Sunday, 14 September 2014

An HM Prison Inspector Calls

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.    

Nick Hardwick
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. 


  1. Hmmm, most of your posts are well written balanced pieces but every so often a truly biased one appears.

    I enjoy the information you provide (and normally the style in which it arrives) as it allows me to be better informed and to make a reasonable stance on the matter at hand; however, when such a negative piece highlights an issue without the slightest real attempt at suggesting a solution my instinct is to question the validity of the biased statements.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I welcome criticism and other points of view. I'm actually hoping that someone from HMIP will post a response so we can have a debate about these issues.

      As I mention in the post above, my suggested solution is that the HMIP is given statutory powers to put prisons into special measures until serious problems - particularly unsafe establishments - have been properly addressed. There is little point in having an official Inspectorate of Prisons that all too often appears to be ignored by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS).

      I try to read at least the executive summary of every HMIP report that is published, as well as the whole report when it deals with a major issue (for example the treatment of unconvicted prisoners held on remand). It's only when you read successive reports on specific prisons that you come to realise how little often seems to improve. "Disappointed" is becoming a more common word in reports when dealing with previous recommendations that have been ignored. Clearly, some of this relates to resources: staffing and budgets, but positive change requires a commitment to improve and reading the latest reports one can see just how much the situation in our prisons is deteriorating.

      I wish I could offer a more positive perspective on things, but having experienced some of these negative impacts at first hand - especially the implementation of PSI 30/2013 - I have to agree with the HMIP and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, two official institutions that are warning of dire risks and consequences. And it's not just the HMIP and the PPO. We should also listen to the opinions of both prison staff and cons, rather than the political spin and culture of denial we always get from the MOJ and NOMS.

  2. Do you have any views on what (if any) difference the independent monitoring board makes to prisoners? Really enjoying the blog btw

    1. Thanks for your comments, Lissa. I have posted a few thoughts previously on Twitter about the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) and had a bit of a debate with Angela Levin, the journalist who used to be on the IMB at HMP Wormwood Scrubs. We have had to agree to differ.

      Like most prisoners, I have little faith in the IMB. They have substantially less authority than the old Board of Visitors and are pretty impotent when it comes to getting things sorted out. In my experience, the members do mean well, but are hopelessly out of their depth. They are also often regarded with contempt by uniformed staff and managers alike.

      In B-cats and C-cats they are often seen as irrelevant figures who stand around in the servery during meals chatting to staff and ignoring cons. The written complaint system is also very bureaucratic and ill-suited for a prison system that has such a high percentage of inmates with literacy issues. In essence, I suppose that it is a middle class solution to deal with under class problems that misses its goals because of a mutual lack of understanding on both sides.

      I worked closely with the IMB team at a D-cat. We had much greater access to them because we had relative freedom of movement. As individuals, the IMB members were nice people. However, their ignorance of the entire system - including HM Prison Service policies and rules - were astonishing. In the end, some of them regularly asked me for advice and information!

      They also made various bizarre decisions without really assessing the potential consequences. For example, they relocated their office into the mental health block where it was then impossible for cons with problems to just knock on the door as they used to. Perhaps that was intentional, I don't know.

      Then all the IMB blue complaint boxes disappeared from the wings and were replaced by one box in the dining hall. However, this was located right next to the spot the supervising officers congregated, thus intimidating cons from approaching it to get yellow IMB complaint forms from the dispenser on the side of the box.

      Anyone who did so risked getting a scowl from the Senior Officer and then being interrogated about why they were complaining. Also, the dining hall was only open during meal times, so access was further limited that way, and eventually IMB forms became as rare as hen's teeth.

      Needless to say the number of complaints went down, suggesting that everything was fine, even when it wasn't. I had to point this out to the chair of the IMB when he came to see me for an informal chat. Eventually the wing boxes reappeared... but the whole incident highlighted why cons' perception of the IMB is often so negative.

  3. Thanks for your really detailed response.... Was hoping you might say something different but suspected you wouldn't! I find it very worrying in the closed world of prison there is no outside scrutiny other than, as you say, by those hopelessly out of their depth.

    1. Lissa, I can only really add to Alex's comments. I had numerous contacts with the IMB during my time inside. My experience was that they were very well meaning kind people but had no real influence to solve issues.

      One particular problem in a B-cat was the lack of hot water. This went on for weeks (around 10) which meant cold showers - many inmates choosing not to wash at all. Of course, the IMB members I discussed this with were appalled but were powerless. They had direct access to Governors to raise such issues but their protestations over conditions were nothing new to staff and so didn't actually solve anything.

      Access to IMB where I was incarcerated was just once a week. It meant being banged up all morning just for a 5 minute chat rather than attending work or education. On one occasion the chap I met agreed with my complaint and simply said "nothing is perfect".

      When the internal complaints system has been exhausted and there's nowhere else to turn a body such as the IMB should have some real clout in prisons. Sadly, they just don't.

      Similarly, the HMIP debacle is a disgraceful waste of time and taxpayer money. They are very diligent at highlighting the failings (and sometimes successes) of the system but simply have no power whatsoever to enforce long term change. It's an absolute disgrace that an organisation such as MOJ can be shown to be failing so often over long periods of time and yet nobody is held to account. Nothing changes, inmates mental health deteriorates, reoffending rises and ultimately people die.

    2. Thanks for your contributions. I can only agree with what you've written above in response to Lissa's question and my own comments. Without some formal statutory powers that go far beyond HM Inspectorate's present remit, I honestly cannot imagine that there will be any significant progress made in improving prison performance.

    3. I think IMBs can be hampered by a tension between different elements of their role. On the one hand, they are there to monitor fairness and human decency and to judge whether the rules and regulations are good rules - which requires people from outside "the system". On the other hand, they monitor how well the prison follows its own policies - which requires people with in-depth knowledge of that same system.

      Likewise, IMB members must never take part in any kind of executive activity that they might also be required to observe from a distance, but the flip side of that is the lack of power. Being able to actually make things change would be fine until the first few bad decisions, at which point the Board turns into yet another part of the prison's management and destroys its own independence.

    4. Thanks for your comments. I accept that the role of an IMB is to monitor, not to take executive action. However, in my experience, if the management of a prison simply ignores IMB representations and problems continue as before, then prisoners soon become very disillusioned and simply stop engaging.

      Moreover, if IMB members are themselves hazy about rules and regulations, then their effectiveness in even monitoring will be much reduced. I'm not sure how one can ensure that rules are being applied correctly and fairly when IMB members lack the professional knowledge to recognise for themselves when things are not being done properly.

      Another key problem, as raised by another ex-con, is that particularly in closed prisons the process of applying to meet with an IMB member can be so tortuous that it definitely discourages many prisoners from even bothering to put in an application. If you lose an entire half-day of work or education for a five minute chat, then that is a definite disincentive.

  4. This is hard-hitting writing; very impressive and enlightening, even if the subject matter is depressing.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I do try to make these blog posts as varied as possible, including positive points and some uplifting stories, but as a rule there isn't too much to be optimistic about, I'm afraid.

  5. When I was at a C cat prison we had a royal visit, I was working in stores at the time and saw everything that was ordered by the prison come in first. They ordered new plates, new platters and to top it all a swan ice sculpture, all for a 2 hour visit. All walls and doors in the area she was to visit were repainted, some twice. Upon her arrival the prison was on lock down for the two hours, except for a few special chosen ones to answer questions. We were furious that we were not allowed to be out during her visit but god forbid someone complain about something. The visit went without a hitch and I am sure she enjoyed the spread that was put on for her 2 hour stay.

    1. Thanks for your contribution. I think your account of that visit will strike a chord with any con who has seen this kind of fakery and misuse of scarce funds during official visits. It's so similar to Prince Potemkin's activities in Russia over 220 years ago... the more things change, the more they stay the same!

  6. I think it may be a little unfair to single out the blue rinsed matrons of Tunbridge Wells. I've a horrible feeling that there are a lot of people out there, from all social classes, who will be thinking that Grayling is right to tighten up a system that they imagine is too soft. I am talking about the sort of people who are outraged that any prisoners are allowed to watch TV - and in colour too.

    I hope your blog will help to change some of their minds.

    1. Thanks for your comments. One of the main reasons I started this blog was to give some insight into what is a very closed world. There are so many misconceptions about prison life that I wanted to show readers a more realistic and truthful version of what really goes on inside. I'm also delighted that ex-cons are contributing their own accounts, as well as people who haven't been inside asking specific questions.

      It is also amazing how people's views on prison change radically once they have a family member or close friend on the other side of that wall - or if they themselves end up in jail. I'm sure that those former politicians, including a few ex-ministers, who have been sent to prison now have a very different opinion, based on first-hand experience.

      I remember reading one of Jonathan Aitken's books about his own time inside and he mentions that he had screws giving him a hard time because of government policies that had been implemented by his own former colleagues in the cabinet. I bet that caused him to reflect on how perceptions can change when you are on the receiving end.

  7. Hello Alex

    I read your blog with interest and while I don’t always agree with everything you say, it is always a good read. I thought it might be useful to update you about how our inspections now work – and we are always interested in ideas about how they could improve.

    We have almost completely stopped doing the announced inspections you experienced for exactly the reasons you describe. Almost all our inspections are now unannounced. They are spread over two weeks. On the first week a small team turns up, usually on a Monday, phones from the car park and tells them we are outside, to let the governor know and to get keys ready. Once inside, some inspectors go quickly to look round the prison, observing general issues like cleanliness, relations between prisoners and staff, information displays, how many prisoners are working etc and to look at the obvious hot spots like the seg and healthcare.

    Researchers begin conducting the prisoners’ survey which is part of all our inspections. They choose a random sample of prisoners that is big enough to be representative of the prison population as a whole, distribute surveys and collect them when completed. We have being doing this for many years now so can compare the results of one prison with when we were last there and with similar prisons. One inspector co-ordinates the inspection and makes arrangements with the prison to collect all the information and do other necessary preparation before the full team arrives the next week. The full team consists of a team leader, four core inspectors, specialist health and drugs inspectors, two or three researchers and inspectors from other inspectorates such as Ofsted, CQC and Probation who look at their specialist areas and contribute to our final report. I or my deputy join nearly all prison inspections on the last day. We have seven seconded prison governors among 31 full time inspectors and 70 staff in total.

    The full team pulls together information from the survey, discussion with prisoners in groups and individually, discussion with staff, governors and visitors, examination of records and policies and simply observing to form judgments of what is happening in the prison. Each inspection looks at progress in addressing the recommendations we made last time. The results are at the end of every inspection report and are pretty consistent. Prisons tell us about 97% of our recommendations are fully or partially accepted - and about 66% are fully or partially implemented when we check.

    We inspect each prison at least once every five years and on average every two to three years. Some are inspected more frequently according to risk. In a few cases when we are particularly concerned about a prison we tell them when we are coming back so that they have a deadline to improve by. Of course, some prisons can make a reasonable guess about when an unannounced inspection is due and in most cases there will be a flurry of activity between week one and week two. Frankly, I would be concerned if there were not. If they are not worried about what inspectors think, they certainly won’t worry about prisoners’ views.

    How do we know what happens when we are not there? We can’t completely. Prisoners are at the heart of our inspection process and they tell us if things have suddenly changed. Incidentally, we have just signed an agreement with IMB’s to work together to protect prisoners who feel they are being victimised for talking to either of us. We check with the IMB and look at records and it usually becomes clear if something has suddenly changed since we arrived. For example, we take the data the prison gives us about the number of violent incidents and compare that with what prisoners and staff tell us about how safe they feel and we dig behind the data to see if it matches incidents recorded in medical records, adjudications, wing observation books etc. Actually, the ‘wandering about’ you refer to works – it is hard to keep up a pretence for long and it’s what you see out of the corner of your eye that is often the most telling.

  8. I have written something about how we inspect but what should be done about our findings? Prisons have to produce an action plan in response to our recommendations and as I have explained in a previous post, we check progress next time we inspect. But recent inspection reports have painted a gloomy picture and you are right to say that I am frustrated by what has been happening – or not happening, as the case may be.

    However, I think those who support the need for the independent inspection of prisons should consider very carefully the consequences of giving the inspectorate the power to ‘certify’ prisons or place them in ‘special measures’. Of course, the prospect of more powers is tempting. But remember that the head of the prison service used to be called ‘The Inspector General’ and my fear is that if, in effect, you make the inspectorate part of the management of prisons in the way you suggest, the result will not be an inspectorate that can tell prisons what to do but an inspectorate that becomes just a team within the prison management structure. That was the case before and why the Inspector General post was abolished and inspection separated from management. If the inspectorate becomes over involved in the management of prisons, who then inspects us? I also think there is a distinction between services with local management structures such as schools and hospitals and a national service accountable to Ministers. In the end, elected politicians will and should have the final word.

    The independence of the inspectorate is guaranteed by the UK’s status as a party to the United National Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment (OPCAT). The UK was one of the leading contributors to the establishment of OPCAT. OPCAT requires state parties to have an independent, preventative system of inspection in place known as the ‘National Preventative Mechanism (NPM)’ and requires states to engage constructively with recommendations their NPM makes. In my view, strengthening this process is the way forward.

    Whoever is in power after the election, I am sure they will want to look at the inspectorate’s purpose and powers. It will be settled long after my time in the role ends. I think there is an important discussion to be had about how the inspectorate can strengthen its influence without weakening its independence and the contribution your blog makes to that discussion is very welcome. I hope the discussion continues.

    Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons

  9. I wrote about this a few years ago and had some interesting conversations with Nick Hardwick at the time. Regulatory theory, and empirical research in other sectors, tell us that the absence of proper enforcement powers greatly curtails the capacity of inspectors to improve things. Putting it simply, the metaphor for effective regulation is the ability to 'speak softly whilst carrying big sticks' - if you don't have the sticks, however, all you can do is speak louder. Effective inspection that regulates in a responsive way requires the potential to escalate up a pyramid of options that become increasingly coercive towards the apex.

    The paper I wrote has lots of other ideas about enhancing prison inspection which may be useful. Happy to share it if anyone is interested.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Toby. I'm familiar with your professional work and this is a very useful contribution to the current discussion. I agree with your analysis and I've always felt that having any kind of statutory inspection regime that operates without some mechanism that can be set in train when key recommendations are ignored is doomed to have limited impact. Ofsted/ HM Chief Inspector of Schools seem to have much wider powers - including the use of Special Measures.

      I'm considering the logistics of having linked 'pages' within this blog where readers can contribute an abstract of their research or publications linked to a paper, presentation or even an online book. For now, if you would like to post a link to your paper, that would be great.