Thursday, 30 June 2016

So Where Now For Prison Reform?

Michael Gove has done the dirty on Boris Johnson and is standing for the Conservative Party leadership. If successful, he could become the next prime minister. Where will this leave his plans for prison reform?

Gove: Boris didn’t even see it coming
As regular readers will know, I’ve blogged previously on why I feared Mr Gove would prove to be a big disappointment when it came to reforming our overcrowded, understaffed prisons (read here). After making all the right noises when he was appointed as Secretary of State for Justice in May 2015, there were a few quick wins (mainly reversing the most ridiculous policies of his unlamented predecessor Chris Grayling, such as the ban on posting in books to prisoners), but overall progress has been painfully slow.

True, there has been the much vaunted announcement of six ‘reform prisons’ where governing governors will enjoy far greater autonomy than their counterparts in non-reform establishments, but it’s unclear whether this experiment will deliver a model that could be rolled out across the whole dysfunctional system. It remains early days, yet with the current crisis engulfing prisons in violence on a daily basis time may fast be running out.

It is also worth noting that Mr Gove has encouraged governors to make more use of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) as part of the resettlement process. This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, ‘Calamity Chris’ who responded to a handful of serious incidents by doing his best to eliminate any potential risk to the public by imposing restrictions on the granting on ROTL. These include requiring time-consuming psychological evaluations, as well as increasing the amount of bureaucracy involved prior to the granting of temporary release. The end result has been to set back resettlement work at many jails, especially Cat-Ds (open prisons).

IPP: no laughing matter
Mr Gove has also asked the new chair of the Parole Board, Nick Hardwick, to review the way in which prisoners who are still serving the widely discredited indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) are treated. Although the sentence – introduced in 2005 by former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett – was discontinued in 2012, around 80 percent of the 4,100 IPPs continue to be held beyond the minimum tariff handed down by the courts. This alone costs the taxpayer an estimated £500 million per year.

Of these prisoners, 400 or so have now served sentences five times longer than their tariff, often because offending behaviour courses are unavailable or because they live with mental health conditions that hold back their progress. It is also well documented that IPPs have disproportionally higher rates of suicide and self-harm than other inmates.

However, it is should also be noted that behind these positive initiatives lies a prison system deep in crisis. Anyone still in any doubt about this should take a long hard look at the report issued in May by Parliament’s Justice Committee, the body of MPs that oversees the work of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).

Justice Committee: damning conclusions on prisons
The Committee’s damning conclusions were summarised by committee chairman Bob Neill MP: “The Ministry of Justice hope that prison safety would stabilise. In reality it has deteriorated further and continues to do so.” He also warned that without swift action, the entire prison reform programme would be undermined.

Violence – both between prisoners and against members of staff – has continued to dominate our prisons, while suicide and self-harm statistics remain appallingly high and show no sign of abating. Moreover, overcrowded wings are quite literally awash with drugs of all kinds and illicit mobile phones are readily available to keep criminal businesses operational from behind bars. These challenges are evident in the pages of almost report issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons or the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

In the last couple of years our prisons have become much more dangerous places. Incidents of ‘concerted indiscipline’ – which can range from a few prisoners refusing to return to their cells, right up to full scale riots that leave whole wings uninhabitable – take place behind the high walls out of public view. Few cases actually make it into the media unless one or more prisoners actually manage to make it up on to the roof where the authorities can’t keep it quiet. Often it is only the local papers that report on the disturbances taking place.

Tactical response: a cell extraction
In May, Parliament’s Justice Committee heard evidence that HMPS’ Tactical Response Group – often dubbed ‘the riot squad’ – is now being called out 30-40 times per month to deal with prison unrest. One of the most recent serious riots took place at HMP Erlestoke, a Cat-C establishment near Devizes, on 11-12 June. Two wings were reportedly trashed and around 140 inmates transferred to other prisons. Whether or not there was a direct link between the smoking ban, which began at Erlestoke on 23 May, remains to be confirmed officially. However, such tensions are unlikely to have helped matters.

A significant amount of violence in prisons is gang-related, as well as linked closely to the drugs trade and cycles of debt that this encourages. Although the new Psychoactive Substances Act, which became law on 26 May 2016, criminalises the possession in prison of what were once called ‘legal highs’, it is probably too early to predict what the impact on the availability and use of such drugs in prisons will be. Past experience with other illegal drugs suggests that the affect may well be marginal, other than putting the prison disciplinary system under further strain.

EU prisoners face tensions
It also cannot be ignored that the current tensions over the Brexit debate might fuel violence in at least some of our prisons. Most establishments have prisoners from other EU countries who tend to band together for protection or for social support and given the current levels of disorder and violence in our prisons, clashes between individuals or groups of nationals cannot be ruled out.

Many prisons also remain understaffed and this continues to have a negative impact on the daily regime provided, leaving more and more inmates locked in their cells for up to 22 or 23 hours per day, thus fuelling resentment and anger. At the same time, the recruitment drive to plug gaps in staffing at prisons in England and Wales was not delivering very impressive results. Of the 2,250 prison officers recruited in 2015, only 440 remained in post, a situation attributed to poor retention rates.

Whatever the outcome of Mr Gove’s bid for the Conservative Party leadership, it seems a fairly safe bet that his time at the MOJ is effectively over. It could be argued that in the 13 months he has been in post he has at least initiated various policy reviews and that some of these will take time to come to fruition. Supporters will no doubt cite the launch of the ‘reform prisons’ as evidence that there is at least the potential for fundamental change in the way our prisons are managed at a local level. Critics point out that many so-called new initiatives have actually been attempted previously, but have been abandoned for a range of reasons, including cost or political expediency.

HMP Wandsworth: overcrowded
On the other hand, our prison population remains stubbornly high, at 85,130 this week in England and Wales, although this is slightly down on the 85,576 incarcerated in the same period in 2015. Many prisons are also grossly overcrowded, such as HMP Kennet which is currently as 188 percent of normal capacity (329 inmates compared to 175 certified normal capacity) or HMP Wandsworth at 170 percent (1,600 compared to 943).

Bold initiatives, such as granting early release to many prisoners who are serving short sentences for non-violent offences, or greatly reducing the number of unconvicted people being held on pre-trial remand do not seem to be on the MOJ agenda. It is worth noting that on average only 17 percent of the 10,000 remand prisoners will actually receive a custodial sentence at court. The remainder will either have charges dropped, will be acquitted or will be given a non-custodial penalty. Each prisoner still costs the taxpayer an average of £36,260 per year, innocent or guilty.

Then there is the vexed question of foreign national prisoners who usually account for around 10,000 of the prison population at any time. The Early Removal Scheme (ERS) which offers foreign nationals who volunteer to leave the UK up to 270 days ‘discount’ on their sentences does exist, but as the Justice Committee has regularly highlighted, it is very poorly managed and numbers taking advantage of it remain low. In addition, there is a lengthy list of categories of prisoner who are not eligible for this incentive (which is separate to the bilateral system for transferring foreign nationals back to their home countries to continue serving their sentences).

MOJ: more budget cuts to come?
Finally, there are the budgetary implications of prison reform, particularly at a time of economic uncertainty following the recent referendum vote to leave the European Union. If the impact of austerity was severe for the prison sector in England and Wales, it remains to be seen what further damage a lengthy recession and reduced public spending could inflict. Reducing the overall prison population may become more than a reforming objective. It may become an unavoidable economic necessity.  

If Mr Gove’s time at the MOJ is indeed coming to an end, he will leave a poisoned chalice for his successor. Expectations for fundamental reform of our prison system remain high and, as the Justice Committee has warned, the current situation is simply not sustainable. On the other hand, staff morale is at rock bottom and the strategy for recruitment and retention of new officers is not proving a success. Whoever takes over may find that there is a very long, hot summer ahead regardless of the weather outside.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Guest post: Employment with a Criminal Record

A View from the Front Line

By Kate Beech, Managing Director of Chance 2013

(This guest post has been contributed by Kate Beech who is the Managing Director of Chance 2013, a national employment agency that recruits for employers from only among people who have a criminal record. The views expressed below are Kate’s and there is no commercial relationship between Chance 2013 and Prison UK: an Insider’s View).

In 2013 I set up Chance 2013 as an employment agency exclusively for people with a criminal record. Oh boy, was I naïve at the start. I had no experience of the criminal justice system and had never even been inside a prison until 2012. So you may ask: why on earth did I start it? I have to admit that I’ve thought that myself many times when let down by yet another potential client who changes their mind about giving people a chance or when a potential candidate for a job doesn’t turn up for interview or else fails a routine drug test.

Naïvety made me think that Probation (both NPS and the CRCs) would welcome me with open arms as part of their rehabilitation role must surely be to help with employment. I was so wrong. After three years there are still many probation officers who claim to have nobody on their caseload who is looking for work. I’m not saying that they are all bad but it seems that a significant proportion are not interested in helping those they supervise and are merely ticking boxes. The work programme providers are a mixed bunch as well, even though there are vast amounts of money involved to get their clients into work.

Getting involved with the criminal justice sector and seeing how it works is fascinating. Why can some prisons offer opportunities for prisoners to obtain useful qualifications and tickets such as Personal Track Safety (PTS) or Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) cards, when other establishments seem horrified at the idea and continue with courses that are as useful on the outside as a chocolate teapot?

PTS card: required to work on the rails
We’re talking to prisons about courses that would be helpful on release and have the trainers ready, but surely that isn’t really our job? There is an acute skills shortage in many areas including engineering, civil engineering and construction so WHY aren’t more prisons addressing this as a priority, thus enabling people to find legitimate paid work quickly on release? Since finding and keeping gainful employment is recognised as a major factor in reducing reoffending after release from custody, then surely it is an obvious way forward.

Getting a job is difficult for many these days, but it can be nearly impossible if you’ve got a criminal record. Even the most self-confident individuals can feel intimidated and be made to feel stupid by the very young, often inexperienced advisors at Job Centres.

JobCentre Plus: not always pleasant
I had the misfortune of having to sign up with a local Job Centre 25 years ago and the person who I had to deal with was probably one of the nastiest that I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. The truly shocking fact is that the staff do not appear to be any better in 2016, even with all the training and support they get prior to dealing with their clients. Going to sign on is not a pleasant experience for anyone who wants to work and having to disclose an unspent conviction must make it even worse.

It’s all fine and good for the directors or owners of large corporations and businesses to say that they support the current ‘ban the box’ campaign and that they have no problem with taking on employees who have a criminal record, but the actual person - perhaps relatively low down in the business HR department - who handles the initial application may not be aware of this policy. Why can’t we as a society be more grown up about this and accept that when someone’s sentence, whether custodial or non-custodial, has been served it’s time to move on and put it in the past where it belongs? Hopefully, our agency removes barriers that include having to write disclosure letters - we’re not interested in them - and our clients aren’t either, as they trust us to put forward appropriate candidates for the vacancies.

Banning the Box: does HR know?
Now that we’re working with reputable, well-known local and national companies yet another issue has arisen. It’s always been a case of which to concentrate on first: the candidates or the jobs? However, now we’ve got stacks of jobs on offer where are the candidates? Statistics I’ve found seem to show, maybe incorrectly, that there are approximately 250,000 people being supervised by Probation or CRCs at any one time, so again I ask, how can we reach them and help put them on the path to legal employment?

Advertising vacancies only open to those with criminal records could be seen as discriminatory, yet at the same time many companies and employers can still discriminate against those with unspent convictions. And it’s not only those who have more recent convictions who may need help. How many of the 9.2 million people in the UK with a criminal record are stuck in a job they hate or are too well-qualified for because they are afraid to rock the boat and fear the possibility of their past history with the criminal justice system coming to light? With enhanced checks how relevant is it that an applicant for a role as a carer was caught shoplifting 20 years ago?

We’re having success stories and here are just a few I’d like to share with blog readers:

The first guy we placed 2 years ago with a very well known civil engineering firm has just been promoted, with a large increase in salary. He is so different now and has grown in confidence immensely. Life is great for him and he’ll be their managing director in the future (well, I have to keep him on his toes!)

DT - started with another civils company on a trial basis for three months. After a couple of weeks they were so impressed with his work that they started sending him on courses. He’s now working full time with them and loving the job. He says we’ve not only changed his life, but also those of his children. I ask you, can there be any better reward than that?

PS & MC are now fully trained “superstars” (according to their bosses) in traffic management. Again following a three-month trial period they’re now both working full-time and will go far I’m sure. They now also have qualifications which should mean they’re never out of work again.

So to end. Where are the enthusiastic candidates for the positions Chance 2013 are seeking to fill for our clients? My absolute mission is to prove once and for all that people with a criminal record are no different than those without and will prove to be an asset to an employer. Before you shout, of course there may be some failures, but surely that’s just life and is the same for any employment agency.

On a personal note I’m so proud of every success and keep in touch with everyone who has been placed by our agency. Anyone who fails or is struggling continues to get our support, as well as that of the charities and agencies we link with. We don’t want anyone to just slip unnoticed back into old ways just because there is nobody there to help.