Monday, 30 November 2015

Christmas Starts Earlier Each Year

Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older, but it does seem that every year the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier. I was reminded of this when I saw a typical Christmas headline in the Sunday Express: Up to 100 killers serving life in prison allowed HOME for Christmas. All very festive.

You're early... it's only November
Last December I posted my reflections on the usual tabloid faux-outrage that tends to focus on ‘lags’ being served a Christmas meal (click here). Never mind that the seasonal fare typically consists of a slice of processed meat that bears no resemblance to actual turkey, a few lukewarm spuds and soggy veg. The very idea that prisoners are not mumping their slops while wearing shackles every day of the year seems to send a particular variety of sad sadist into paroxyms of impotent fury.

This year, however, the Express has latched onto the issue of a small number of prisoners – all already in open conditions – being granted the privilege of release on temporary licence (ROTL) over the Christmas holiday. In particular, the article focuses on “murderers, rapists and repeat violent offenders” being allowed back into the community before they have been granted parole or reached the end of their custodial sentences.

No tabloid twaddle of this sort would be complete without at least one swivel-eyed loon from the extreme right of the political spectrum being wheeled out to provide a few choice quotes. This year it fell to Tory MP Philip Davies to spout the venom. Of course, coming from a man aptly described as a ‘babbling brook of bullshit’ who can bore for Britain, his argument was facile to say the least. What is of far greater concern is that the MP for Shipley is a member of the Common’s Justice Committee which oversees the work of our criminal justice system.

According to the Sunday Express, Mr Davies “unearthed” the ROTL figures. This makes it sound like he has been digging deep to uncover some dark secrets in the basement of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). In reality, of course, these statistics are widely available since they are actually published by his own government. Surely a serving member of the Justice Committee should be expected to understand part of his or her own brief. 

Moreover, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) has published an investigation into serious failure of ROTL in the recent past. This document (here), along with a very well-researched briefing paper on ROTL published in February this year by the Prison Reform Trust (here), provides fact-based information on the importance of temporary licence as part of the rehabilitation and resettlement process for prisoners ahead of release. 

Bundle of laughs: Philip Davies
Mr Davies is almost certainly aware of these two publications – or at least he should be, bearing in mind he sits on the Justice Committee. When offered the chance to comment for the Express article he had an opportunity to say something informative and constructive about the value of temporary licence for rehabilitation, but he didn’t. Instead, he chose – presumably to get his name in the tabloids – to promote a scare story among readers who probably have little or no knowledge of how the ROTL system actually works. 

While it is true that there has been a tiny number of serious ROTL failures since 2012, it is important to put those into context. Based on the PRT’s analysis, between October 2013 and September 2014 there was a total of 485,634 temporary licences granted. Of these, the failure rate was less than 0.06 percent. Of this minute proportion, only 6.1 percent of licence breaches actually involved an arrestable offence – the equivalent of five arrests per 100,000 ROTLs issued.

Most ROTL ‘failures’ actually involve a prisoner reporting back late. In some cases this can be a matter of minutes as a result of delays on public transport, traffic problems or vehicle breakdowns. In such cases, the vast majority of prisoners out on licence phone ahead to let the gate staff know their situation. Risk to the general public: zero. A small number of prisoners also fail to return from ROTL because they are being bullied or assaulted by fellow cons, often as a result of getting into debt. However, overall the number of these cases is statistically small.

Overseeing the justice system
If any other government activity actually achieved a success rate of around 99.94 percent, you can bet that it would be headline news. Contrast that result with almost any other statistical outcome across the public sector and it will be right up there at the top. Instead, the MOJ tends to prefer to keep such positive successes pretty low key, at least until something goes badly wrong.

One of the more disingenuous comments attributed to Mr Davies in the Sunday Express article is “… I cannot understand why those who carried out the crime should be able to spend time with their families.” 

If this really represents Mr Davies’ honest opinion then it suggests that he knows absolutely nothing about the MoJ’s own published strategy for rehabilitation – nor the process through which the Parole Board makes its decisions to release on licence those prisoners who are serving indeterminate sentences – either lifers or those still on the old indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPP). I find that rather disturbing, given that he is a member of the Justice Committee.

Almost all lifers and IPPs who are scheduled to have a hearing before the Parole Board will be expected to be able to demonstrate manageable risk prior to being granted release on a parole licence. A major part of that process is being transferred to open conditions (Cat-D) and, after a period of assessment that now includes psychological reports, the granting of ROTL. Initially the prisoner is escorted on a visit to the local town by a prison officer wearing civilian clothing, then they might be permitted to access ROTL on their own or to meet up with their family members for a few hours (Resettlement Day Release).

Eventually – after a series of successful ROTLs – and interviews with staff, including appearing before the prison’s ROTL Board, a period of home leave (Resettlement Overnight Release) might be granted closely supervised by probation. In the vast majority of cases, lifers and IPPs are required to stay at night in a designated hostel close to their eventual area of release and all are subject to alcohol and drug testing. A report from the hostel manager forms part of the process.

The idea being promoted by Mr Davies in the Sunday Express seems to be that prisons just kick lifers and other prisoners deemed to be high risk out of the gate and let them go home to celebrate Christmas with their families. The reality is very different – ROTL is much more carefully assessed and controlled than the article would have us believe. In fact, last year just 93 lifers (which I assume includes IPPs) were granted Christmas ROTL. It is worth remembering that there are nearly 86,000 prisoners currently in the custody of HM Prison Service.

HMP Blantyre House
Inadvertently, the Express article also revealed that the open prison that had the highest number of lifers released for the holiday period was HMP Blantyre House – since temporarily closed – which managed just 13. In addition, of the total 1,347 prisoners who were allowed Christmas ROTL in 2014, less than 300 were actually inside for violent crimes. The largest single category of crime represented was drug offences (550), with burglars and robbers coming in at 202. Just nine of those granted ROTL had a history of sexual offending.

What is particularly worrying is that, despite his privileged position on the Justice Committee, Mr Davies seems to have little understanding of the vital role that maintaining family ties by prisoners plays in rehabilitation and successful resettlement upon release. This is well understood by both the MOJ and the Prison Service. Particularly for lifers – many of whom have already served 20 or more years in custody – the process of preparing for eventual release must be carefully planned and assessed throughout in order to reduce risk to the public. An opportunity to spend time with family members in a ‘normal’ environment can play a vital role in that preparation.

Andrew Selous MP
Ironically, it was left to Mr Davies’ senior colleague, the hapless Andrew Selous, as minister responsible for prisons, to defend the ROTL system and its importance to rehabilitation. I’m sure he was very grateful for the gratuitous scaremongering contained in the Express article. After all, there’s nothing like being stabbed in the back by one of your own MPs, especially one who seems to know so little about the subject in question.

In recent years – partly as a response to three particularly serious incidents where prisoners committed serious offences while on ROTL – the whole process has been tightened up even further following a review launched by the MOJ in 2013. The current Prison Service Instruction (PSI 13/2015), issued in March 2015, has substantially raised the bar for prisoners hoping to be granted temporary leave, particularly those deemed to be serious or high-risk offenders (now subject to what is called Restricted ROTL).  

Moreover, any prisoner who has a prior history of escape, absconding or a serious breach of ROTL licence can only be considered for transfer to open conditions or further ROTL in “exceptional circumstances”. The MOJ’s intention is to use electronic location monitoring for all others who are granted temporary release (although to date it seems that the necessary equipment to tag them has yet to be procured). Access to overnight ROTL (ROR) is now limited in most cases to the final nine months of a sentence and then only after exhaustive reports and risk assessments.

Even a cursory review of the latest PSI reveals that the granting of ROTL – especially overnight release – is not likely to be widespread. As the PSI itself observes, the numbers of temporary licences issued is likely to be much lower. I very much doubt that many lifers will be spending time with their families this Christmas. Perhaps the overall figure will end up being half of last year’s total or even less.

That is why Mr Davies’ lending credence to the Sunday Express prison scare story is so reprehensible. If he were merely some ignorant junior backbencher with no special responsibility for overseeing our justice system, including prisons and probation, his personal opinions on prison policy – however inaccurate and misguided – would count for little. However, unfortunately he is a serving member of the Justice Committee and should know much better than to offer aid and comfort to tabloids intent on misleading the general public. All in all a very poor show indeed. Ho, ho, ho. An early Merry Christmas Mr Davies!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sharing a Cell with a Murderer

As far back as I can recall I have been opposed to the idea of the death penalty. Because it is utterly irreversible, miscarriages of justice – of which there are surprising numbers – in capital cases leave no real remedy, especially for the surviving family of an innocent person who has been executed. That is why the death penalty is, by its very nature, a terrifying weapon that can be used or abused by the state.

The shadow of the gallows
Britain has a long and inglorious record when it comes to miscarriages of justice. It can take years, sometimes decades, for wrongful convictions to be quashed.

In most cases, thanks to new rules introduced by the last Labour government and made worse by the Coalition, victims of miscarriages of justice now receive absolutely nothing by way of compensation for their years in prison, regardless of them having lost jobs, savings, homes, families and any realistic prospect of finding work again, let alone the ongoing impact of poor mental and physical health. It has been calculated that a prison sentence can age a prisoner up to ten years quicker than people outside, so it’s not just the stolen years of imprisonment that cause loss and suffering.

It is also true that the most difficult cases often involve very strong public opinions because of entirely understandable revulsion over the worst crimes. I well recall the popular demands for the public hanging of Stefan Kiszko back in 1976 (even though Britain had abandoned public executions after 1868). The sexually-motivated murder of little Lesley Moleseed reignited calls for the restoration of capital punishment in Britain.

Stefan Kiszko
Of course, we now know that Mr Kiszko had been framed by detectives who deliberately concealed the vital forensic evidence that proved his innocence of a terrible crime. He served 16 years in prison – being beaten and bullied – before an administrative error led to the disclosure of the hidden forensic report from the stored case files. He was eventually freed in 1992 after his conviction was quashed. Driven close to madness by his experiences, he remained in a psychiatric hospital for months.

Sadly he died in 1993 aged just 41 and had never even received the full compensation settlement he had been awarded because of his ordeal. Nowadays, it seems unlikely that he would even received a penny piece, especially since at the time of his release from prison no alternative perpetrator had been identified.

What made this case even more terrible was that the real killer, Ronald Castree, was allowed to remain free and unpunished for many years and went on to commit further sexual offences until he was caught in 2006 in connection with an entirely separate offence. Had the original investigation and forensic evidence been dealt with properly in 1975, he might have been identified 30 years earlier.

Above all, had Stefan Kiszko been executed – as many demanded at the time of his conviction – the state would have judicially murdered an innocent man, with police connivance. Of course, once a wrongly convicted person is dead, it is comparatively rare for there to be any continuing investigation of a case, so real killers can slip through the net.

Not really the good old days
Perhaps it is because of this and other terrible miscarriages of justice that public opinion in the UK appears to be turning against the idea of capital punishment. Back in March the British Social Attitudes Report revealed that under half – 48 percent of those who responded to the survey – were in favour of the death penalty. In 1983 when the survey began that figure was 75 percent, even though capital punishment had been suspended by Parliament in 1965 and was finally abolished in 1998 with the passing of the Human Rights Act.

During my own stay in prison I met a number of fellow inmates who, had capital punishment still been on the statute books at the time of their trials, would have almost certainly gone to the gallows. In different prisons I shared cells with two individuals who had both committed murder and so I had the first-hand experience of talking to them about their crimes, as well as their perceptions of the impact that these heinous offences had had upon the families of their victims. It was a highly informative, if involuntary, education.

Behind a cell door with a murderer
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both expressed regret and guilt for what they had done. In both cases the victim was a family member and this meant that they were all too aware of the consequences of their actions.

One had been cut off entirely by every other member of his family; the other was still being supported, but never returned from a visit by his relatives without breaking down in tears in our cell once the door had been slammed shut. As he once remarked to me “I’ve killed my entire family, myself included.” This man longed for death, but refrained from attempting suicide solely because he didn’t want to inflict yet another bereavement on his elderly parents.

To some extent, murderers in our prisons do form a separate caste. Other prisoners are acutely aware of their crimes. It’s hard to sit behind a locked cell door drinking tea without glancing at the hands of a man who you know has committed murder. Taking the life of another human being is still recognised as an enormity, even among those convicted for other serious offences such as robbery, drug trafficking or committing grievous assaults.

Manson: not your average murderer
It may seem counterintuitive, but I actually came to prefer sharing a cell with lifers. Generally speaking they tend to be much calmer and quieter than those prisoners who are serving shorter terms and have a fixed release date. In my experience they also seem to have much greater respect for personal space and other inmates’ property.

I also came to recognise the truth that there is always a human being – even if a very damaged, and sometimes dangerous, one – behind the label of being a ‘murderer’. And, of course, very few actually look as demented or demonic as Charlie Manson did in his mugshots taken in the 1960s. The vast majority of lifers in for murder do appear very ordinary and unremarkable people.

In one prison I worked for nearly a year with a mass murderer who is very unlikely ever to be released. Many years ago he was part of a gang who massacred an entire family in their own home and his crimes remain notorious. He had entered a guilty plea at trial and would almost certainly have been sentenced to die prior to the suspension of capital punishment. Yet after all these years he was still alive, a relic of an earlier era: ageing, suffering from increasing infirmity and utterly crushed by remorse and regret for his actions when he was barely out of his teens.

I've since seen a black and white police photograph of him taken at the time of his arrest decades ago. Then he looked every inch the cocky, violent young thug. Now he is a shrunken, frail, silver-haired old man who is exquisitely polite and well read in ancient history. Looking at him today, with a cup of tea in his hand and spectacles balanced on his nose, it is difficult to associate him with his heinous acts committed as a young man. He resembles a bookish retired civil servant. Having been repeatedly turned down for parole, almost certainly because of the notoriety of his crimes, he is resigned to dying in prison and admits that he actually looks forward to it.

Hands of a killer?
Although I have always been opposed to capital punishment myself, I must admit that it has crossed my mind since meeting so many of these now elderly inmates who have no realistic hope of release (indeed, some are now so institutionalised that the very idea of life outside the prison walls terrifies them after 30 or more years in custody) that a quick death shortly after trial and a dismissed appeal might have been a more humane option than being condemned to rotting away slowly in a concrete box. As prisoners age and become weaker or more infirm, then they can also become prey for younger, more aggressive inmates who view the elderly cons as ripe targets for exploitation and bullying.

If anyone reading this believes that a life sentence – especially a ‘whole life tariff’ – is somehow a soft option, I would suggest that it is actually a much more terrifying and harsh punishment than a quick death at the end of a rope or a lethal injection. If you really want someone who has committed terrible crimes to suffer for years – even many decades – consumed with guilt and remorse, then a life sentence can be immeasurably more effective as a form of punishment. I’ve seen it in action for myself. It is absolutely terrifying.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Communicate to Rehabilitate (Guest Contribution)

The latest in a series of guest posts on this blog has been provided by Claire from the PrisonPhone team. In it she highlights the practical problems of staying in touch that face prisoners and their families and friends despite the widely acknowledged importance of maintaining family ties in rehabilitation and reducing the risks of reoffending upon release.

It’s Good (and Vital) to Talk

Phone access can be a problem
Rehabilitation has always been a hot topic when it comes to the prison system. Even the most Dickensian politician is unlikely to make a total stand against rehabilitation, though admittedly, some MPs seem to sway precariously close to the notion that prison should merely be used as an instrument of punishment.

However, in the quest to identify whether or not we need rehabilitation in our prison systems, we often forget to consider what rehabilitation actually is. How is it implemented in prisons? What does it actually consist of, in practical terms? And, the big question that we struggle to find the answer to – why is communication with loved ones not really recognised as a key aspect of the rehabilitation process?

Re-educating, Re-evaluating, Recognising?

Aids rehab
Many official prison documents outline rehabilitative measures – such as education, courses, opportunities to engage in meaningful work and counselling sessions. Indeed, there’s been a lot of focus recently on the value of education – and providing inmates with a goal to work towards has undeniable value.

However, family support is very seldom recognised as an aspect of rehabilitation, which is something that never ceases to surprise us. When we talk to inmates (both past and present), the importance of staying in contact with loved ones often comes up in conversation.

Most prisoners agree that they feel better supported after chatting to family and friends, and more focused on making a positive return to society upon their release. So, in light of this, why is communication with family so undervalued in the prison system?

The Current Situation – Distancing Families

The current situation for prisoners is fairly dire. It’s common practice for inmates to be moved from prison to prison on a regular basis, often with no notice, and in many cases this means being located a considerable distance from family and friends.

When this occurs, phone communication becomes especially important. However, in some prisons opportunities for phone conversations are incredibly limited. Many phones are situated within prison wings and are only available for use at certain times of the day. Often, due to staff shortages or alarms on the wings, phone calls are banned which means the inmate is unable to contact their family on that particular occasion. This is a fairly regular occurrence.

Family ties work both ways
The usual time limit on each call is between 10 and 15 minutes. This isn’t so bad if the inmate is calling a landline. In fact, this should only cost around £1.00 - £2.00, which doesn’t take up too much of an inmate’s meagre weekly allowance. However, as we all know, sometimes getting in touch with people on a landline is difficult. Unless they know the exact time you’ll be calling, it’s possible they’ll be out, at work, picking up the children or doing one of many other tasks that take them out of the house.

A call to a mobile phone is a far more reliable option, but is currently impractical for most prisoners, due to financial constraints. In the current prison phone system, a mere eight minute call to a mobile phone can cost over £3.00, while a longer call is likely to use up a substantial portion of the prisoner’s weekly spending allowance which is also needed to purchase toiletries and other necessities.

Greater Distance, Greater Isolation

Communicating can cut tension
Without the necessary communication with family and friends, prisoners quickly begin to feel isolated, unsupported and out of touch with the world outside. This is precisely where the problem lies. Once an inmate starts to feel distanced from their family, their hometown, their society – that’s when they start to struggle to rehabilitate successfully. The thought of returning to ‘normal’ life becomes harder to imagine, because they are regularly being denied the right to maintain contact with that normal life – and it starts to become an abstract concept.

In light of this, it is unsurprising that so many prisoners report feeling isolated, depressed and, in some instances, suicidal. After all, what do most of us do when we’re feeling down, or struggling with life? We talk to those around us, and we seek comfort. In prison, finding the right person to talk to is a lot more complicated. We believe, if the government wants to improve rehabilitation and reduce rates of reoffending, it’s important to address this key issue.

Government Priorities?

A recent government document ‘Reoffending and Rehabilitation’ discusses rehabilitation in depth, identifying methods such as ‘payment by results’ (rewarding inmates for good behaviour), providing ‘meaningful and productive work’, and helping inmates to resettle in the community after their sentence is served (which is certainly a start!).

However, at no point is the issue of family support mentioned. Although we could find government documents outlining support for families and friends of inmates, nowhere could we find evidence of any document relating to the prisoners themselves – and the importance of family support whilst they’re in prison.

PrisonPhone offers a way for prisoners to enjoy cheaper tariffs when calling mobiles. The system is secure, reliable and in no way affects the current prison pay phone security. To find out more about the plans Prison Phone offer please visit the Prison Phone price plans page online (here).