On 2nd December we are going to be treated to an early Christmas special courtesy of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). Parliament’s Select Committee on Justice is going to be hearing evidence during its session on Prisons: Planning and Policies from three key figures responsible for the current crisis in our prisons: Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling, the new Prisons Minister Andrew Selous MP and the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) Michael Spurr. What a treat that is certain to be, so make sure it’s in your diary: the performance starts at 10.15 am.
|Select Committee on Justice: taking evidence from the MOJ|
The main role of the parliamentary select committee system is to oversee the work of government departments and agencies. In the case of the Justice Committee it is tasked with examining the expenditure, administration and policy of the MOJ and its associated public bodies, such as NOMS. This will be an important opportunity for our elected MPs to hold Mr Grayling and his team to account. We shall see.
|MOJ Monkeys to perform|
Hopefully, the members of the Justice Committee are going to ask some very candid questions of these three gentlemen about why they continue to maintain the fiction that there is no prison crisis, including why NOMS’ strategy for slashing budgets – grandly titled New Ways of Working – has left our jails dangerously understaffed to the point that there is a real risk to life and limb of both prisoners and staff. It will be fascinating to hear the answers from the ‘Three MOJ Monkeys’: see no prison crisis, hear no prison crisis and, above all, admit no prison crisis.
If the members of the Committee are on the ball, they will have had their researchers collate all the HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ reports issued since September 2013, as well as the parallel findings provided by the office of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if they also had some very specific themes drawn from the reports issued by each prison’s Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), as these will often back up the findings of the periodic visits by HM Inspectorate. I’d suggest the following:
- Drugs: are the rising figures for the availability and use of substances (legal and illegal), as well as the linked issues of debt, bullying, violence and the blackmail of inmates’ families to smuggle in contraband linked to massive reductions in the number of frontline staff, both on wings and in security departments?
- Suicide and self-harm: what impact has staff shortages, combined with many prisoners spending much greater periods locked in their cells, had on the rising rate of suicide and self-harm in our prisons? Is there an identifiable link to reduced provision for mental health support?
- Rehabilitation: successive rounds of budget cuts have seen many (if not most) prisons close down their dedicated resettlement offices. What impact has this had on the rates of reoffending? Since issuing its National Action Plan in 2004, NOMS itself has identified seven recognised ‘pathways’ to reducing re-offending. These are:
• Education, Training and Employment
• Drugs and Alcohol
• Finance, Benefits and Debt
• Children and Families
• Attitudes, Thinking and Behaviour
|What are the current objectives?|
What has been the impact of the closure of the resettlement offices on achieving the goals set down in the National Action Plan? In effect, have the MOJ and NOMS abandoned these ‘pathways’? If so, what is to replace them, if anything?
Another specific avenue of enquiry could be the link between staff shortages and the erosion of education and vocational courses in prisons. One of this government’s declared aims has been that prisoners should be engaged in ‘purposeful activity’, whether this is education, work, vocational training or offending behaviour programmes, rather than lying on their bunks watching daytime TV or “sleeping through their sentences” (a telling phrase used back in 2011 by HM Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. However, with many understaffed establishments now running very restrictive day-to-day regimes that can include up to 23-hour bang-up for large numbers of cons, the idea of ‘purposeful activity’ seems to be something of a pipe dream. Has this political objective been kicked quietly into the long grass? If so, what impact is it having on rehabilitation?
|Not for prisoners anymore|
And then we have the vexed question of disorder and even protests by serving prisoners in reaction to regimes that are being seen as vindictive, inhumane and often arbitrary. One of the government’s main arguments for restricting prisoners’ access to external legal remedies such as judicial review is the claim that the Prison Service has a perfectly adequate internal complaints system, backstopped by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman when all other internal levels have been exhausted.
However, as was made clear during the recent trial – and acquittal by a jury – of the ‘High Down 11’, protesting prisoners who had been charged with prison mutiny, one of the causes of this incident had been the way in which HMP High Down’s senior management had effectively ignored complaints submitted through the usual channels – ie the written application system. It wasn’t clear from the evidence given on oath during the trial whether this was due to staffing problems, administrative incompetence or simply because the MOJ-imposed New Ways of Working directives made it impossible for the prison governors to address these grievances.
Perhaps the members of the Justice Committee could review the transcripts and written statements of this important criminal trial at Blackfriars Crown Court – which appears to have been completely airbrushed from history by the national media – in order to analyse what led up to the prisoners’ protests about deteriorating conditions. They might also reflect on why a jury of twelve ordinary citizens voted unanimously to acquit these men of those very serious criminal charges.
|Banged-up for 23 hours a day|
Was the evidence about prison conditions called by both prosecution and defence so compelling that no reasonable jury would be willing to convict? The jury heard at length about the negative impact that MOJ policies and budget cuts were having, both from the prosecuting barrister and from High Down’s governor, Ian Bickers, as well as from the defence counsel, before they reached their verdict.
If the evidence was so strong that it convinced a jury that the protest by the eleven cons was justified and reasonable, rather than an attempt to overthrow the “lawful authority in the prison” or make the establishment “ungovernable”, then this could represent clear evidence that there is a serious crisis in our prisons and that further disorder, protests and, potentially, even full-scale riots could be the result. Surely that would be a very legitimate line of enquiry for the Justice Committee to explore with the three men more responsible than any others for managing the Prison Service?
|Turning his back?|
To be honest, I doubt that we will get any major admissions from any of the three MOJ Monkeys. Mr Selous is a part-timer in his role of Prisons Minister and hasn’t been in post very long. I suppose he could play the role of ‘see no crisis’, mainly because he hasn’t been getting around our prisons that much to actually see for himself what is really going on.
Logically, Mr Spurr would be ‘hear no crisis’ because he is effectively the bureaucrat who emerges from the shadows only to claim that NOMS is ‘learning lessons’ and ‘improving’ each time some particularly toxic HM Inspectorate report lands on his desk… which seems to be about twice a week at the moment, the latest being on HMP Bedford and HMP North Sea Camp, if my memory serves me correctly.
The leading role in the forthcoming performance should be reserved for Mr Grayling himself – ‘admit no crisis’ – simply because he is at the root of the present prison crisis although he persistently denies that there are any serious problems at all. Regardless of the mountain of criticism and negative official reports, he is the face of government refusal to acknowledge anything that doesn’t fit within his very limited ideological frame of reference. If it doesn’t serve his own political interests, then it either doesn’t exist at all or else it is some form of left-wing conspiracy to damage his mission to ‘reform’ the criminal justice system. Perhaps ‘Crisis’ Chris will bottle it at the last moment and leave Messrs Selous and Spurr to face the Justice Committee, and the music, alone.
Next Tuesday’s session will be worth watching if only to see the inventive ways in which denial and blame for the present crisis in our prisons is neatly packaged and passed from MOJ Monkey to Monkey and then back to almost anyone else other than themselves. I just wonder who will be left holding this toxic parcel when the music stops… Oh, I forgot, it will be the British taxpayer – as usual.