Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Power of Ministers To Reform Prison

Standing on the prison landing in 1997, one of my friends was jiggling with glee at the prospect of a Labour victory. It was a wishful hope at the time that Labour would reverse or halt the privations heaped on prisoners. I was more cynical – for a year I had watched Jack Straw in Opposition try to out-Howard Michael Howard in terms of tough talk. I was sadly right.

Every leader finds themselves drawn to make comments about penal reform. Rightly, of course; criminal justice is a fundamental part of the State’s purpose. And Blair made his ringing assertion, to “be tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime” – and promptly passed the whole mess to Straw. Who happened to be utterly weak. The legacy of Labour ‘reform’ was the IPP sentence, which has stranded thousands behind bars; and the order that no activity should take place in prison which doesn’t have public support – which handed the daily running of prisons to tabloid editors. The apogee of this risible outlook was the Chancellor of the worlds 6th largest economy taking time out to personally veto a pay rise for prisoners of 50p per week. This was the sum effect of Blair’s ringing declarations.

Any political fool can, and often does, mutter aspirational statements around prison reform. Quite what any of them mean by “reform” is usually left unspecified. What prisoners would call reform is usually far from any politicians view. A brief canter through the years suggests that penal reform is, at best, petty meddling and at worst blatant neglect.

It was my lot to begin my sentence at the start of the Thatcher years. Willie Whitelaw, “short sharp shock”, Detention Centres. It was a time of tabloid panics over “feral youth”, and Whitelaw took the bait. His response was to create a system for dealing with young criminals which saw them being trained to be fitter and stronger, whilst brutalising them. An utter failure by any measure.

Despite a blizzard of announcements and Criminal Justice Acts, the Tories actually propagated no policies which impacted the lives of prisoners until they were dragged to face the carceral shambles by the riots of 1990. The resulting Wolff Report was astonishing for several reasons. Most notably, the Inquiry took the novel approach of actually asking prisoners why they rioted? The Wolff recommendations were utterly sensible, and fell into the urbane hands of Douglas Hurd.

A resulting White Paper declared that “prisons are an expensive way of making bad people worse”. Alas, Hurd moved on and the air of optimism – that all things were suddenly possible – quickly dissipated. Few of the Woolf Recommendations were actually implemented. A moment ripe for reform was squandered.

The vastly more robust Michael Howard hove into the Ministerial chair, and was apparently outraged at the sheer negativity of his officials. The mantra “nothing can be done” did not sit well with the Minister. The results of Howards efforts still remain – the daily regime and control mechanisms that are every prisoners lot today is essentially the one created by Howard.

Why so? Why are prison regimes been largely left unchanged in its fundamentals over the past 20 years, despite the efforts of those who followed after Howard? It was Howards  fortune to go head to head with an ever intransigent Prison Service in a period of crisis. This is hugely significant. The escape of IRA from Whitemoor and High Security prisoners from Parkhurst put HMP firmly on its back foot, and Howard used this weakness to impose his policies.

This is not to deny that Ministers can have no effect unless there is a background crisis. Labour fiddled with bits of reform, mainly of a negative type in kneejerk reactions to media criticism. Always a sign of a weak Minister, and weak Ministers get rebuffed by the criminal justice system.

A return to a Tory government  saw Ken Clarke and his emollient noises, none of which became a concrete reality. And then Grayling. Ah, where to begin...? A forceful Minister but lacking any strategic vision. Whereas Howard imposed large sweeping changes, Grayling sniped. Is it really the business of a Minister what clothing prisoners wear in their first two weeks, or how many books they have? The only lesson to be taken from the Grayling period is that imposing negative reforms is far easier than imposing positive ones.

Which brings us to the present. Unlike Grayling, Gove isn’t fiddling with the minutiae of prison life. He is sensibly leaving it to prison managers to manage. Like Howard, Gove has a broader and more significant vision- but unlike Howard, Gove’s is firmly rooted in efforts to cut reoffending.
The question I have to ask is, is it possible for a Minister to impose a programme of reform on the Prison Service when there is no immediate crisis?

Monday, March 14, 2016

My View of Michael Gove

Whenever I mention the name Michael Gove within earshot of a teacher, their universal suggestion has been to bop him on the nose. It has to be said that I don’t pay much attention to education matters, so I am not sure quite what the poor chap did to upset the teachers. But upsetting a profession is not necessarily a bad thing; recall that Consultants had to have “their mouths stuffed with gold” to accept the creation of the NHS. 

My perception of Michael Gove is somewhat different from the teachers. – and counterintuitive. Several years ago my blog caught the eye of one of Gove’s constituents who, after sniffing around, thought that my continued detention decades over tariff was perhaps a tad excessive and unnecessary. The constituent collared Gove – then at Education – and the outcome was that Gove wrote to Ken Clark wondering if my detention should perhaps come to an end?

Hmm. A Conservative Minister taking the time to look at the case of a murderer, and not even a voting constituent. This caused some minor cognitive dissonance. My whole adult life had been controlled largely by a succession of Tory Prison Ministers, and my experience told me that they were a vindictive, petty and plain malign bunch. So why would Michael Gove give his pleading constituent the time of day...?

For me, this is crucial. There was nothing to be gained for Gove in intervening in my case. None. If the tabloids had known at the time, I’m sure they could have made some hay at his expense. There was no earthly reason for Gove to touch any of this with a bargepole. Except..except...it was the right thing to do. My release demonstrated that Gove’s view of my case was actually accepted by both the Ministry and the Parole Board. At the end of this episode, all I could conclude is that Gove stuck his neck out solely because he looked at the matter and was honestly persuaded that I had, in sum, done enough time. 

For a guy who had been royally screwed by Tory Ministers for 20 years, it took some persuading but in the end all I could conclude was that Michael Gove had taken the time and risk to do what he believed was right.

This is why I don’t write Michael Gove off as “just another Tory”.  It would be childish to be so blinkered. A Minister who does “the right thing” is a rare beast and one who should be encouraged. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Riding a bike for first time in over 30 years

Beating the Stats on Reoffending

Somewhere - never to be binned - there exists a risk assessment completed ahead of my parole hearing. OASys - Offender Assessment System - is the standard risk assessment tool used by Probation and Prison services. And it is utter cobblers.

It rests on an algorythm that analyses 8 pieces of biographical information. With a statistically sufficiently large group, it can be seen which biographical factors are best able to predict reoffending rates. For instance, the age of first imprisonment is a strong indicator.

The perceptive will have already noted two major problems. Firstly, the group who shares my particular biography must be tiny, if it exists at all. And secondly, resting on actuarial data means that OASys doesn't measure change. Attempts are made to address this by including clinical data - ie, staff opinions - but this subjectivity is itself fraught.

My OASys proffered the odds of my reoffending in the first two years at 53.4%. This number has always tickled me, because of that decimal point. Here we have two criminal justice agencies checking out their collective wits in favour of a mathematical model which claims to be able to predict human behaviour to two decimal places. That is risible on its face.

More problematically, the OASys Manual makes it crystal clear that these assessments are scores for the GROUP of people who share characteristics. It may well be that people with teenage convictions have higher reoffending rates. As a group. But to extrapolate from these group scores to individual risk is both statistical nonsense and very unethical. Because 53% of a GROUP with a shared characteristic reoffends does not mean each INDIVIDUAL in that group has a 53% reoffending risk.

So I have outperformed a flawed risk assessment tool that is improperly used to assess individual risk. I could feel prouder.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Prison Smoking Ban

So. Let’s ban smoking in prisons. Simple, innit? As ever with all things prison, it’s far more complicated. Somehow these complexities are overlooked.
The sole reason I can uncover for this policy is Health and Safety – the Prison Officers Association are complaining about the foul air their members must inhale while in cells. Which are the only places in prison where smoking remains permitted – even smoking in the open air is usually prohibited (giving the lie to the health and safety rationale).
However, when the national smoking ban was introduced several years ago, and smoking was restricted to cells in prison, procedures were put in place to address this concern. Staff were meant to give a heads-up shout to prisoners as staff were conducting daily cell-checks, so that prisoners could air out the cells. Just to be very clear on this point: procedures were put in place to address staff safety, but staff have never used these procedures. There is no need for any member of staff to enter a smoky cell – unless they allow it to happen. And they do. And in the face of this lazy whine, a total ban on smoking in prisons is planned.
Unlike tobacco in the wider society, tobacco in prison plays a huge role in prisoners’ lives. Tobacco isn't merely a diversion. It is the default prisoner currency, the standard unit of trade that all other commodities are valued against. As such, banning it would have the same social effects as if Government suddenly banned the cash in your wallet or purse. Sans tobacco, some other substance will become the default currency and the only candidate is heroin.
There will, of course, be bits of tobacco smuggled in. Realistically, though, tobacco is bulky and not very smuggle-able. Especially when compared to the size and value of heroin. And the main channel of getting tobacco from one side of the wall to the other will invariably be prison staff – the very group that the Prison Service prefers to think of as whiter than white.
With the current medium of exchange prohibited, waves of disruption will flow through the social structure. Those who "baroned" tobacco – burn, snout – will be worthless, their ability to calm a stressed prison gone. In their place will rise, to a more embedded level than currently, those who deal in the "powders". But tobacco barons have always been a stabiliser, a bank, a bureaux de change, will the flow of tobacco being largely consistent. Heroin, in contrast, leads to some prisoners wielding undue influence – "powder power" – but inconsistently. Supplies of drugs are far more uncertain and temporary, leaving the suppliers in a shaky socioeconomic position and as such as likely to prompt instability as anything else.
Tobacco is also used by the Prison Service as an intelligence tool. Every Wing Manager has traditionally had a few packets of tobacco to hand, to dish out to the passing casual informers. This will now end. On a wider scale, by tracking tobacco purchases from the prison shop – the "canteen" – managers have been able to discern economic activity. This activity is often tied to broader prisoner activities and can highlight the wheelers and dealers. A non-smoker buying lots of tobacco is obviously "up to something"! Whether this oversight of prisoners’ economic activity has ever led to more substantial intelligence is unknown; what is known is that this source of intelligence will now cease.
The practicalities of the ban are yet to be made known, probably to be developed as this policy is rolled out. It begins in Wales early next year. Whatever details are developed, all have to face the reality that nicotine is one of the most addictive of substances and prison is the last bastion of smokers. And 50,000 smokers deprived of their fix will be a fearsome thing.
Obviously, the Healthcare departments of each prison (now NHS run) should be stocking up on Nicotine Replacement Therapies, such as patches. The problem with all of these poor substitutes is that they have success rates lower than a rugby player with a lion on his shirt. As for E-cigarettes; these would be a perfect medium. Alas, E-cigs require chargers, which can also be used to charge illegal mobile phones. How the Prison Service faces this challenge will be interesting. What will be offered medically will be risible and not cull the cravings of the masses.
Banning tobacco, then, will have the key consequences of instantly dismantling economic structures which have stood for decades; will destabilise the social structure; reduce intelligence; tempt staff to smuggle; and throw social power into the corrosive and unstable hands of heroin dealers.

I can't think of a more damaging policy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Whither Prison Reform - Part 1

I begin with the proposition that "prison doesn't work". This obviously presupposes the purpose of prison – a debate in its own right. However, in terms of reoffending and cost, prison fails. No other enterprise in human history with a 60% failure rate would be allowed to continue unchallenged, yet we appear to be singularly content with this monstrous rate of reoffending. And footing the bill for that perpetual failure.

Firstly, we should squarely address the issue of who we imprison, and for what crimes. Only then does the utility and cost of imprisonment become stark. In this Part, I will highlight Remand and Women prisoners.

Remand Prisoners. Over 48,000 people are remanded into custody awaiting trial each year. At any given moment, there are around 12,000 Remands (14% of the prison population).

A full 60% of these people are remanded to prison having being charged with non violent crime. Ten percent are outright acquitted, and a further 15% (15,000 people a year) are convicted but given a non-custodial punishment.

With the average annual cost of detaining a prisoner being around £40k, that we are remanding into prison so many people charged with non violent crimes must be questioned.

And where do we keep these Remand prisoners in the gulag? The uninitiated may not appreciate the varied nature of prisons, with categories going from Category A – High Security – to Category D, Open prisons. It is a matter of historical practice that the Prison Service places all Remands into Category B prisons – meant to hold people who pose such a risk that their "escape must be made very difficult". And Cat Bs are extremely secure, with escapes being rare.

But why place all Remands in such secure prisons? Because there is a direct correlation between security category and cost. Cat A prisons are the most expensive, Cat D the cheapest. Why place Remands, most of whom have comitted a non violent crime, into such a secure and expensive environment as Category B prisons? A quarter of a century ago, the Woolf Report made the recommendation that the default security Category for Remands should be Category C. Cat C prisons cost a significant amount less to run.

The Prison Service has ignored the Woolf recommendation, trampled over common sense, and continues to imprison those charged with non violent crimes in extremely expensive and secure facilities. If Remands were made default Category C, then tens of millions of pounds would be saved. The waste of the 25 years since Woolf must run into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Women prisoners are another anomaly, making up some 5% of the prison population (just shy of 4,000). It is truly remarkable to note that fully 82% of women prisoners are imprisoned for non-violent crimes. Nearly half of them are sentenced for theft or handling stolen goods.

It must be asked, why are we throwing non-violent women into expensive and secure prisons? If the Corston Report were ever implemented, the reality is that the number of women prisoners could be reduced by some 80 or 90% - with a resulting saving of  tens of millions.

In this first part of a series of posts I have made propositions which will save many many millions of pounds. In changing the structure of how Remand and Women prisoners are dealt with, whole prisons can be emptied, the social harms of imprisonment reduced, and the cost of the prison estate significantly reduced.

Thoughts please....

Reform - An Introduction

When even the Prime Minister suggests that the present shape of the prison system doesn't deliver and costs a fortune, then it could be believed that we are entering a period where the political machine may be open to significant penal reform.

This is not to over-state the possibilities, Reform can be argued for on several grounds, including utilitarian, ethical, and moral, none of which appear to be the force of our political masters. Rather, the political focus appears to be utilitarian and economic and I have focussed my thoughts around these issues.  This is not to dismiss or forget the broader grounds for reform.

What follows is a series of blog posts which explore the current organisation and policies of HMPS and highlight the positive changes that could be adopted and whose outcomes would be a lower re-offending rate, fewer victims, and a very significant reduction in costs.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Personal and The Political

If there is one unmissable difference between liberty and confinement, it is the distance between the individual and the State. Out in our daily lives, the State is hidden, glimpsed fleetingly as traffic wardens flit by and police cars grace our rear view mirrors. The State is there, in every corner of life, but it gives the impression of being concealed behind the façade that is life.

I am used to a more personal relationship with the State. Directly because of Ministerial decisions, recommendations by the Parole Board that I move to Open prison prior to release were overturned. Every moment of my existence was regimented and regulated, the State being personified by some miserable bugger in size 9’s slamming the cell door shut. Rarely in the “real world” do we have such proximity to government.

A large barrier to my forging any consistent relationship with the State, the gaping hole in the idea of “citizen”, is the denial of the Vote. Ten years after the Hirst judgement and government is still slithering around the issue like a snake in a vat of KY. A government insisting I show slavish obedience to the law whilst ignoring its own obligations is a matter which has, and always will, rankle with me.

Yet here I am, the new owner of a vote. And it came without any effort on my part. I haven’t had to show that I’m intelligent, educated, moral, or even interested. Whether I like it or not, I’m lumbered with the damn thing. And now I have to decide how to wield this miniscule, temporary, power over our masters.

 I could just bail out of the whole business, opting to spoil my paper or just not vote. In the face of a range of political parties all severely afflicted with prisonitis, the idea of voting on the basis of party is a dead duck. All of them can rot.

 In the absence of any meaningful political principles on offer, I have decided to ignore the national picture and rather chose to look local. As is, which local candidate fills me with sufficient confidence that they can do a decent job representing my constituency.

 Rather improbably, I have alighted upon David Warburton. He is not a career politician, which may suggest less adherence to slavish party lines in attempts to curry Party favour. Maybe. And politics is his fourth or fifth career, which has encompassed classic music through to E-Commerce and social enterprises. A person rounded by experience, then. Having popped into his office to sound him out of criminal justice policy, we found ourselves in the café having such a long chat that other appointments were shifted. Unlike a standard politician, David was happy to ask questions rather than merely pontificate.

Turns out, I’m voting….Tory!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The O'Brien Show

The O’Brien Show
On April 2nd – today or yesterday, depending on my efficiency! – I appear on the new ITV O’Brien Show. And I found the experience quite disturbing. Its made me angry enough to  surmount my writers block, so silver linings and all that. 

The call came in late last week. Would I care to pop along to Manchester to take part in a debate on the new O’Brien Show. Hmm. Daytime ITV can be a bit of a bearpit, but I googled James O’Brien and discovered that whilst he is a minor controversialist, he has stood in on Newsnight as a presenter. Clearly not of the Jeremy Kyle persuasion, I thought… 

Standard practice, train tickets arrived and I dragged myself to the station for the 8am train heading Oop North. Four and a half hours. I arrived slightly frazzled. Unlike any other media engagement, I was left standing in the rain in Manchester for an hour awaiting a car to hoof me to the studio. Such is the life of the part time media tart. 

Arriving at the media centre I was faced by what seemed to be a mix between an airport lounge and a mental health outpatients clinic. I was searched and metal detected. A first for any media engagement, but a loud clue that I missed. What sort of show needs its guests and audience searched? One that is determined to provoke conflict, perhaps… 

Herded into the studio, microphones attached – the process is like being ever so politely indecently assaulted – then seated. Next to a woman who had lost three members of her family to murder. And in front of another family of victims. The other two ex cons were similarly placed. I had a sneaking feeling that all was not going to go as smoothly as normal. 

The headline question we were dragged from all over the country was meant to be, does prison work. What transpired was that each of us ex cons was berated by O’Brien for our past crimes, with him egging on various victims to skewer us. 

I talk about my crime. I don’t shy from it. If id been invited along to talk about that, then id still have turned up – and it would at least have been an honest process. But to lure us in for our views and then use us to prod at victims who have suffered appalling loss is pretty repugnant. But all standard for this show. The ethics of using victims of crime to stir up heat for a tv show is, I suspect, not a hot topic at production meetings. 

The first ex con was set upon. A young guy, ex drug dealer, he was seated next to a woman who had lost a sibling to a drug overdose. The guy was piled into as if he was responsible. Then he laid into Stinson Hunter, “the paedophile hunter”, accusing him of being a vigilante and of responsibility for the suicide of an alleged paedophile Stinson had provided the evidence against to the police, who charged the guy.
Then onto me. O’Brien suggested “life should mean life”, an interesting enough topic but not the one that we were invited to address. O’Brien suggested murderers were inherently dangerous….and so I couldn’t resist asking why was he sitting next to me then?! Cheeky of me, I know, but I was hacked off with the way the show was unfolding.

 The final straw with me was when O’Brien pompously suggested that I had laughed at my crime. Nice try. Anyone remotely familiar with me will know I never view my crime with  anything less than deadly seriousness. It was a despicable trick.

 Having seen that none of us were actually being asked to address the issue of prison, having seen us being used as some sort of surrogate offender for the victims surrounding us, I unhooked my mic and headed for the door with firm politeness. It was a natural break in the recording, and O’Brien skipped across to intercept me. And I told him my problem – that having being invited along to talk about the utility of prison, all he was doing was slamming us for our past. O’Brien guided me back to my seat, making placatory noises. Then left me in the lurch as some random told me I should be executed. Right to respond? Don’t be silly.

 It wasn’t just me that felt traduced. In the first part of the show you will see me sitting next to a middle aged lady. By the end, she had morphed into a young brunette. The cause of this transformation? The lady had walked out just after me. A victim of crime, she felt this was all more heat than light and left, with tv people trying to tell her she couldn’t. Why? Continuity! And so a new person was snuck into her empty seat. The magic of television was revealed to be a grubby con trick.

 I had words with the Producer afterwards, and he seemed surprised. With a bunch of ex cons and an equal number of victims, there was a genuine opportunity to explore the issue of punishment and prison. This was squandered, deliberately, burned on the altar of what I call zoo tv.  I’d like to think they considered the victims they invited to emote and recall their loss and pain – to no good purpose. But I know I'd be wrong to believe that.

 Never again. Strictly news shows from here. Unless the jungle calls.