12 June 2018

Britain’s prisons are a national disgrace


Last night ITV ran a documentary with the title Prisons uncovered: out of control? By the end of 60 harrowing minutes, it was clear the question mark was redundant.

This collapse of order and civility was baked into the system by “criminally stupid” staff cuts mandated by a misapplication of austerity. I use the term advisedly. Given the truly shocking rates of violence and self-harm, it’s surely possible that the long shadow of gross negligence manslaughter extends to senior officials and perhaps even ministers who have presided over the collapse of almost every metric of decency, safety and order in our feral penal system since 2010.

A toxic corporate culture at the top of the prison service enabled swingeing staff cuts to be shoved through in the face of entirely predictable consequences and opposition from almost every quarter at the front line. We haven’t had the full story about whether and what impact assessments were provided by senior officials to ministers who surely must have known the chaos likely to ensue by removing almost a third of the workforce from the landings without any real reduction in prisoner numbers. The awful truth is that it will probably take the murder of a prison officer on duty to reveal the full scale of this collusive disaster.

Chief Inspectors of Prisons past and present spoke wearily to camera about the entirely foreseeable impact of these staff cuts – described in depressing detail in visit after visit across the prison estate. Nick Hardwick, recently removed from his post as Parole Board Chair, was particularly stark, saying that there was a “price in blood” being paid for the strategy. He’s surely right.

The inspectorate canary sings merrily away in the face of indifference and sometimes downright hostility from the corporate machine. Dozens and dozens of inspection report recommendations, designed to force up standards of decency and safety, gather dust on the governors’ shelves with no real consequence for leaving them there. The best our superb current Chief Inspector, Peter Clarke, can hope for is sullen compliance on some cherry-picked suggestions. This watchdog does have teeth, but it’s fatally muzzled by bureaucracy and a lack of real power to insist on improvement.

This has to end. While many of the problems of our prison system stem from ruinous staff cuts, that’s not the whole picture. A secretive, defensive and incompetent corporate culture in the headquarters of the prison service also plays a part.

I witnessed this at first hand two years ago while leading an inquiry into the threat posed by Islamist extremism. Sir Humpreys harrumphed at my temerity to ask awkward questions about their response to the threat. I was briefed against and my team was stonewalled by Mandarins more concerned about their personal exposure than a serious front line threat they appeared to know little about. I confronted a lethal combination of arrogance and ineptitude.

Little seems to have changed in the intervening period. Ministers still rely on this discredited machine to brief them about what is happening across a prison system beset with difficulties. The merry-go-round of senior position appointments can mean that governors who have presided over poor inspections are promoted to line managing their successors for the follow up. There is virtually no accountability in this ‘closed shop’ with many questions being asked by governors in the field about a recruitment and selection process which seems to reward incompetence and favour ‘yes men and women.’

Accountability is the engine of improvement. We need to revolutionise how standards are created and enforced throughout our prison system. Instead of fatuous reams of policy documents obsessed with dodging blame and generated by a centre remote from reality, we need externally designed prison standards which are subject to legal enforcement by a revamped inspectorate that can inspect – and investigate — any part of the prison administration, not just individual jails as is currently the case.

Those standards would be designed as outcome indicators giving the maximum autonomy for prison governors to vary their response according to individual circumstances. Some, including in particular minimum staffing levels, would need to be specific to ensure that there are sufficient and suitable prison officers available to run a full and safe regime. These powers could be vested in a new and wholly independent regulator along the lines of Ofsted. Improvement and enforcement action would sit side by side in a body which would report directly to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee which has shown itself more than capable of providing scrutiny and oversight but, like the current inspectorate arrangements, can only advise, not insist.

While we are at it, let’s ensure that local and resettlement prisons that discharge the vast majority of offenders into the community (in many cases worse than they went in) have genuine local accountability removed from the dead hand of ineffectual Westminster interference. These prisons ought to report to local boards chaired by the Policing and Crime Commissioner with membership to include at least one ex-offender. Governors are crying out for the stability, leadership and resources they have been starved of for far too long.

We need to get politicians and bureaucrats out of prison policy and practice as far as is practical. I think this is something the impressive new prisons minister Rory Stewart would instinctively agree with. Relentless interference, wonkery, managerialism, populism and half-baked organisational remodels have left an exhausted husk of a once proud uniformed service presiding fearfully over an offender population hooked on drugs, despair, brutality and indolence. The hidden nature of prisons has protected those responsible for this mess for too long. We have to find a way to restore order and hope on the prison landings, leaving the right experts alone to inspire and lead their workforces in the vital task of secure, decent punishment and rehabilitation. In return the taxpayer – the corporate victim in this awful crime — should demand accountability.

Ian Acheson led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, in 2016.