When it comes to trying to understand what goes through Chris Grayling’s mind, there are many “unknown unknowns” (to borrow a phrase from the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld). However, of one thing I am sure. ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ Chris must detest HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) with a burning passion, fuelled by his great ideological hatred of anything that even hints at being soft on prisoners or critical of his criminal justice ‘reforms’.
|Rumsfeld: "Unknown unknowns"|
Since 1982 the Inspectorate, headed by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has had the remit of conducting inspections of prisons, Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), Immigration Detention Centres and even police cells. HMIP carries out what are called “announced inspections” (which are timetabled and known to be taking place) and “unannounced” visits (which are not timetabled, but which everyone still seems to know about in advance anyway).
Given that pretty much the entire prison, from the Number One Governor down to the snivelling wing weasel, knows when the inspectors will be in, it never ceases to amaze me that prison management still manages to cock it up so badly, in fact almost every time. I accept that there are certain institutional problems that can’t be resolved quickly or even covered up, but the sheer number of unauthorised – and often unlawful – practices that continue even when an HMIP team is wandering round the wings is breathtaking, such as preventing prisoners on Basic regime from having food (HMP Bristol, 2013) or placing an improvised hood over a con’s head, ostensibly to stop him spitting at staff (HMP Bullingdon, 2012). It all sounds a bit Guantanamo Bay really.
|Bullingdon: duck or cover-up?|
I’ve been present during three full inspections at three different jails and it is incredible to see the sudden burst of manic activity for a couple of days: idle wing painters set to work; cleaners polishing their socks off; bare notice boards suddenly blossoming with smart new Safer Custody blurb and colourful posters; bits of nice new kit suddenly handed out; a couple of plastic plants put out by the offices... and the list goes on. The same happens just before any NOMS visitation or whenever a VIP is brought round a wing.
One of the more blatant attempts to bamboozle the inspectors – many of whom appear to be either on secondment from HM Prison Service (a very questionable practice, given the potential conflict of interest) or to have had previous experience as prison staff – during one inspection when I was present, was the sudden appearance on every wing of a long, narrow table on which had been placed ring-binders with up-to-date copies of Notices to Prisoners, Prison Service Instructions (PSIs) and the minutes of all Wing Rep meetings with managers and governors. This was all very laudable, except that these handy sources of information only appeared a day or two before the inspectors hit town and duly disappeared shortly after they had departed. Obviously maintaining this information service would have been far too much like hard work for someone, somewhere.
|Potemkin: seen my village?|
The Russians call this a ‘Potemkin village’ after Prince Grigory Potemkin, the favourite of Empress Catherine the Great, who in 1787 was supposed to have built fake little villages along the routes she travelled so the countryside looked nice and pretty for her. Specially selected and scrubbed-up folk were carted in populate this fantasy world in order to look happy and to cheer their beloved empress as she passed by. Of course, well out of sight the real peasants were as starving, filthy and miserable as ever. The phrase has now come to mean any fakery that is intended to deceive others into thinking that a really crap situation is much better than it actually is – rather like Mr Grayling’s nicks.
Despite all the painting, superficial polishing and buffing up of wing floors that goes on, the true underlying state of the current crisis in the prison system cannot simply be whitewashed over. Recently, it seems that not a week goes by without Nick Hardwick, the current Chief Inspector, giving the Prison Service a damn good kicking in one or other of the Inspectorate’s reports. Of course, the policy wonks down at the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) make politely embarrassed noises and promise to ‘learn lessons’ and do better next time, then continue on the same course regardless as the latest HMIP report is filed in the bumf bin next to its predecessors.
Of course, the media, no doubt smelling blood in much the same way as sharks do, eagerly seize upon on each new catalogue of ineptitude, performance failure and example of wasteful mismanagement in our prison system. Leader writers at The Guardian and The Observer (and more recently The Daily Telegraph) pen a few paragraphs protesting the futility of it all and demanding that ‘something must be done’. Then the domestic news agenda moves on until the next suicide or prison riot.
|HMP Northumberland: staff warnings|
In fact, HMIP report after report highlights the continuing culture of failure within the UK prison system. Nicks in England and Wales are much less safe, much less decent and far less humane than they have been for years. Chronic over-crowding certainly isn’t helping, nor is the easy availability of drugs on prison wings.
These problems have been greatly exacerbated by successive rounds of budget cuts, reductions in staff numbers and ideologically-motivated cruelty and meanness such as the Prison Service Instruction that revised the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system, PSI 30/2013 and ‘cracked down’ on things like having ‘luxuries’ such as books and clean underwear sent in by prisoners’ families. It also aims to increase the number of cons on the highly punitive Basic regime (no rented TV, virtually no personal property, often 23-hour a day solitary confinement and social isolation) in order to appeal to the blue-rinse brigade from Tunbridge Wells. It’s hardly surprising that the suicide and self-harm stats in our jails are rocketing up.
Yet read almost any damning HMIP report and you can see just how little has changed from the previous one. Some positively drip with barely suppressed irritation that recommendations made by past inspection teams have just been completely ignored or kicked into the long grass. On occasion, it is noted that the problem in question has actually got even worse. And other than report the facts, the Inspectorate seems powerless to act.
|HMP Chelmsford: Inspectorate concerns over self-harm|
In a previous blog post I recommended that HMIP be given statutory powers to issue – or withhold – an annual certificate of efficiency. This would trigger a mechanism that could lead to a particular establishment being put into the equivalent of special measures until the problems have been resolved. In very severe cases it could also result in the removal of the senior management. Of course, I’m under no illusions that such a system would ever be introduced under this government, but until HMIP does have real power to take action, its reports will continue to be filed in dusty filing cabinets, forgotten and ignored by NOMS.
One man, however, never forgets or forgives. Above it all, in his Whitehall office, the Unbeloved Leader and (Lord High Executioner of the criminal justice system) doubtless seethes and sputters as critical HMIP report after report lands on his desk. What’s the betting that ‘Crisis’ Chris and his minions in Team Grayling are tying to find any means of undermining or otherwise discrediting an official body that – in Mr Grayling’s eyes at least – has become far too big for its boots.
One of the problems with ‘independent’ free-standing entities like HMIP is that it’s difficult to shut them up when they refuse to toe the Coalition party line(s). I’m willing to bet that Mr Grayling – who loathes ‘leftie’ pressure groups such as the Howard League for Penal Reform with a passion – has convinced himself that Nick Hardwick is personally responsible for most of his ministry’s recent negative media headlines.
You see, Mr Hardwick has form. His background includes stints in socially-aware charities of the kind that ‘Crisis’ Chris cannot abide. A quick glance at Mr H’s CV is very revealing. He was formerly head of the Centerpoint charity (1986-1995) and then Chief Executive of the Refugee Council (1995-2003). He’s highly suspect: a man who may actually care. He would never have got the job on Mr Grayling’s watch, that’s for sure.
‘Refugee’… I can imagine that the Secretary of State for Justice can’t even bring himself to mention the word without snarling and foaming at the mouth. What can be expected from an organisation headed by a man who once (whisper it!)… actually helped refugees – those sponging, foreign economic parasites and ne’er-do-wells? ‘Nasty Nick’: obviously a Commie con-hugger, through and through.
I believe that Mr Hardwick does want to see the prison system in England and Wales reverse its present downward spiral into violence, disorder and – very likely – more fatalities, whether through even more suicides or else during riots. Like his counterpart, the Prison and Probation Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen, he is a man of principles and high ideals. However, Mr Hardwick lacks one crucial thing: the power to force the MOJ and NOMS to change the dire situation in our prisons for the better.