Friday, February 13, 2015

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Andrew Selous: Not Waving but Drowning

Alex Cavendish with a searing commentary on a wholly inept television performance of UK Prisons Minister Andrew Selous as he sought to explain away the crisis in prison management. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

For blog readers who didn’t see it, last night’s interview on the BBC’s Newsnight programme with our part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous was a political train crash. It was morbidly fascinating to watch him sink deeper and deeper into the hole that his boss, Chris Grayling, has been busy excavating. Ever the cunning PR wonk, ‘Calamity’ Chris sensibly decided to give Newsnight a miss and tidy his sock drawer, leaving poor hapless Andrew to face the music on national TV where he seemed more like a bewildered rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

Pretty grim viewing for the MOJ
Challenged over the ongoing crisis across the prison estate – chronic staff shortages, rising levels of violence, self-harm and suicide – Mr Selous tripped at every step. Although he was able to spout the figures for the ongoing – and desperate – recruitment drive for new prison officer grades, when asked why the staffing crisis had occurred in the first place, he couldn’t give a straight answer, presumably because honesty would have meant passing the nasty parcel of blame right back to his boss, Mr Grayling.

Even a political heavyweight with much more experience than Mr Selous would have found this interview pretty daunting. The preceding package had included some rather strident critics lining up to have their say, including Frances Crook from the Howard League for Penal Reform, Peter McParlin chairman of the Prison Officers Association (POA) and – myself (the token ex-con). I suppose that between the three of us we have a good few years of first-hand experience of the prison system from our very different perspectives, while poor old Mr Selous has only been in his current post since July – and it showed.
Frances Crook: warnings
Confronted with some pretty uncomfortable figures about the number of prison staff being bussed around the country at taxpayers’ expense in a last ditch effort to plug serious staffing gaps in prisons, he really didn’t have much of an answer about how this fiasco had been permitted to happen in the first place. The real answer, that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) slashed numbers of frontline staff to reduce the prisons budget without really thinking through the operational consequences, would have been political suicide for any junior minister, so Mr Selous simply tried to deflect the critics by claiming that the continuing rise in prison numbers couldn’t have been foreseen. Really?

The current prison population in England and Wales – 85,755 as of 12 December – is roughly twice the size it was 20 years ago. Each successive government in the meantime has contributed to this rise by introducing harsher sentencing policies, longer sentences (including the disastrous Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP)) and increasing the number of new criminal offences and civil orders, many of which now carry potential custodial terms. Add into the mix around 10,000 foreign national prisoners, plus around 10,000 unconvicted prisoners being held on remand (around 75 percent of whom, even if convicted, won’t receive a custodial sentence when they eventually come up in court) and you have the makings of a constantly rising prison population. What part of that could not have been foreseen?

As Mr Grayling did, during his own recent shifty performance in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Justice, Mr Selous tried – and failed – to put the blame for the unchecked rise in prisoner numbers on to the late Jimmy Savile and the recent increase in reported ‘historic’ sexual offences. This was received with the journalistic distain it richly deserved, just as the same claim cut no ice with the Justice Committee members either. It’s a red herring and just about everyone knows it, so why Mr Selous felt he had to try it on yet again is anyone’s guess. Sheer desperation?
Mr Selous: out of his depth
The reality is that the MOJ has screwed up pretty monumentally. Older, more expensive-to-maintain prisons have been closed without sufficient new capacity being available. According to the Ministry’s own figures back in March, 77 of the 119 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. A little more number crunching and it seems that we have around 10,000 prisoners too many for our current prison establishments to accommodate them “decently”.

Although Mr Grayling has repeatedly claimed that the prison system can cope with anyone given a custodial sentence by a court, the Prison Service has its own internal categories: “certified normal accommodation” and “operational capacity”. According to the MOJ, the former “represents the good, decent standard of accommodation that the Service aspires to provide all prisoners”, while operational capacity means: “the total number of prisoners that an establishment can hold without serious risk to good order, security and the proper running of the planned regime”.

In short supply at the moment
However, with the current total number of prisoners in England and Wales already thousands above the certified levels and now creeping up towards the operational capacity, it is clear that somewhere along the line someone made a pretty spectacular miscalculation. Add to that a substantial reduction in the number of frontline prison staff and you have all the ingredients for an operational meltdown.
The Howard League has calculated – using the MOJ’s own data – that there has been a 41 percent reduction in the total number of operational grade staff since 2010 when there were around 24,000 to 2014 when there are 14,170. It is true that this figure is hotly disputed by the MOJ which claims there are now 27 percent fewer officers than in 2010, but either way, the prison population has increased, the number of certified places is down (due to prison closures) and there are fewer wing staff around – as evidenced by the need to move officers around on what is euphemistically called ‘detached duty’.

This practice, in itself, can have serious implications for security in our prisons. Staff bussed in temporarily from hundreds of miles away won’t know inmates as individuals. There can be no relationship of trust developed and warning signs that trouble may be brewing can be missed. It is, at best, a haphazard – and expensive – way of trying to apply a band-aid solution for what amounts to a very serious mismanagement of a key public service. As usual, the taxpayer will be footing the bill for all of this.
During his interview on Newsnight, Mr Selous really did seem to be completely out of his depth when challenged over the reasons that the current crisis is ongoing. There is still a very unconvincing sense of denial surrounding the marked rise in suicide and self-harm in our prisons, as well as a failure to explain why violent incidents – particularly assaults on staff – are up. Mr Selous’ feeble suggestion that we are now jailing “more violent people” was, frankly, a desperate effort to try to divorce these issues that need to be addressed urgently from the escalating crisis inside prisons that has it roots in poor decision-making by politicians. 

Ministers and officials simply can’t bring themselves to admit that our jails are much less safe and decent places at the moment because of serious mismanagement of the Prison Service by the MOJ’s political leadership. They can’t credibly claim that they weren’t warned. Both the Prison Governors’ Association and the POA – as well as HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman – have given warning after warning that our prisons are heading for disaster. Juries, it seems, aren’t eager to convict prisoners protesting against deteriorating conditions, including 23-hour bang-up in tiny, overcrowded cells.
Strangeways: the first to riot in 1990
The stage is set for more violence, further suicides and self-harm and, potentially, more serious disturbances and even riots. We may not yet be close to the kind of uprising that occurred across the prison estate back in 1990 when HMP Strangeways went up in smoke over 25 days of violent protest, followed by a number of other prisons across the UK, but many of the same warning signs are present today. Staff morale is close to rock-bottom and with too few frontline officers to effectively control wings – especially in Cat-B and C establishments – if things do kick off, the situation could easily slide out of control, perhaps even more quickly than it did nearly 25 years ago.

If there are prison riots, then Mr Selous – an Old Etonian who seems to have spent much of his career either in the family electronics business or as an insurance underwriter – really won’t be the man capable of sorting it all out. If his performance on Newsnight is anything to go by he’ll be drowning, not waving, when the MOJ Titanic finally hits the iceberg.