Contrary to what Chris Grayling might say about there being no crisis in the prison system, here's Rob Allen on his Unlocking Potential blog with a round-up from numerous Independent Monitoring Boards, pretty much all saying there most certainly is:-
Chris Grayling Must Accept Whats Happening in Prisons
One imagines the election can’t come quickly enough for Chris Grayling. Whatever the outcome, he’ll be freed from responsibility for a prison system that is rapidly deteriorating in front, if not of his eyes, then those of almost all who work in and visit jails.
While he may not think so, as a society we are indeed lucky that the Prison Inspectorate (HMIP) and local monitoring boards (IMB’s) can catalogue for us the impact of the cuts which he and his predecessor have imposed on the service; and to signal the dangers they pose to security, control and justice in prisons. As Zola put it, "if you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way".
Much has been made of the stinging criticisms in Nick Hardwick’s recent reports. But the annual reports of IMB’s - the local people who visit prisons week in week out are to some extent more telling. IMB’s sometimes have a reputation of being too close to the prison management and too much part of the local establishment – I met an IMB chair last year who had first been appointed by Roy Jenkins. But the reports they send to the Justice department each year are born of familiarity with the day to day life of the prison which HMIP cannot easily capture.
What is striking about recent reports is the concern about the impact of the benchmarking process which has been used to determine adequate staffing numbers.
Take two very different prisons both given reasonably positive reports last year by HMIP and both rated a 3 - meeting the majority of their targets- in the latest NOMS performance table. At Liverpool, a large local jail, the IMB reported that members, when performing their duties on the wings, “have noted with considerable concern, the low ratio between Prison Officers and prisoners. If staffing levels were reduced further, the Board feels that the capability of prison staff to contain any incident that may take place would seriously compromise staff.” At Erlestoke, a small Training prison “the Board continues to be concerned about the staff to offender ratios, particularly on the residential wings. There are times during the day when only one officer is on duty, responsible for over approximately 50 offenders. The Board considers this to be unsafe for the officer and for offenders”.
At Nottingham, the IMB reported that the reduced staffing levels which came into effect in September 2013 as a result of the nationally imposed benchmarking operation, have severely stretched the prison’s resources, resulting in frequent cancellation of education, library, work, exercise sessions and gym sessions together with the virtual collapse of an effective Personal Officer scheme. At Norwich, officials from the Department of Work and Pensions do not consider the reduced staffing levels provide enough safety for them to visit prisoners in the activities block. At Portland, the IMB questioned whether the prison could continue to function humanely and efficiently at even the most basic level, if there are further financial cuts.
Other Boards describe some of the impacts of those cuts and of overcrowding, whether it is prisoners forced to urinate on the floor of vans outside Norwich prison, cells measuring less than 6.5 square metres being used for two prisoners at Lewes or lack of sufficient prisoner clothing at Lincoln. Some of this treatment, including the growing incidence of abuse of prisoners by cell mates and other prisoners - could easily be found inhuman and degrading were it brought before the European Court of Human Rights .
While he is likely to be dismissive of any such findings, it is difficult to see how Grayling can simply continue to ignore the findings of the Boards or the Inspectors. Both the HMIP and IMB’s form part of an internationally authorised body aimed at preventing ill treatment in places of detention in the UK - the so called National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). Under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, the UK government has agreed (at article 22) to examine the recommendations of the NPM“ and enter into a dialogue with it on possible implementation measures.”
Such a dialogue is therefore not simply an urgent practical necessity but a legal requirement. Grayling will surely wish to comply with the Ministerial Code which places (at 1.2) an overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations.This article in the Independent last week addresses the basis Grayling uses for denying there is any crisis:-
Mr Grayling’s disputed claims focus on three main areas:
Mr Grayling carefully selected his statistics to claim – correctly – that the number of prisoner fights and assaults was lower compared with five years ago and two years ago. But not compared with the other three most recent years that he chose to ignore. Attacks have increased in the last year, and the most serious of them were higher in 2013-14 than in any of the last five. The number of assaults on staff is also at its highest since 2007. Other figures point to simmering violence within the prison estate. The prison service’s riot squad was called out more than 200 times last year, a near 60 per cent rise compared with the previous 12 months.
The minister claimed that the two per cent increase in prison numbers was to a “significant extent” down to the jailing of more sex offenders. There has been a rise of sex offenders of 652 to 11,150 in the year to March 31 but his department’s own figures show a greater cause for the rise is the number of prisoners who are waiting longer to go on trial or to be sentenced after conviction.
Courts have been unable to cope with the extra demands. That has led to an 11 per cent increase in remand prisoners, equating to more than 1,200 prisoners – nearly double that of sex offenders. And while the Government has trumpeted falling crime, stiffer sentences have kept the prison population rising.
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The rise in convictions of people for historical sex offences is a relatively small driver behind the increase in the prison population. More significant are the facts that remand is being overused and ‘tough-on-crime’ political rhetoric is influencing sentencers’ behaviour.”
Staff shortagesEspecially at the MoJ, incompetence can play its part, and here's a story on the BBC website:-
The Howard League has calculated that prison officer numbers have dropped by 30 per cent between 2010 and 2013 during austerity cuts. It said that staffing cuts had led to a dangerous situation with inmates being locked up for longer in their cells, and library visits being cancelled. Mr Grayling said, “We are meeting those challenges; we are recruiting more staff”.
The Ministry of Justice has been fined £180,000 for "serious failings" in the handling of confidential data.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said the penalty was related to the loss of a hard drive containing the details of almost 3,000 prisoners at Erlestoke prison in Wiltshire. The disk was not encrypted. The records, lost in 2013, included material on organised crime, prisoners' health and drug misuse, and information about inmates' victims and visitors.
After a similar incident in 2011, in which the details of 16,000 prisoners was lost on a disk that was not protected, the Ministry of Justice issued the Prison Service with new back-up hard drives that could be encrypted. However, the government body failed to explain to employees that the encryption option had to be switched on manually. As a result, the data lost was unprotected, and could be accessed by the finder of the hard drive. The ICO head of enforcement, Stephen Eckersley, said:
"The fact that a government department with security oversight for prisons can supply equipment to 75 prisons throughout England and Wales without properly understanding, let alone telling them, how to use it, beggars belief. The result was that highly sensitive information about prisoners and vulnerable members of the public, including victims, was insecurely handled for over a year." He added: "We hope this penalty sends a clear message that organisations must not only have the right equipment available to keep people's information secure, but must understand how to use it."A standard, predictable response from the MoJ spin doctors:-
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "We take data protection issues very seriously and have made significant and robust improvements to our data security measures. "These hard drives have now been replaced with a secure centralised system." She added: "Incidents like this are extremely rare and there is no evidence to suggest that any personal data got into the public domain."All ok now then, it would seem.