Friday 30 January 2015

C4 News: Watching the MOJ Train Crash

If you didn’t see the Channel 4 News on television last night then you really missed a treat: most of the Ministry of Justice’s dirty little secrets being exposed for all the world to see. What made it even more shocking was the cowardly refusal of the Secretary of State for ‘Justice’ Chris Grayling to face his critics and defend his indefensible policies. You can find the programme here.

Illicit photo of knife inside prison
For those of us who know a thing or two about prisons – whether from the viewpoint of staff or as prisoners, or indeed as prison reform campaigners – there really wasn’t much revealed that we didn’t already know all too well. Our prisons are awash with contraband. Mainly drugs – illegal and illegal – but also mobile phones, cash and even weapons (such as the nasty-looking lock knife that was shown in one con’s in-cell photo).

Of course, the Channel 4 exposé was made all the easier because the complete numpties inside the slammer not only took photos of their illegal activities using their illicit mobiles, but then shared them with their mates via social media, albeit password protected. Someone obviously blabbed and the entire stash of photographic evidence was harvested by an enterprising investigative journalist.  As former celebrity con Oscar Wilde once observed: “There is no sin except stupidity!” You really couldn’t make it up. 

Mini-mobiles: potentially deadly
As if all the selfies and little movies of drug dealing and cash-flashing weren’t bad enough, we were also treated to text messages in which inmates compared the price of drugs in various different nicks. It’s hardly surprising that prison security departments regard the prevalence of contraband mobiles and SIM cards inside jails as posing the most serious identifiable threat to any establishment. A single con armed with a charged mobile can do far more damage than one with a table leg or even an improvised shank. 

Thus far so good, but although this footage graphically illustrated the ways in which our prisons have been permitted to get out of control because of swingeing cuts to frontline staff, we didn’t learn much that was really new – at least to anyone who has lived or worked inside a prison. For that we had to wait until the studio interviews that followed.

Mike Spurr (NOMS) sitting in the hot seat for Chris Grayling
Given that this primetime news package was exposing massive security flaws in prisons, one would have expected that the politicians responsible to Parliament and to the nation would have appeared on the programme to defend the policies that have contributed in large measure to the meltdown in safety and security, but not a bit of it. ‘Calamity Chris’ cried off – presumably sorting out his sock drawer – and hapless Prisons Minister Andrew Selous was nowhere to be seen. Instead, these two elected politicians allowed an unelected senior civil servant – Mike Spurr, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – to carry the can for the sorry mess they have made.

At least when former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard was in post he had the guts to face Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight back in May 1997. Funnily enough, this interview – which is often considered to be one of the most famous political exchanges of the television age – also featured a row over prison issues, in that case over Mr Howard’s interactions with Derek Lewis, then head of the Prison Service, concerning the then governor of HMP Parkhurst. 

Michael Howard: faced the music
Paxo famously asked the Home Secretary the same pointed question 12 times in succession without getting a straight answer. I may not be a fan of Mr Howard but he puts ‘Cowardly Chris’ into a completely different category. He faced the music in front of the country, even if it damaged his own political career. 

The ongoing crisis in our prisons is primarily a political issue. Policies that have been imposed by ministers have created a highly volatile and potentially explosive environment in many establishments. The critical issues are staff shortages and serious overcrowding in a majority of prisons – both directly attributable to political decision-making. Of course, the impact is felt at the operational level, but ministers should take responsibility for such policies, rather than allow a career civil servant – no matter how senior – to defend his political masters.

Mr Spurr began badly when he was wrong-footed by news anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy about how he actually came to be sitting in the hot seat in the first place. He appeared not to know that Mr Grayling had evaded the ‘hospital pass’ prior to the request for an interview being passed on to him. At best this exposed the lack of internal communication between the MOJ and NOMS; at worst, he just looked like a gormless patsy.

It was a highly defensive interview. After all, it’s never going to be easy trying to defend the indefensible. One of the most revealing pieces of information was the extent of the problem of corrupt prison staff and other workers who have access to prisons. According to Mr Spurr’s figures – and I think we can assume that they are accurate – over 100 members of staff or contractors have been disciplined, prosecuted or excluded from working in jails over the last year. Of these, 34 have been convicted of criminal offences. This is substantially higher than anything seen in 2011 to 2013. You can find the details here.

Corrupt prison staff in the dock
As I have argued previously on this blog, on The Guardian online and during my own contribution to the Channel 4 News feature, I believe that it is impossible for the amount of drugs, whether legal or illegal, that are easily available on most prison wings to be coming in through visits or via packages thrown over prison perimeter walls. As one of the other interviewees on the programme, a local resident who lives next to HMP Pentonville, observed incidents involving parcels were seen every three weeks or so.

It clearly happens, but it is a highly risky, hit and miss way of sending over valuable commodities such as drugs and mobile phone SIM cards. There is no way the real drugs trade inside our jails could operate on such a basis.

While small amounts of contraband also come into prisons through visitors passing tiny wraps or a few pills to prisoners in the visiting hall, this is also a very risky and inefficient way for the dealers to supply their customers on the wings. Again, I’ve argued that much of this low-level smuggling is about paying off debts or for personal use at a lower cost than the substances trafficked around the landings. 

Visits: scene of various set-up jobs
I’m also convinced that at least some of these often inept attempts to pass small quantities of drugs are set ups by the drugs barons to make prisons security look effective while cloaking the really profitable consignments that are being smuggled in by members of staff (uniformed and civilian). Given the much higher prices being charged by dealers inside jails there are sizeable margins to be made and some staff get tempted by a slice of the pie.

Although some members of staff are obviously being caught in the act and prosecuted, I’m absolutely convinced that this is only the tip of a much larger iceberg of corruption in our prisons. No-one ever seems to mention the amount of theft and casual pilfering that goes on inside the nick, with staff – including a few governors – actually helping themselves to prison property of varying descriptions. I personally know one governor grade who was dismissed for regular theft of goods from a prison enterprise.

POA: recognises problem
It was interesting to watch the pre-recorded interview with Peter McParlin, the national chairman of the Prison Officers Association (POA). He confirmed that there is a serious problem with bent staff, even if he also stressed that they only represent a tiny minority of officers. In reality it does only take a couple of corrupt staff in each prison to undermine security to an alarming degree.

However, aside from the issue of staff misconduct and criminal activities, the real elephant in the room for Mr Spurr was the massive cut in the numbers of prison officers since 2012. While the precise numbers can be disputed, there is no doubt that many jails are severely understaffed – a point highlighted in successive reports by both the Prison and Probation Ombudsman and HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. 

Although Mr Spurr was keen to point to the recruitment of 1,700 new prison staff who would be in post by April 2015, this begs the question of why so many experienced officers were let go at a time when the prison population was showing no signs of falling. Of course, the real answer is ‘benchmarking’ – a key element in the NOMS business plan. Essentially, this involves reducing the number of operational grade staff in order to save money. Last year it was estimated that by April 2015, a total of £900 million will have been cut from Prison Service budget since 2010 – a reduction of around 24 percent.

Channel 4 News: photo evidence 
Some of the dire results of this strategy were laid bare during the Channel 4 News programme: prisons that are dangerously out of control, security breaches, bullying and easy availability of drugs. These political and ideological policies have made prisons less safe for inmates and staff alike – as evidenced by the latest shocking statistics for violence, including sexual assaults – and a corresponding absence of any attempt at rehabilitation across much of the prison estate. Sometimes cutting budgets to that extent just doesn’t deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

It was also interesting to hear Mr Spurr’s attempts to explain why our prisons are becoming more violent. His explanation was that jails are full of young men serving longer sentences and therefore “difficult to manage”. Not a recipe for cutting down on experienced staff, you might think. 

However, last time round, when Mr Grayling and his sidekicks were giving evidence before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Justice at the beginning of December, the problems in our prisons were all the fault of people convicted of so-called ‘historic’ sex offences flooding our prisons unexpectedly. In fact, both arguments are equally bogus, other than the glimmer of truth that many prisoners are now serving longer and longer sentences.

Mr Grayling: conspicuous by his absence 
In reality, no amount of special pleading by Mr Spurr could cover up the mounting crisis in our prisons. Parachuting in 1,700 newly trained officers is not going to solve the massive problems caused primarily by bad policy making and poor acts of political mismanagement. And where was ‘Calamity Chris’ Grayling, the man who should have been defending his record of failure and chaos? At home, valiantly hiding behind his senior civil servant. A breach of the Ministerial Code, perhaps?

There was, however, a welcome breath of fresh air and honesty from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. Since he is in his final months in this post – thanks to the blatantly political machinations inside the MOJ – there’s no reason for him to spare anyone’s blushes. To his credit, he remained as professional and diplomatic as ever, but still got over the inconvenient truths about the way in which Team Grayling has managed to cock-up everything it has touched within the prison system. 

The loss of the Chief Inspector at a time of crisis in our prisons is potentially disastrous. Of course, it remains to be seen who gets the job, but let’s just hope it won’t be some craven yes man or woman. If there is a change of government after the next general election perhaps Mr Hardwick should be offered a working peerage and the portfolio of Prisons Minister. Just an idea! 

You can read my own opinion piece for Channel 4 News here.


  1. Oh flip! You appeared on C4 news last night?

    1. Sorry, it wasn't confirmed until just beforehand. I did Tweet it! I think you can still see it via the C4 News website. Just follow the links in the post above.

    2. It was a blink and you'll miss him appearance unfortunately and presumably part of a much longer interview.

    3. True - the original interview was about two hours! However, C4 News has
      included more quotes on the website version, as well as posting a longer opinion piece by me linked to the same news feature. All links can be found above in the post.

    4. You are the guy in a stripey shirt with his back to the camera... you're wearing a "help for heroes" band. My twitter is down for some reason, i reckon my smartphone is crap cos i can't access "inside time" either!

    5. That was me. After much consideration (about 10 seconds, actually!) thought it wouldn't be a good idea to talk about drug smuggling into prisons and then show my face on camera! Just in case I ever end up back inside... unlikely, but you never can tell these days.

  2. I've been out of prison for a year now but I can safely say that in the female estate the make up of the inmates didn't change at all between the time I went in in 2010 and when I came out. As a result of the riots we did suddenly get an influx of people for those related offences but that was a blip rather than a sea change.

    The make up of the female estate is a tiny proportion of lifers and IPP's, a staggering number of foreign drug mules, a lot of drug related petty theft, benefit frauds and a few white collar criminals. You generally don't get many gang members or people in for violent offences so Spurr's pontificating that prisons are getting out of control due to gang related young men doesn't have its equivalent in the female estate. Women are simply being sent to jail by our predominantly white male middle and upper class judiciary in ever larger numbers for reasons I can only ascribe to the judiciary being mortified by any woman who dares to step outside of what they perceive the role of women in our society to be (the Nazi ideal of women's place being kinder, kirche and kuche always springs to mind at this point) and so they immediately stick her in prison for offending them whereas if the woman was a man she's have probably received a slap on the wrist or at most probation (Helena Kennedy's Eve Was Framed is an excellent read on this subject)

    Most lifers I came tended to have killed someone under one off tragic circumstances (I met just 4 who really gave me pause for thought), most of those in for manslaughter killed abusive partners, most IPP's I came across had mental health issues and the vast majority were only locked up for the reasons I detailed above.

    Despite the law being clear that if someone has carer responsibilities the Judge in question should explore every available alternative before jailing someone this simply doesn't happen.

    I met women who were in jail for not paying a council tax bill (that was their ex husbands and not even for their property) who was the full time carer for a severely disabled child who was sentenced to six months imprisonment with quite evidently no attempt to impose a non custodial sentence (she got out on appeal and the conviction quashed).

    A mother given a 12 month sentence for falsely imprisoning her drug addicted daughter who had begged her parents not to let her out of the house to score.

    Various young girls trafficked into the UK for sex slavery who came in on false passports provided by the traffickers and ended up on long jail terms.

    One girl went to her GP after being raped, she didn't want to report it to the police. The GP reported it to the police. She didn't want to be put through the whole ordeal of an investigation and prosecution and ended up being prosecuted for wasting police time and perverting the course of justice and given 3 years. Longer than Huhne and Pryce got combined.

    The list goes on.

    1. Not that the above is directly related to the Channel 4 programme but I was trying to detail why Spurr's claims about the crisis in prisons being caused by violent young men is ridiculous. We don't have the equivalent in the female estate and that's in just as much crisis as the male estate

    2. Thank you for this very important contribution to the debate and for sharing your own experiences with us. There needs to be a very urgent investigation of how imprisonment is being used in this country - especially to silence critics and those who challenge the 'establishment' view of how things should be.

      I've often reflected on how women who are sent to prison tend to be much more demonised than men, particularly if their cases have involved a failure to care for children in a way that society expects or if they have killed, particularly when the victim was male! Moreover, most of the visitors who get busted for trying to smuggle tiny amounts of contraband into jails are women - just look at the news coverage.

      Wives, mothers, girlfriends... they can all end up inside when they have been pressured or blackmailed - emotionally or through actual threats - to 'drop off' a wrap or a handful of pills. The consequences of jailing these often vulnerable women is trauma for their dependent kids. I'm not defending their actions - far from it - but in my experience none of these women are drug dealers. The real barons and gangsters just hide behind them and then let them take the rap when it all goes pear-shaped.

  3. Interesting article on an initiative at New Hall: Not sure if this is a puff piece or an accurate reflection of New Hall as I've never been there. Equally the place has a relatively bad rep in the female estate so it's hard to judge. If it is a good programme and does actually work you can guarantee that the MoJ will never roll it out across the entire female estate because they never do with anything that is good practice for some really bizarre reason.

    On that note I read recently that Blantyre House has apparently been closed at least temporarily - again a prison that works just like Latchmere House did and was also closed - is closed over a failing prison. This is just one example of how ridiculous current penal policy is

    1. I've seen the mini mobile phones on ebay, they are the size of a keyring and are probably useless for cons with sausage fingers!

    2. Thanks for both comments! Just occasionally it's refreshing to read something that isn't all doom and gloom from inside our prisons.

      I've always thought that it's so rare anything positive is ever reported. I remember cons on £8 a week giving a quid or two for a local appeal to help disabled kids; Cat-D volunteers giving up their free time to redecorate a local community centre; more volunteers working with disabled adults in the gyms; concerts to raise money for local charities... the list is pretty long, but never really gets reported.

      On the issue of mini mobiles, what really shocked me in the C4 News footage was the iPhone 4! Either that came in via the staff entrance or someone will have needed intimate surgery for a very nasty injury!

  4. The Daily Mail has an interesting article about a man wrongly accused of rape and murder who served 21 years before being freed who received 6 million compensation from the US government. This is in stark contrast to Grayling et al where you now have to prove your complete innocence to get compensation. Usually its the other way round with the US being far harsher than the UK but in this instance the Yanks seem to have gotten it right far more than our government has.

    1. Thanks for the link and comments. Although I have to write this with clenched teeth, the decision to axe ex gratia compensation payments was actually down to the last Labour government. This lot just jumped on the cost-cutting bandwagon and made it even more difficult - in fact practically impossible - to get compensation for wrongful imprisonment. Sad, but true!

  5. Where could I find accurate figures for numbers of prison staff in relation to numbers of prisoners?. It's easy to find graphs showing the prison population rising, but it would be interesting to see staff numbers plotted on the same page.

    I would like to know when the staff reductions started and whether it has all happened on Grayling's watch.


    1. Hi Richard, thanks for your questions. I believe that cuts in staff numbers began before Team Grayling got their grubby mitts on the system. Prison closures were certainly planned during the last Labour government's term in office. In my own opinion, many of the foundations of the current crisis were in fact laid years earlier when there was a change in ideological thinking on penal policy.

      When it comes to data I believe that the Howard League has published a list of staff numbers by establishment and also a table of overcrowded prisons. I suspect with some number crunching a very informative and revealing graph could be plotted. If the numbers of violent assaults and drugs seizures could also be factored in the result could be very powerful evidence for a direct correlation between the staff/prisoner ratios. Just a thought!

    2. On the topic of overcrowding. HMP Downview was suddenly closed as a female prison in October 2013 as it was apparently being immediately re-rolled as a male cat C establishment due to the apparent overwhelming need for more male prison places.

      18 months later the place is still mothballed at the cost of what must be hundreds of thousands of pounds as there are still staff on site (not a full complement obviously) to maintain facilities etc. Whilst the 300 odd places Downview provides is not going to solve the overcrowding problem it would certainly help.

      There is no genuine reason why Downview should remain mothballed at tax payer expense nor why it was shut so quickly as a female prison causing untold havoc to the women who were resident there and were wholesale shipped all over the country to prisons who were simply not in a position to receive large quantities of new prisoners overnight. People lost vital resettlement jobs, families could no longer visit, release/parole hearings were jeopardised.

      It wouldn't have been so bad had the MoJ immediately reopened it as a male prison as they were supposed to but they didn't and still haven't. The MoJ should immediately reopen it as a male cat C as planned to help relieve overcrowding or should close it down and sell off the site for redevelopment say as affordable housing. Keeping it mothballed is a pointless exercise and a huge waste of tax payer money

    3. Thanks for your comments. As usual, everything is about short-term budgets - next to nothing on planning. It's the same as we've seen with slashing staff numbers and then, having paid out taxpayers' money for redundancies and early retirement, having to recruit 1,700 new staff.

      In pretty much any other organisation, including supermarkets, a chief executive would be sacked for presiding over such a monumental cock-up. Sadly, since there seems to be zero accountability in politics these days, it will be left to the electorate to make a final decision in May. Let's see whether anything will change. Personally, I'm not holding my breath.

    4. Maybe there should have been a corrupt staff amnesty, anonymous tip offs could have removed the bad apples and cut staffing least it would have justified the mass recruitment drive!

    5. Sadly, I think there is too much of a 'closed shop' mentality in most prisons. Decent staff generally don't like the bent ones, but blowing the whistle can be seen as tribal disloyalty or even 'grassing'. So the code of silence continues...


    1. Thanks for the link. To be honest, I'm sceptical.

      I suspect that the fall in the number of robberies - and other types of similar crime - is more linked to the major changes that have taken place within the market for drugs, mainly because it is so well documented that much low level crime - theft, shoplifting, street robbery etc - is directly linked to raising cash to fund drug habits.

      The widespread availability of so-called "legal highs" has severely impacted on the drugs trade and prices have come down significantly. Why take a risk on buying or possessing real (and illegal) cannabis when legal cannabinoids can be purchased cheaply from any high street hippy shop?

      There is a very interesting quick overview of the impact on the new drugs on the street to be found here:

  7. This did make me laugh as it just goes to show the MoJ's attitude towards anyone convicted of a crime these days. Any pretence of innocent until proven guilty clearly went out of the window a long time ago under Grayling's purview.

    1. Thanks for your comment and the link. I agree - totally shocking and it just goes to show the sheer level of ignorance and incompetence prevailing within the MOJ at the moment - from the top down.


    1. Thanks for the link. Quite amazing that anyone outside the UK actually gives a rat's arse about what passes as a criminal justice system in this country. 'British justice' is basically becoming an oxymoron. That the MOJ seems deluded enough to try and flog its 'expertise' abroad is equally astonishing. Perhaps that's why Chris Grayling's only likely customers will be tyrants and dictators.