Tuesday, March 24, 2015

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What Chris Grayling is Trying to Hide

Alex Cavendish on the ministerial mist that envelops the UK prison system. 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.

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.

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