Friday, December 18, 2009

Inspecting Prisons

The prison system has always been pored over by somebody. Perhaps the longest established body tasked with keeping an eye on this human zoo is the Independent Monitoring Board, previously known as the Board of Visitors.
For most of their history they had a dual-role. Firstly, they were meant to act as watchdogs, ensuring that we were not being ill-treated. Alas, alongside this they were also part of the disciplinary system, with powers to sling people into solitary for outrageous periods of time. They also signed off on us being thrown into strip-cells and strongboxes.
Their two roles did not sit well with prisoners. It was our universal view that the BoV were firmly in the hands of management and in no way protected us from abuse. Worse, they consistently turned a blind eye to brutality, to the extent of sending us into solitary units where they knew we were being brutalised.
In a still developing rebranding exercise, the BoV have become the IMB (Independent Monitoring Board) and along the way lost their powers to send us to solitary or hold disciplinary hearings. Despite this, they face an uphill struggle to persuade prisoners that they will challenge management when necessary. At best, we remain ambiguous about them.
It took until the 1980's before the Prison Service allowed itself to be inspected by a body that was formally independent of itself, cutting loose the Inspectorate of Prisons. Over the following years, this has led to the prison service being repeatedly savaged by Inspectors who have failed to maintain a hoped-for consensus. This always cheers up prisoners.
But the Inspectorate system is an imperfect one, in that prisons can go 2 or 3 years between each 5 day inspection. In the absence of a more robust IMB, this leaves prisoners in a very precarious position.
This was highlighted by the regime of brutality in the late 1990's at Wormwood Scrubs prison. To the eternal shame of the mainstream media, only the Guardian reported fully on the story and the wider world would rather not have to face the realities - mock executions, savage beatings, even rapes, committed by prison staff on prisoners.
The whole prison knew the reality of this. The governors knew; the healthcare staff knew; the Chaplaincy knew; and the BoV/IMB knew. But they all chose paths of least resistance, turning a blind eye and presenting spineless oversight. This extended to the Governors and BoV/IMB having to ask permission from the screws before they could visit the Segregation Unit - the first site to find staff violence in any rotten prison culture.
Whilst some of the prison staff were prosecuted or fired, their managers and watchdogs have gone on to have healthy and wealthy careers further up the prison service food chain.
Regardless of the nature of Inspections and Audits, prisons remain largely closed societies that are capable of veering off into developing brutal cultures. Perhaps, ultimately, it must rest with the prisoners themselves to organise in self defence to challenge such deviant cultures?


  1. What a miserable state of affairs. What happens in prisons at Christmas, then?

  2. My loved one in prison has had one interaction with the IMB and they were very helpful - dealing immediately with getting his parole dossier which the prison had refused to give him. I have also had some correspondence with them about IPPs and they are actively liaising with the government. This sounds like an improvement on what they used to be.


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