Wednesday, March 11, 2015

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C4 News: Watching the MOJ Train Crash

Alex Cavendish with a his final piece in January where he opens up for ridicule the Ministry For Justice and its "dirty little secrets." 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.

If you didn’t see the Channel 4 News on television last night then you really missed a treat: most of the Ministry of Justice’s dirty little secrets being exposed for all the world to see. What made it even more shocking was the cowardly refusal of the Secretary of State for ‘Justice’ Chris Grayling to face his critics and defend his indefensible policies. You can find the programme here.

Illicit photo of knife inside prison
For those of us who know a thing or two about prisons – whether from the viewpoint of staff or as prisoners, or indeed as prison reform campaigners – there really wasn’t much revealed that we didn’t already know all too well. Our prisons are awash with contraband. Mainly drugs – illegal and illegal – but also mobile phones, cash and even weapons (such as the nasty-looking lock knife that was shown in one con’s in-cell photo).

Of course, the Channel 4 expos√© was made all the easier because the complete numpties inside the slammer not only took photos of their illegal activities using their illicit mobiles, but then shared them with their mates via social media, albeit password protected. Someone obviously blabbed and the entire stash of photographic evidence was harvested by an enterprising investigative journalist.  As former celebrity con Oscar Wilde once observed: “There is no sin except stupidity!” You really couldn’t make it up. 

Mini-mobiles: potentially deadly
As if all the selfies and little movies of drug dealing and cash-flashing weren’t bad enough, we were also treated to text messages in which inmates compared the price of drugs in various different nicks. It’s hardly surprising that prison security departments regard the prevalence of contraband mobiles and SIM cards inside jails as posing the most serious identifiable threat to any establishment. A single con armed with a charged mobile can do far more damage than one with a table leg or even an improvised shank. 

Thus far so good, but although this footage graphically illustrated the ways in which our prisons have been permitted to get out of control because of swingeing cuts to frontline staff, we didn’t learn much that was really new – at least to anyone who has lived or worked inside a prison. For that we had to wait until the studio interviews that followed.

Mike Spurr (NOMS) sitting in the hot seat for Chris Grayling
Given that this primetime news package was exposing massive security flaws in prisons, one would have expected that the politicians responsible to Parliament and to the nation would have appeared on the programme to defend the policies that have contributed in large measure to the meltdown in safety and security, but not a bit of it. ‘Calamity Chris’ cried off – presumably sorting out his sock drawer – and hapless Prisons Minister Andrew Selous was nowhere to be seen. Instead, these two elected politicians allowed an unelected senior civil servant – Mike Spurr, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – to carry the can for the sorry mess they have made.

At least when former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard was in post he had the guts to face Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight back in May 1997. Funnily enough, this interview – which is often considered to be one of the most famous political exchanges of the television age – also featured a row over prison issues, in that case over Mr Howard’s interactions with Derek Lewis, then head of the Prison Service, concerning the then governor of HMP Parkhurst. 

Michael Howard: faced the music
Paxo famously asked the Home Secretary the same pointed question 12 times in succession without getting a straight answer. I may not be a fan of Mr Howard but he puts ‘Cowardly Chris’ into a completely different category. He faced the music in front of the country, even if it damaged his own political career. 

The ongoing crisis in our prisons is primarily a political issue. Policies that have been imposed by ministers have created a highly volatile and potentially explosive environment in many establishments. The critical issues are staff shortages and serious overcrowding in a majority of prisons – both directly attributable to political decision-making. Of course, the impact is felt at the operational level, but ministers should take responsibility for such policies, rather than allow a career civil servant – no matter how senior – to defend his political masters.

Mr Spurr began badly when he was wrong-footed by news anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy about how he actually came to be sitting in the hot seat in the first place. He appeared not to know that Mr Grayling had evaded the ‘hospital pass’ prior to the request for an interview being passed on to him. At best this exposed the lack of internal communication between the MOJ and NOMS; at worst, he just looked like a gormless patsy.

It was a highly defensive interview. After all, it’s never going to be easy trying to defend the indefensible. One of the most revealing pieces of information was the extent of the problem of corrupt prison staff and other workers who have access to prisons. According to Mr Spurr’s figures – and I think we can assume that they are accurate – over 100 members of staff or contractors have been disciplined, prosecuted or excluded from working in jails over the last year. Of these, 34 have been convicted of criminal offences. This is substantially higher than anything seen in 2011 to 2013. You can find the details here.

Corrupt prison staff in the dock
As I have argued previously on this blog, on The Guardian online and during my own contribution to the Channel 4 News feature, I believe that it is impossible for the amount of drugs, whether legal or illegal, that are easily available on most prison wings to be coming in through visits or via packages thrown over prison perimeter walls. As one of the other interviewees on the programme, a local resident who lives next to HMP Pentonville, observed incidents involving parcels were seen every three weeks or so.

It clearly happens, but it is a highly risky, hit and miss way of sending over valuable commodities such as drugs and mobile phone SIM cards. There is no way the real drugs trade inside our jails could operate on such a basis.

While small amounts of contraband also come into prisons through visitors passing tiny wraps or a few pills to prisoners in the visiting hall, this is also a very risky and inefficient way for the dealers to supply their customers on the wings. Again, I’ve argued that much of this low-level smuggling is about paying off debts or for personal use at a lower cost than the substances trafficked around the landings. 

Visits: scene of various set-up jobs
I’m also convinced that at least some of these often inept attempts to pass small quantities of drugs are set ups by the drugs barons to make prisons security look effective while cloaking the really profitable consignments that are being smuggled in by members of staff (uniformed and civilian). Given the much higher prices being charged by dealers inside jails there are sizeable margins to be made and some staff get tempted by a slice of the pie.

Although some members of staff are obviously being caught in the act and prosecuted, I’m absolutely convinced that this is only the tip of a much larger iceberg of corruption in our prisons. No-one ever seems to mention the amount of theft and casual pilfering that goes on inside the nick, with staff – including a few governors – actually helping themselves to prison property of varying descriptions. I personally know one governor grade who was dismissed for regular theft of goods from a prison enterprise.

POA: recognises problem
It was interesting to watch the pre-recorded interview with Peter McParlin, the national chairman of the Prison Officers Association (POA). He confirmed that there is a serious problem with bent staff, even if he also stressed that they only represent a tiny minority of officers. In reality it does only take a couple of corrupt staff in each prison to undermine security to an alarming degree.

However, aside from the issue of staff misconduct and criminal activities, the real elephant in the room for Mr Spurr was the massive cut in the numbers of prison officers since 2012. While the precise numbers can be disputed, there is no doubt that many jails are severely understaffed – a point highlighted in successive reports by both the Prison and Probation Ombudsman and HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. 

Although Mr Spurr was keen to point to the recruitment of 1,700 new prison staff who would be in post by April 2015, this begs the question of why so many experienced officers were let go at a time when the prison population was showing no signs of falling. Of course, the real answer is ‘benchmarking’ – a key element in the NOMS business plan. Essentially, this involves reducing the number of operational grade staff in order to save money. Last year it was estimated that by April 2015, a total of £900 million will have been cut from Prison Service budget since 2010 – a reduction of around 24 percent.

Channel 4 News: photo evidence 
Some of the dire results of this strategy were laid bare during the Channel 4 News programme: prisons that are dangerously out of control, security breaches, bullying and easy availability of drugs. These political and ideological policies have made prisons less safe for inmates and staff alike – as evidenced by the latest shocking statistics for violence, including sexual assaults – and a corresponding absence of any attempt at rehabilitation across much of the prison estate. Sometimes cutting budgets to that extent just doesn’t deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

It was also interesting to hear Mr Spurr’s attempts to explain why our prisons are becoming more violent. His explanation was that jails are full of young men serving longer sentences and therefore “difficult to manage”. Not a recipe for cutting down on experienced staff, you might think. 

However, last time round, when Mr Grayling and his sidekicks were giving evidence before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Justice at the beginning of December, the problems in our prisons were all the fault of people convicted of so-called ‘historic’ sex offences flooding our prisons unexpectedly. In fact, both arguments are equally bogus, other than the glimmer of truth that many prisoners are now serving longer and longer sentences.

Mr Grayling: conspicuous by his absence 
In reality, no amount of special pleading by Mr Spurr could cover up the mounting crisis in our prisons. Parachuting in 1,700 newly trained officers is not going to solve the massive problems caused primarily by bad policy making and poor acts of political mismanagement. And where was ‘Calamity Chris’ Grayling, the man who should have been defending his record of failure and chaos? At home, valiantly hiding behind his senior civil servant. A breach of the Ministerial Code, perhaps?

There was, however, a welcome breath of fresh air and honesty from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. Since he is in his final months in this post – thanks to the blatantly political machinations inside the MOJ – there’s no reason for him to spare anyone’s blushes. To his credit, he remained as professional and diplomatic as ever, but still got over the inconvenient truths about the way in which Team Grayling has managed to cock-up everything it has touched within the prison system. 

The loss of the Chief Inspector at a time of crisis in our prisons is potentially disastrous. Of course, it remains to be seen who gets the job, but let’s just hope it won’t be some craven yes man or woman. If there is a change of government after the next general election perhaps Mr Hardwick should be offered a working peerage and the portfolio of Prisons Minister. Just an idea! 

You can read my own opinion piece for Channel 4 News here.