NIGEL NEWCOMEN WRONG MAN FOR PRISONS OMBUDSMAN

EDITORIAL OF THE PRISONS HANDBOOK 2013 – publishED TODAY

Before saying anything about the PPO’s office  and its seemingly dangerous decline, it is  crucial to first recall the horrors from whence it  came, and which caused it to open its doors for  business in 1994.  It was during April 1990 that thousands of angry  young men seized control of prisons around the  country, with many of them subsequently taking to  the prison roof-tops where they raised anguished  voices in guttural cries of despair – ‘enough’ they  screamed was ‘enough’.

In truth the seeds for the riots were sown many  years before the events themselves actually kicked  off inside the Chapel of Manchester’s Strangeways  Prison on Sunday 1st April 1990.  Prisoners described the riots as a genuine protest  against inhumane Victorian prison conditions  which saw them in overcrowded cells having to  defecate and urinate in a pot and live with it and its  stench for up to 16 hours a day – every day; where  time of out cell averaged just 11 hours a week;  where violence from prison staff was endemic;  where health care was provided by second-rate  medical doctors who conspired in the delivery of a  second-rate service while being assisted by ‘Prison  Hospital Officers’ who dished out drugs as a means  of control with just 13 weeks ‘extended first aid’  training; where suicide and self harm were at  record levels, and where the complaints procedure  was not only completely ineffective but it was also  practically non-existent – no-one ever listened,  complaints were never upheld, and justice was  never done.

The ‘Strangeways riot’ on 1st August 1990 caused  a number of protests at prisons across England,  Scotland and Wales. Approximately 100 remand  prisoners at HM Prison Hull staged a sit-down  protest in the exercise yard on 1 April, after hearing  about the Strangeways riot on the radio.  Disturbances occurred the same day at HM Prisons  Gartree, Kirkham and Rochester, and there were  minor disturbances at HM Prisons Lindholme, Low  Newton and Bedford on 2 April. HM Prisons  Durham, Winchester and Wandsworth erupted on 4  April, and HM Young Offenders Institute Glen Parva  followed on 6 April.

The weekend of 7 April and 8  April saw increasing protests across the prison  system.  At HM Prison Leeds there was a sit-down protest  after the arrival of over 100 prisoners who had been  transferred from Strangeways. At HM Prison  Dartmoor, between 100 and 120 prisoners wrecked  D wing of the prison, and 12 prisoners also  protested on the roof of C wing unfurling a banner  that read “Strangeways, we are with you”. Thirty two  prisoners from Dartmoor were transferred to  HM Prison Bristol, where there was another major  protest following their arrival. Up to 400 prisoners  took over three wings of the prison, and held  control of them for two days. 130 prisoners at HM  Prison Cardiff destroyed cells, a twenty-hour  rooftop protest took place at HM Prison Stoke  Heath, and disturbances occurred at HM Prison  Brixton, HM Prison Pentonville, HM Prison Stafford  and HM Prison Shepton Mallet. A second protest  took place at HM Prison Hull, where 110 prisoners  staged a sit-down protest in the exercise yard.  Prisoners smashed windows at HM Prison Verne  on 9 April, and 40 prisoners held a prison officer  hostage for twenty-four hours after taking over a  hall at HM Prison Shotts on 10 April. On 12 April,  two teenage remand prisoners at HM Prison  Swansea barricaded themselves into their cell for  seventeen hours, and on 22 April between 80 and  100 remand prisoners staged an eighteen-hour  rooftop protest at HM Prison Pucklechurch – now  rebuilt as HMP Ashfield.

By the time it was all over 25 days later two people  were dead, many hundreds had been injured, 51  criminal trials were to take place, and the tax-payer  was handed a repair bill of £90m – and anyone who  could talk and walk upright pledged it must never  happen again.  One of the very clear lessons that came out of the  Woolf Report published subsequently was that we  as a society ignore the complaints of prisoners at  our peril. Lord Bridge of Harwich giving judgement  in the House of Lords in a prisoner’s appeal said  “Nothing I believe is so likely to generate unrest  among ordinary prisoners as a sense that they  have been treated unfairly and have no effective  means of redress.”

Therefore central to the Woof Report  recommendations was the dire need for a truly  independent Prisons Ombudsman who could  independently investigate prisoners’ complaints  and it was a recommendation that the then Home  Office accepted by appointing Vice-Admiral Sir  Peter Woodhead to the post in 1994 – he was the  former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander  (Atlantic) to NATO and a man who took his  independence seriously – such that two years later  he threatened to resign unless the then Home  Secretary Michael Howard stopped telling him what  he could and could not investigate.

Woodhead remained as Ombudsman until he  retired in 1999 when he was succeeded by  Stephen Shaw the then Director of the Prison  Reform Trust and a man as independent of the  Prison Service as his predecessor had been. Shaw  held the reigns until September 2011 when  (lamentably in my view) Nigel Newcomen was  appointed. Newcomen, a former 20-year veteran  with the Prison Service, holding the rank of  Assistant Director there, has been dogged by  criticism that his former employment leaves him  with questionable independence – a criticism not  reduced by eight years spent as Deputy Chief  Inspector of Prisons – but it is a criticism which will  not go away and risks damaging the importance of  the Office itself.

To be fair the Office of Ombudsman  was in decline before Nigel Newcomen was  appointed to the post by the then Justice Secretary  Ken Clarke, who didn’t help matters by issuing a  press release naming Newcomen as his ‘preferred  candidate’ for Ombudsman – a normal procedure it  seems in Whitehall but one which is seen as the  kiss of death to true independence especially when  it comes from the Justice Secretary who oversees  the Prison Service that Newcomen is required to  independently investigate.

While Newcomen’s background has not helped,  neither too have the increasing responsibilities that  his Office has had to absorb – and with decreasing  resources available with which to discharge them.  The Ombudsman investigates complaints by  prisoners who have failed to obtain satisfaction  from the prison complaints system; by offenders  who are, or have been, under probation  supervision, or accommodated in Approved  Premises, or who have had reports prepared on  them by NOMS; and immigration detainees who  have failed to obtain satisfaction from the UKBA  complaints system.  Additionally he is required to investigate all deaths  in custody. In these times of austerity the  Ombudsman like everyone else has had to deal  with what he called “considerable efficiencies” in  his 2011-12 annual report.

“My budget allocation reduced by 7% this year”  write Newcomen “and it has been indicated that it  will reduce overall by some 21% between 2010–11  and 2014–15.  “This is entirely to be expected but my office’s work  is demand-led and this demand continues to grow:  2011–12 saw a sharp increase in the number of  deaths we were required to investigate and there  was no let up in the number of complaints.”

But it is not just his previous two-decade senior  employment within the very Prison Service that he  is required to investigate, nor the increase in  complaints or the dwindling resources, that have  caused him problems; Newcomen has also had to  answer for some spectacular own goals scored by  his Office before he arrived – and a couple he has  been responsible for scoring himself once he had  his feet under the desk.  In June 2012 the Parliamentary Commissioner for  Administration (PCA) found the PPO guilty of  maladministration in respect of the investigation the  PPO’s Office conducted back in 2009 into claims of  an assault on prisoner Kevan Thakrar in HMP  Woodhill by Prison Officers.

Bearing in mind that the Office of Ombudsman was  created as the result of claims by prisoners that  they were assaulted by prison officers, claims  which were not properly investigated at the time,  there is no more serious a finding of guilt against an  alleged independent Prisons Ombudsman than  that they do not take such issues seriously, or that  they misled the complainant about what they were  doing to investigate such claims – both of which the  PPO was guilty of in the case of Kevan Thakrar.

Mr Thakrar complained that the Prisons and  Probation Ombudsman failed to carry out an  adequate investigation of his complaint and the  PCA upheld that complaint finding that the PPO’s  handling of Mr Thakrar’s complaint amounted to  maladministration. Significantly, though this finding  of maladministration was issued by the PCA in  June 2012 no mention of it has ever appeared on  the PPO web site, indeed it was only in August  2012 when I confronted Nigel Newcomen about it  that he made any form of official response to it at all  – an attempt which looked strangely like an attempt  at concealment which has further damaged his  Office and the alleged independence which goes to  the very core of its functions.

Deaths in Custody have been subject to  investigation by the PPO since 2004, but these too  have fallen into disrepute. Frequently, due to  inquests, the PPOs investigatory report into a death  in custody is not published until years after the  death took place – in one case in 2012 a fatal  incident report was published seven years after the  death to which it referred took place – and this is not  a token exception by any means, indeed it is  becoming increasing frequent.  But it is not only delay that causes criticism of  deaths in custody when it comes to investigations  by the PPO, there have been examples where  Coroners themselves have written to the PPO  complaining that the investigation into the death in  custody carried out by the PPO bore no  resemblance to the factual events which actually  took place leading up to the death itself – two such  criticisms were made in the last year alone, leading  to the criticism that it is not only assaults by prison  staff on prisoners the PPO is not taking seriously  but also deaths of prisoners in custody themselves.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission  (IPCC) is currently being investigated by the Home  Affairs Select Committee because of allegations  that too many of its investigators are former police  officers – while Nigel Newcomen acknowledges  that his office employs investigators who are (like  himself) former Prison Service staff he categorically  refuses to disclose their numbers.  And it is not just transparency about former Prison  Service staff employed as investigators which Nigel  Newcomen refuses to disclose, when in 2012  criticism was made of Althea Clarke-Ramsey, an  investigator for the PPO, and Assistant  Ombudsman Nick Woodhead, who were  seemingly guilty of second-rate and shoddy  investigations decisions in respect of which the  Ombudsman himself had to reverse, Newcomen  responded not by saying such shoddy  investigations would not take place again but  instead by ordering that in future the  names of investigators would be physically  removed from all investigation reports issued to  prisoners who had complained to him – a decision  that smacks of a lack of openness and  transparency which should be an anathema to any  truly independent Ombudsman.

Let me be absolutely clear, Nigel Newcomen in my  view is not the man for the job of Prisons and  Probation Ombudsman, his 20- year background  as a former Assistant Director at the Prison Service  leaves him with a seriously questionable  perception of true independence – can you imagine  the criticism there would be if the head of the  Independent Police Complaints Commission was a  former Assistant Chief Constable? There is no  difference between that scenario, and what we are  dealing with factually here in the case of Nigel  Newcomen.

Be that as it may I also have to accept the fact that  like it or not Newcomen is all that we have got as  PPO and for the next four years he is likely to be all  that we do get – so the real focus must be on  supporting him to deliver the vitally important  independent service his Office was created to  discharge.  For that reason it is vital that his Office must be  placed immediately on a statutory footing to protect  his independence – more so for the sake of those  who follow him in the future rather than Newcomen  himself. Creating a Statutory basis for his office  should not be difficult or even contentious – the  promise of this “when Parliamentary time permits”  has been put in writing by Ministers several times,  but never delivered.

The Office of PPO must be open and fully  transparent, how many former Prison Service staff  are employed there as investigators or Assistant  Ombudsmen must be disclosed, their names must  be available and not concealed – and where  criticisms of the PPO are made by the PCA in future  they should be taken ‘on the chin’ addressed,  acknowledged and publicly responded to. His  office must be properly resourced in terms of  personnel and adequately financed to discharge  the plethora of vital tasks it is asked to deliver.

Never again must a person with an employment  history associated with an organisation they are  required to independently investigate be appointed  to the post of an independent Ombudsman – and  never again must we allow the £90m disaster of the  Strangeways Riots to become the lesson that we  failed to heed.

NI CELL DEATH GOVERNOR SUSPENDED

The governor of a young offenders and women’s prison in Northern Ireland has been suspended.

Gary Alcock was temporarily removed from his post following concerns raised about the regime at Hydebank Wood in south Belfast by the region’s prisoner ombudsman.

It is understood the issues identified by Pauline McCabe relate to her investigation into the death of a female prisoner who killed herself in custody last year.

Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) director general Colin McConnell took the decision to suspend Mr Alcock – a move described by the NIPS as “precautionary”.

An independent investigation will be conducted into the issues raised by Mrs McCabe.

A spokeswoman for the Prison Service said Mr McConnell was in discussions with the National Offender Management Service and the Scottish Prison Service to identify an individual to take forward the probe.

She said an interim senior governor had already filled Mr Alcock’s position.

“The director general has written to the prisoner ombudsman setting out the steps he has taken following the allegations,” she added.

“It is anticipated that the investigation will take weeks to complete and the Prison Service will not be commenting while the investigation is ongoing.”

 

REPORTS INTO DEATHS IN CUSTODY

Set out below are Fatal Incident Reports just issued by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) who is required to investigate all deaths in custody.

Although the Ombudsman can only report on a death in custody after an Inquest has taken place, his reports have come in for constant criticism.

Mark Leech editor of the national newspaper for prisoners, Converse, said:

“In all honesty what on earth is the use of these reports?

“They do not name the prisoner concerned, despite the fact the inquest will have done so and the death is usually the subject of a press release from the Ministry of Justice at the time it occurs – why not name names?

“Also of more concern is that some of the deaths they relate to and which the PPO is only now reporting on, took place up to seven years ago in 2005; it has to be asked what possible use can these reports fulfil after such a gap of time?

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Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Update

26th Mar – 30th Mar Feb 2012

Welcome to the PPO Update; a quick and easy way to access the latest reports, publications and announcements from our office. The links below will enable you to access further information about the items.

 

The PPO recently published five Fatal Incident reports;

Investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of a man at HMP Full Sutton in July 2010*

This is the report of the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of a man in July 2010 at HMP Full Sutton. He was found at about 6.40am, during a routine check. He had a ligature made from a shoelace around his neck which was attached to the window bars. He was 41 years old when he died.

http://www.ppo.gov.uk/docs/052-10-Death-of-a-male-prisoner.pdf

 

Investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of a man in July 2010 whilst in the custody of HMP Hewell*

This is the report of an investigation into the death of a prisoner at HMP Hewell who died on 9 July 2010. In March 2010, the man attempted to take his own life by tying a ligature to the bars of his landing. He was subsequently placed on the prison’s self-harm monitoring and support procedures. Although they were closed when the risk reduced, staff re-introduced them just over six weeks later, on 22 June, when the risk increased again. The procedures were still in place when, on 9 July, the man was found in his cell. He was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. He was 46 years old.

http://www.ppo.gov.uk/docs/058-10-Death-of-a-male-prisoner.pdf

 

Investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of a man at HMP & YOI Parc in March 2006*

This is the report of an investigation into the death of a man at HM Prison and Young Offender Institution Parc in March 2006. The man was found dead in his cell. He had been remanded into custody awaiting sentence for various offences. He was 44 years of age.

http://www.ppo.gov.uk/docs/195.06-Death-of-a-male-prisoner.pdf

 

Investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of a man at HMP Parc in May 2005*

This report concerns the circumstances surrounding the death of a man at HMP and YOI Parc on 30 May 2005. The man was a 32 year old single man, born and brought up in South Wales. He was serving a four year sentence for drug offences. The man was found dead in his cell on Bank Holiday Monday, 30 May. Resuscitation was attempted by the prison nurses but the paramedics declared life extinct when they attended.

http://www.ppo.gov.uk/docs/024.05-Death-of-a-male-prisoner.pdf

Investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of a man at HMP Bullingdon in January 2009*

This is the report of an investigation into the death of a man at HMP Bullingdon. He was found in his cell in the early hours of the morning of 9 January 2009, having made cuts to his neck with a razor blade. At the time of his death he was in the midst of his trial at Crown Court for the alleged murder of his wife. He was 49 years old.

http://www.ppo.gov.uk/docs/152.09-Death-of-a-male-prisoner.pdf

 

Investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of a man at HMP Liverpool in February 2010*

This report considers the circumstances surrounding the death of a man at HMP Liverpool in February 2010. He was found in his cell around 5.20am. He was 53 years old.

http://www.ppo.gov.uk/docs/169.10-Death-of-a-male-prisoner.pdf

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