There is an interesting – and important – article in today’s online version of The Guardian focusing on the likely fate awaiting Nick Hardwick, the current HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP). As The Guardian prison correspondent, Eric Allison, points out there has been a recent tradition of ditching Chief Inspectors who prove to be too independent and forthright for politicians to stomach. You can find the article here.
|Ramsbotham: shown the door|
As Mr Allison (himself a former prisoner) highlights in his piece, a previous Chief Inspector of Prisons hit the buffers for political reasons: ex-Army general Lord Ramsbotham, whose contract was not extended in 2001 following tensions with the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw. There are now rumours circulating that Mr Hardwick could find that his own five-year contract will not be renewed in June 2015. Officially, no decision has yet been taken, but in all likelihood the post will be readvertised in due course.
No doubt one of the reasons that ‘Crisis’ Chris Grayling would like to replace Mr Hardwick as Chief Inspector is that under the latter’s leadership the Inspectorate has continued the tradition established by Lord Ramsbotham of telling it like it is. Almost every HMIP report now highlights the escalating crisis that is engulfing the prison estate in England and Wales. Sometimes the issues raised by HMIP are highly embarrassing for both the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS).
Recent warnings about the desperate situation inside some of our prisons and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) have been flagged up in damning reports on YOI Glen Parva, HMP Chelmsford and HMP Swaleside in Kent. It was at Swaleside – where the HMIP had just warned that some prisoners were too scared to even leave their cells – that the latest trouble occurred during which fires were lit by inmates and a prison officer had his face slashed.
Mr Grayling’s immediate reaction has been to deny that there is a crisis over staff numbers at Swaleside, although he has announced that he will be scuttling down to Kent himself to find out what went wrong – possibly a brave move for a man who is arguably the most hatred and reviled Lord Chancellor in English history. He can expect a rough ride from the local Prison Officers Association and the frontline staff, let alone the cons. He had better hope he doesn’t get locked on a wing all by himself when the cons are out of their cells “due to a regrettable oversight” by the furious wing screws.
|HMP Swaleside: in crisis|
Many of these problems are a direct result of massive budget cuts and frontline staff shortages, compounded by overcrowding and populist knee-jerk reactions about making prison ‘tougher’. As a result, the suicide rate is rising, along with self-harm and violence against prison staff.
However, this is not the message Mr Grayling wants the public – and especially the long-suffering taxpayer – to hear. He remains in persistent denial of his inability to provide effective political leadership at the top of the MOJ where he is, by any measure, completely out of his depth.
Rather than address these serious failings across the prison estate, Mr Grayling would much prefer to silence whistleblowers who refuse to kowtow before his ineptitude, in much the same fashion as any other tinpot dictator. In the words of T.S. Eliot, Mr Grayling “cannot bear very much reality”.
It is no doubt Mr Hardwick’s honesty and courage in highlighting the crisis in our prisons that is infuriating an increasingly embattled Secretary of State. That is why I fear that Mr H is likely to be looking for a new job in the not too distant future. Of course, in my own view, a far better solution would be to ditch ‘Crisis’ Chris, but keep Nick Hardwick as Chief Inspector.