Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reform, unintended consequences 2
Prison reform is spasmodic and complex. This is part two of a brief examination of reforms which although were attractive on their face, were actually disastrous. Prison reform highlights the immutable Law of Unintended Consequences.
The idea wasn’t completely improbable. A small number of criminals commit a disproportionate amount of crime and generate high levels of social misery. If these people could be identified and imprisoned, then some significant social good would accrue. The mechanism chosen to enable this was a new sentence, Indefinite detention for Public Protection, the IPP sentence.
As it implies, this was not a sentence that delivered fixed terms of imprisonment. Rather, it was an indefinite sentence. It’s important to appreciate the nature of this sentence, which is bifurcated. The first part of the sentence, the tariff, is the amount of time that the person would have served if given a fixed sentence, the punishment for their crime. This may be measured in days, weeks, months or years. Once this period of time has been served the IPP prisoner remains in prison until and unless they can persuade the Parole Board that they are an acceptable risk to release.
At the time, questions were raised as to whether we require yet another variant of a Life sentence, which is what IPP is in essence. Already available to Judges was the Discretionary Life sentence, partly used to stop an escalating criminal in their tracks. It is now realised that most IPP were never liable to get a Discretionary Life sentence, as their crimes were not serious enough.
Indeed, we were meeting IPPs on the landings that had tariffs of mere weeks. They had a legitimate expectation of timely release. Us old hands quietly raised our eyebrows, tried not to disabuse them, and sat back to see how this fiasco would unfold.
The Government predicted that some 300 people would fall into the clutches of the IPP sentence. As the numbers crept into the thousands, IPP criteria was altered so that only those who would be given a fixed sentence of 2 or more years would get IPP. That is, the minimum tariff became 2 years. Even so, the Government’s projected figure of 300 rapidly rose to 6,000, as the Judiciary responded to the harsh political tone of the time.
Capturing and imprisoning people was the initial part of the IPP plan. Rehabilitation and release was the conclusion. And this is where the IPP sentence slid from being a minor political spasm into a major disaster.
Actually getting released from an indefinite sentence is a complicated matter (as anyone who followed my blog will appreciate!). Prisoners must demonstrate a reduction in their risk of reoffending to the Parole Board. This is done by completing psychological treatments known as Offending Behaviour Programmes.
Predicting the haul of IPPs would be around 300, the Prison Service wasn’t allocated extra resources to offer sufficient places on Offending Behaviour Programmes (OBP). With some 6,000 IPP joining the lists for OBP, the system simply couldn’t cope. Prisoners with 2 year tariffs could face waits of several years before they could access the needed courses. A logjam has developed, so that now most IPPs remain in prison after their tariff not due to any actions of their own; but simply because their route to release is so narrow and oversubscribed.
The IPP sentence became a shambles. At one point the High Court declared the situation so chaotic that it ruled IPP detention to be arbitrary and therefore unlawful (a judgement swiftly reversed on Appeal).
And there the situation remains. Thousands of men are stranded in prison simply because they cannot access the routes to release. The Parole Board is overwhelmed. An attempt to capture prolific offenders has become a moral and political cancer, a festering wound on Justice with no end in sight.
A report from Labour’s Social Exclusion Unit asserted – on fragile data – that most prisoners were functionally illiterate and innumerate, which has a significant impact on reoffending. The policy that followed aimed to remedy this deficiency by directing the resources of prison education to inculcating basic skills.
Prior to this rearrangement, education in prison was often eclectic. English language at one end of the corridor, politics and philosophy at the other, and all instructional ports in between. These were the days when I was able to complete my O Levels, A Levels, and my undergraduate degree.
No longer. The focus on basic skills took place at the expense of breadth. In this truncated system, education is driven by targets, and an illiterate prisoner can pretty much exhaust all offerings within a couple of years. What was a flowering tree is reduced to a fragile branch.
With a background of ever increasing sentences, the limitation of funding to basic skills has a devastating effect. Prisoners find themselves abandoned by the education system once basic competence is achieved. This flows from a logical error in the Social Exclusion Unit report, which notes illiteracy rules prisoners out of most employment on release. Whilst true, it assumes that literacy is a sufficient condition for employment. It isn’t. Literacy is necessary, but not sufficient in itself. And yet, it is at this point that educational resources become extremely meagre.
Tens of thousands of prisoners have been stranded, abandoned just when they are ready to embark upon serious education. An effort intended to increase education and better employment chances has had the unintended consequence of limiting education to those who genuinely desire it.

The search for effective means to reduce reoffending can only be a laudable one. In theory. In practice….
The mid 1990’s saw an explosion of psychologists in prison, and they quickly became the most despised of staff. The government had noted the birth of psychological treatment programmes in North America, and unveiled the “What Works?” agenda. As implied, this was meant to be a thorough examination of the potential for policies to cut reoffending. Alas, this inquisitorial approach swiftly saw the “?” fall into a chasm, with “What Works” becoming highly specific – it was decided that cognitive psychological treatments were the path forward.
A generation of forensic psychologists descended onto prisons and swiftly became the gatekeepers to release, particularly for Lifers. Courses included Thinking Skills, Anger Management, Violence Reduction and Sex Offender Treatment. Release without undertaking various courses became nigh on impossible (I never did a course, the Parole Board noting that “there aren’t any courses for being awkward”).
These courses became Holy Writ. And as such, funding them became a drain on other areas. Specifically, there was an overwhelming collapse in the provision of Trades training and courses. What was once a thriving sector spanning bricklaying to light engineering has become a wasteland. Imbuing people with useful work skills fell to the wayside, trampled by the psychology hoard.
This enterprise has so far cost some £500 Million. That’s direct cost. Indirect cost must include the thousands of extra years of imprisonment prisoners serve waiting to complete these courses.
The result of this agenda, which has been running for some 20 years now, has been negligible. The programmes continue.
It should be appreciated that reform is a complex and uncertain effort. Many good ideas are actually rotten.

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