Wednesday, 11 February 2015

What Chris Grayling is Trying to Hide

We have had a recent spate of media stories about what amounts to an information ‘lockdown’ across our crisis-hit prison system. This month alone we have read of complaints by academics that their access to prisons to conduct research is being barred, while earlier this week journalist Amelia Gentleman documented the struggles that she and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger experienced in trying to obtain permission for her to visit a prison (you can read her piece here). 

Russian jail: more open than ours?
As Ms Gentleman observed: “I found it easier to visit a military prison in Vladimir Putin’s Russia than to gain access to a British jail.” You don’t say.

Taken together with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) blocking the Howard League for Penal Reform’s Commission on Sex in Prison from having any access to serving prisoners (or, indeed, ex-prisoners who are still on licence), the picture emerges of a prison estate that seems to have become as impenetrable as North Korea. It’s all pretty damning, really. 

So what is really going on behind the high walls and razor-topped fences of our prisons? The answer, ironically, is very little indeed (other than drug taking, violence, sexual assaults, self-harm and suicide). Due to current overcrowding in many establishments – our prison population is now well over the 85,200 mark – combined with serious shortages of frontline staff, many prisons seem to have ground to a halt. 

When any prison is compelled to run what is euphemistically called ‘a restricted regime’, you know that there are very serious problems. Effectively, this means that most prisoners will end up being locked down in their cells for 22 or 23 hours each day. 

Banged up for 23 hours
Non-essential work by inmates is likely to be cancelled, as are education classes and other activities such as visits to the library or the gym. Cells will be opened up landing by landing to allow two meals a day to be collected from the servery and then it’s back behind the doors again. 

Perhaps twice a week the prisoners on specific landings will be permitted ‘association’ for an hour or two during which time they can have a shower, queue for the payphone to call their families or else play a quick game of pool or table tennis. Otherwise, they will be locked down in their cells – now usually sharing a space designed for one prisoner with one or even two others – for the rest of the week. 

I think that we can safely assume that all this enforced idleness is one of the things that Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling and his hapless sidekick Prisons Minister Andrew Selous don’t want the prying eyes of researchers and journalists to see – and then report to the general public, particularly taxpayers who are funding all this expensive human warehousing at an average annual cost of around £40,000 per prisoner. 

Reporting on the prison crisis
After all, the MOJ has quite enough problems with the regular reports produced by HM Inspectorate of Prisons that highlight how our crisis-ridden prison estate is failing against pretty much every single indicator. For Mr Grayling, less is definitely more when it comes to negative media coverage about the prison crisis. 

The very last thing Mr Grayling wants to read at his desk down in Petty France is yet another hard-hitting exposé in the morning papers about the way that the idea of rehabilitation for prisoners has all but been abandoned on his watch. Such headlines aren’t good news for him or for his party in the run up to the forthcoming general election.

A new prison scandal every week
Most reasonable people seem to share the view that at least some effort should be made while inmates are in prison to steer them away from committing further offences upon release, or even to learn new skills that might help those who want to earn an honest living find work rather than spending the rest of their lives on benefits. Since very little serious rehabilitation or resettlement work is currently being done due to a noxious combination of budget cuts and staff shortages, having some nosey journalist observing the mind-numbing inactivity that now dominates too many prisons just doesn’t make any political sense.

Moreover, when it comes to sensitive topics such as sexual assaults and rape in our prisons or the rising rates for suicide and self-harm, the MOJ has nothing meaningful to offer by way of explanation. It’s a similar story in respect of the shocking amount of drugs that find their way into even the higher security category prisons. The simple – and very inconvenient – truth is that Mr Grayling has cocked it all up since he took over in September 2012. It’s been one PR disaster after another and the body count just keeps rising – literally.

The other grubby little secret that ‘Calamity Chris’ is doing his best to keep under wraps is that staff morale has reached rock bottom and is now heading south, deep into the bedrock. Even if ambitious governor grades and senior managers have the sense to put up a good front amid the escalating crisis, Mr Grayling knows that he cannot trust his own frontline officers not to go blabbing to visiting journalists and researchers. Better to lock the system down and allow no-one access. It’s a tried and tested strategy that has kept North Korea under wraps for more than 65 years.

Just keep smiling and say nothing!
And that is what I believe lies at the root of the current culture of secrecy and denial about the current prison crisis. The political leadership of the MOJ “cannot bear very much reality”. Whenever the extraordinarily hapless Mr Selous raises his head above the media parapet he manages to make it sound like he knows nothing whatsoever about his own ministerial portfolio – which probably isn’t so very far from the truth. 

Moreover, the MOJ press office is about as inept as it can be and simply isn’t capable of countering the tsunami of criticism about so many disastrous policies across the entire criminal justice system. The default setting of both ministers and their press office wonks now seems to be to batten down the hatches and hope it will all go away. 

It’s the PR equivalent of them all putting their fingers in their ears at the same time while saying “La la la! I can’t hear you!” It’s a pretty poor way to be running a ministry, but that’s the situation in which we seem to find ourselves. 


  1. The UK seems to be moving ever closer to a police state. What with police officers from three different forces demanding the names of people buying the Charlie Hebdoe commemorative issue to the police keeping a massive database of mug shots of everyone and anyone ever arrested despite the courts ruling this illegal to a demand that all officers wear (and presumably use) tasers on a daily basis the comparisons to North Korea run far deeper than simply denying access to prisons. It won't be long before ghettos or maybe even concentration camps are set up and anyone on benefits herded into them and all prisoners are shipped off to Saudi Arabia to be put to death (probably why Grayling has been "negotiating" with the Saudis over matters judicial. Then all those engaged in tax evasion can live freely in a utopia of their own creation without being worried about being contaminated by the lower classes. Though quite who they will then get to take out the rubbish and scrub the floors of their mansions I have no idea.

    Mind you it would help if journalists like the Telegraph's Mary Riddell actually report on what is going on in prisons rather than do fluffy PR pieces for the MoJ as Riddell's piece in the telegraph today clearly was. I was so incensed by her description of a visit to Drake Hall I sent a stinging letter of complaint to the Telegraph because her depiction of the women's estate bore zero resemblance to reality.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the current situation. I would agree that things are looking pretty grim, particularly in the justice sector. I fear that nothing will improve while we have a Secretary of State for 'Justice' who so clearly doesn't give a damn about justice.

      To be honest, if the Saudis want Mr Grayling, then I'd happily swap 'Grayling of Arabia' for the poor blogger they've sentenced to be flogged and jailed. I think we'd get by far the better part of the bargain!

      The relationship between the media and prisons has always been a very complex one. So much depends on personal contacts and behind the scenes leverage. Because most journos know so little about prisons and the custodial system in general, they can be very easy to fool. Even if they are permitted to visit a particular prison they are hardly going to be taken on a tour of the Block or allowed to interview cons without a North Korean-style minder looking over their shoulders at every moment.

      Ironically, refusing Amelia Gentleman's request has probably done the MOJ far more public damage than a nicely orchestrated visit could possibly have done. If Mr Grayling really knew what he was doing, he'd have sent her off to a prison that had recently received a glowing report from HM Inspectorate and made sure that she interviewed a couple of hand-picked cons and screws who could be relied on to toe the party line. As it is, the whole fiasco has blown up in their faces with the end result that the MOJ now looks even more shifty and disreputable than usual. Great result, Chris! Let's have another one...

    2. i don't know if i'm slowly losing my mind or what but somehow the comment box under the entry has disappeared??!!

      not that it matter this much but still i'm confused.

      you are writing too much, i can't keep up! here's an article on when something is working and thought is being put into it (yay for regarding prisoners as people!)

      and i read about these restaurants today they seem to work as well!

      i think this sort of vaguely links in with the need for being socialised.


  2. The only way to establish the true state of affairs in Prisons is to work in one. I would accept a job in the Education Department and have an affair with one of the Prison Officers!

    1. Thanks for your suggestions! Of course, the risk of working in a prison and then becoming a whistleblower is that you could be charged with misconduct in a public office. The reach of this 'catch all' charge is so wide that even many people who are unpaid by the state can be claimed to hold public office in some capacity. It can also catch anyone who uses information supplied by a public employee... in effect, it's a draconian gagging act that potentially carries a life sentence.

  3. Great blog, thank you - a Probation Officer.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment. It's also good to get feedback from people working in the criminal justice sector, as well as prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families and friends.

  4. "What Chris Grayling is Trying to Hide"


    1. Indeed! Although he's not making a very good job of concealing his absolute incompetence when it comes to running the MOJ.