Saturday, April 11, 2015

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Accomplices to the Crime

Alex Cavendish argues that the crisis in British prisons has not alleviated since Strangeways Prison in Manchester exploded onto news screens a quarter of a century ago.  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.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the 25-day riot at Manchester’s HMP Strangeways it should be of deep concern that Lord Woolf – who presided over the public inquiry into the reasons behind the explosion of resentment and violence during April 1990 that left two people dead (one an inmate and the other a prison officer) – has called for a new inquiry into the dire state of our prisons. Now chair of the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), the former Lord Chief Justice is warning that we have been going backwards and that the situation today is “back where we were at the time of Strangeways”.

Up in smoke: HMP Strangeways 1990
Perhaps predictably, Lord Woolf’s warnings are falling on deaf ears at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) down in Petty France. His lordship’s message is deeply unwelcome in a ministry that appears to have battened-down the hatches as part of a retreat from reality ahead of May’s general election. Just as predictable are the complacent platitudes rolled out by hapless part-time Prisons Minister Andrew Selous.

If it often sounds like Mr Selous is reading from a prepared script, then he probably is. The prisons portfolio is the current equivalent of a hospital pass in rugby and it seems that not a day goes by without some new scandal or shockingly negative report landing on his desk. The more he tries to pretend that the prison system isn’t in deep crisis, the less convincing he sounds. I doubt he really believes a word of the MOJ press office garbage he is briefed to repeat by rote.

Although every week is ‘disaster week’ for Chris Grayling and his sidekick, last week was especially grim. They must have known that the parliamentary Justice Committee report was going to be a real shocker, but perhaps the routine state of denial that seems to pervade the ministry had anaesthetised them ahead of what for any other government department – other, perhaps, than the Department of Work and Pensions – would have been a devastating indictment documenting institutional failure and inhumanity in equal measure.

Institutional failure from the top
It’s difficult to know where to start with the criticism levelled at the Secretary of State for Justice and his entourage by the Justice Committee which – lest we forget – is charged with holding the politicians who currently run this clown show accountable to Parliament and thus to the people of this country. If I run through just the critical paragraphs it would mean reproducing virtually the entire report verbatim. Other than the title page and the index, of course.

I’ll confine myself to just a few of the most pointed observations. If we start at paragraph 75 – as good a place as any – we find: “All available indicators, including those recorded by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and NOMS itself, are pointing towards a rapid deterioration in standards of safety and levels of performance over the last year or so.”

In other words, the prison system is in a real mess. However, this is really just stating the obvious for anyone who knows anything about our prisons. What it does mean is that Mr Grayling, Mr Selous and Mike Spurr of NOMS (the ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ of my earlier post) really didn’t manage to pull the wool over the eyes of the Justice Committee members when they gave evidence last December. It was a lamentable performance then and this report is the well-deserved riposte from the MPs who had to sit through Messrs Grayling & co trying to wing it.

"Arrogant and disrespectful? Me?"
Most of the specific issues raised by the Justice Committee have been covered in much greater detail on this blog since July 2014 and in many other places. However, one paragraph does merit careful attention:

Most concerning to us is that since 2012 there has been a 38 percent rise in self-inflicted deaths, a 9 percent rise in self-harm, a 7 percent rise in assaults, and 100 percent rise in incidents of concerted indiscipline. Complaints to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and other sources have risen. There are fewer opportunities for rehabilitation, including diminished access to education, training, libraries, religious leaders, and offending behaviour courses.

So, just about everything do to with our prison system has got much worse since Mr Grayling came into office in 2012. That’s a pretty shocking record by any standards.

The Justice Committee report also summarized the evidence that had been given by witnesses. Of particular concern was the impact of staff shortages and serious overcrowding on how prisons operate on a day to day basis:

Angela Levin of the Wormwood Scrubs IMB [Independent Monitoring Board] believed that increases in suicide, a “huge increase” in self-harm and a 50 percent increase in violence were due to the length of time prisoners were spending in their cells and the lack of capacity of staff to monitor them. For example, at Wormwood Scrubs more prisoners were now sharing cells, including three to a cell in some cases.

HMP Wormwood Scrubs
The report also highlighted the marked fall in the number of prison staff:
Between 31 March 2010 and 30 June 2014 the number of full-time equivalent staff in public sector prisons fell by 28 percent, a reduction of 12,530 staff.” Moreover, it also pointed out that “staff turnover in public sector prisons has doubled since 2010/11.

In other words, prison staff are bailing out at a significantly higher rate than before. This is perhaps unsurprising given that prisons have become a much less safe environment in which to work.

By this point in the report the Justice Committee is really getting into its stride. However, it saves up the real kicker until paragraph 102 in which it is observed that:
In our view it is not possible to avoid the conclusion that the confluence of estate modernisation and re-configuration, efficiency savings, staffing shortages, and changes in operational policy, including to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, have made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety.
Lord Woolf: warning
Basically, every single policy that ‘Calamity Chris’ has pushed through since 2012 has damaged the prison system to the point that safety – of both staff and inmates – has now been severely compromised. Quite an achievement over a 27-month period. No wonder Lord Woolf is warning that our prisons are going backwards towards the point when Strangeways went up in smoke.

Just in case anyone really thought that Mr Grayling might be saving the taxpayer money, the Committee shone the spotlight on the eye-watering cost of NOMS’ shocking incompetence in respect of managing the number of prison staff required to keep the system running. Chronic staff shortages mean that serving frontline staff are having to be bussed around the country – so-called ‘detached duty’ – at a whopping cost of £63.5 million over a 13-month period. This amounts to £2,500 per officer per month.

However, when it comes to the full cost implications of this mess – including subsistence allowances, travel and accommodation costs, the MOJ simply failed to produce the figures. Apparently no-one down in Petty France really thought that the MPs who sit on the Justice Committee would be interested in such minor details. After all, surely it’s the bigger ideological picture that really matters.
HMP Isis: short of half its staff
Each new paragraph of the report seems to expose some new horror or fiasco such as HMP Isis being short of almost half its officers due to 26 unfilled vacancies and another 27 members of staff off work for various reasons.

As the Justice Committee observed:
We believe that the key explanatory factor for the obvious deterioration in standards over the last year is that a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes.

Moreover, the report correctly points out that:
Having fewer prison officers can tip the power balance, leading to less safety and more intimidation and violence on wings. Interim measures such as restricted regimes and the national detached duty scheme have been adopted as a necessary means of minimising the risks of operating with insufficient staff, but these measures themselves have an adverse impact on the ability of the prison system to achieve rehabilitation and reduce reoffending.

In other words, the taxpayer is essentially being ripped off by the MOJ. Not that that seems to worry Mr Grayling a fig, since the report notes: “The Ministry’s inability to provide us with fully worked out costings of its reforms is a recurring issue for us.”

It appears that no-one down in Petty France really knows – or seems to care – how much the current prisons crisis is actually costing us. Certainly, to the evident frustration of members of the Justice Committee, if anyone does know they aren’t saying.
Terrible crimes down in Arkansas
The title of this blog post is borrowed from the book of the same name written by US prison reformer – and one-time warden of Arkansas state prisons – Tom Murton. I first read this hard-hitting exposé of the murder, torture and corruption that Dr Murton uncovered when he was appointed as warden in 1967 back in the early 1980s when I was still a student. The book made a significant impression on me and this is probably one of the reasons I was interested in penal reform long before I spent time in British prisons myself.

One of the reasons that the Arkansas prison scandal was permitted to happen was the failure of the state to properly fund its own prison system. With too few staff to actually run these sprawling farming establishments, wardens before Dr Murton were forced to rely on inmate ‘trustees’ – who were armed and empowered to dish out whippings and other forms of torture, including electrocuting their fellow inmates’ genitals if the fancy took them. Some prisoners were murdered and buried in anonymous plots out in the fields with no questions asked.

Rape and other forms of sexual exploitation were commonplace, as was corruption at every level from the warden down to the prisoners’ barracks. Everything had a price. Massive financial kickbacks were paid and ordinary inmates were used as slave labour by neighbouring farms and businesses.

The reason that Dr Murton used the title for his book was that these abuses – up to and including rape, torture and murder – were only possible with the collaboration of the state (sometimes active, at other times passive). Politicians, bureaucrats and local businesses had all played roles in encouraging the establishment of a prison system built on criminality and corruption. They were all “accomplices to the crime”, even though few of them were ever brought to justice.

Because he refused to cover up the terrible abuses he discovered Dr Murton was eventually dismissed and driven out of the US penal system. He ended up as a university academic and duck farmer, dying of cancer in 1990.
Dr Tom Murton: wouldn't cover up
I believe that many of the abuses that are taking place daily in our prisons – including widespread drug use, as well as a marked increase in sexual exploitation, bullying, self-harm, suicide and violence – are the direct results of frontline staff shortages, inadequate resourcing and serious overcrowding. At what point will this become a form of corporate negligence? And, if so, who – if anyone – will be held to account?

We may not have reached anything like the depths of depravity in our prisons that Dr Murton discovered when he took on the role of warden in Arkansas, but I fear that we are well on the way, particularly in respect of the casual manner in which Mr Grayling dismisses suicides of prisoners as a statistical “blip” and blocks independent research into prison rape and sexual assaults. He sounds more like the chair of the Arkansas Prison Board dismissing the deaths of inmates as a matter of no importance than a UK Justice Secretary. From such attitudes are monsters made.

We would do well to heed Lord Woolf’s warnings, as well as consider carefully the latest findings of the Justice Committee. Our prisons are heading for disaster and it gives no confidence when Mr Selous claims that: “Our modernisation programme has created an estate fit for purpose, and saved the taxpayer millions of pounds.” But what is that purpose? And why will no-one at the MOJ reveal the full costs – and what is the price of the rising loss of human life?