, he seems incapable of making the obvious link between the shortage of prison staff, a lack of mental health support and the increasing number of hours prisoners are spending locked behind their doors rather than receiving education, training or doing productive work. Forcing many more cons – particularly those who are younger, vulnerable or living with mental or physical health problems – down onto the highly punitive Basic regime (effectively solitary confinement with no rented TV and little social interaction with others) was never going to reduce the levels of suicide and self-harm.

'Comical Chris': the politics of self-delusion
In this pressure cooker environment, it is hardly surprising that violence (including against staff), bullying, drug taking and ‘disturbances’ are growing more prevalent across the prison system. With fewer experienced frontline staff available to deploy on prison wings owing to the substantial reduction in numbers, keeping a lid on this toxic mix is proving increasingly difficult.

All UK prisons run on the basis of a degree of cooperation between most inmates and staff. Once that tacit deal is off, the end results can be widespread violence, riots and likely fatalities of prisoners and perhaps even staff. Unless something changes quickly, I believe that it will only be a matter of time before the lid is blown off and there will be a major crisis with which HMPS will have to contend.

Given that ‘Comical Chris’ started life as a BBC journalist and then progressed on to being a management consultant, you might have thought he would have learned something about communications and the power of positive PR. But no. He has come out on the defensive in the national media and is using the term “crisis” repeatedly in his own sound-bites. That offers a nicely-wrapped gift to any journalist or commentator. Now the word “crisis” can headline alongside “Chris Grayling”, even if he is busy denying it exists. Perhaps we should nickname him ‘Crisis Chris’ instead.


  1. Grayling's comments today bring to mind Basil Fawlty's line in "The Germans" episode.

    "Don't mention the crisis. I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it."

  2. Mr Grayling's problem is that simply putting his fingers in his ears, closing his eyes and singing "la la la" won't make the crisis in prisons go away. There will be trouble ahead, I'm afraid.

  3. I don't really understand Graylings's comments,

    If he's lying and covering up serious failings, he should be sacked. There are serious issues within the prison service which need to be addressed. He seems oblivious to them.

    If he really believes that everything is OK, He clearly hasn't read the reports from his own department (HMIP), nor the various other organisations damning the prison system. And he should be sacked.

    Maybe his best position would be head of looking out of windows in the next reshuffle.

    Sadly, whilst he's in charge lives are being lost and many folks lives are much worse than they were before. Isn't it time this politically motivated buffoon was finally side-lined and somebody with some real sense replaced him?

    1. Thanks for your observations. My own view, as is clear from the blog post, is that he is denying just how serious the crisis inside the prison system is, despite all the objective evidence available.

      Most politicians are "economical with the truth" at some point in their careers, but Mr Grayling appears unable, or unwilling, to distinguish spin from reality. He recently contributed an article on this subject to The Spectator (at least it bears his name, I'm sceptical as to whether he really wrote the text) in which he seems to be living in some kind of parallel university where white is black and vice versa.

      Unfortunately, there is such an appetite among a substantial proportion of the British public for ever more severe penalties and longer prison sentences that I doubt any governing party will have the courage to state openly that the prison system currently works only at one level: human warehousing. Rehabilitation and preparation for resettlement back into the community are now almost entirely absent. Many prisons have closed their resettlement departments altogether and some prisoners are leaving through the gate with no accommodation or idea of what comes next. I'm actually surprised that the re-offending rate, high as it is, isn't much higher.

      I'd like to believe that a different government would act decisively to improve the performance of prisons and provide sufficient resources to enable them to start the process of moving towards meeting their own targets and objectives. However, I'm very sceptical. I'm trying my best not to be cynical at the same time!

    2. Sorry, that should read "universe" - not "university"!

  4. >forcing adult male prisoners back in prison uniform
    What about women? Is the discrimination even legal?

    1. Thanks for your comment. Apparently the MOJ does believe that it is legal to discriminate against men in this way. PSI 30/2013 states clearly at 4.10: "The requirement to wear prison issue clothing does not apply to unconvicted prisoners and prisoners in female prisons at any level of the IEP scheme." It is blatantly discriminatory, but no-one (yet) appears to have challenged it in law.

    2. Women shouldn't be sent to Prison In the first place.

    3. Why should we take a sexist approach to imprisonment? In my opinion, we should completely redefine what prison is actually used for.

      If individuals (of either gender) have a demonstrated record of violence or serious harms to others, then they should be held in suitable institutions that are tasked with providing a conducive environment for proper rehabilitation and the delivery of appropriate interventions (ie psychological treatment, mental healthcare, alcohol/drugs support etc), as well as second chance education.

      I am opposed to the current 'warehousing' of human beings with no rehabilitation opportunities being offered. On the other hand, I firmly believe that almost all non-violent offenders (male and female) should not be custody at all.