The shocking real world true story of life behind today’s prison gates

By Mark Leech

This is a brutally honest account of life on the other side of the prison gate – it comes from a senior manager, working in a prison today where the majority of prisoners are serving long term sentences; this person has been in the Prison Service for over 20 years, and I have known them personally for more than a decade.

Here is what he, or she, thinks of life on the landings, and of the Prison Officers Association too.

Be prepared for a brutally honest account.

I have four new officers on First improvement warnings for sickness, they are all still in their Probationary period and with work-related stress being the main factor.

One of them has childhood mental health issues, he actually has his own mental health team, and he can’t cope.

Another has bouts of anxiety and depression.

A third has just had a wobble and doesn’t look like he will survive.

And a fourth who is always crying.

We may be getting bums on seats, unfortunately they’re not the right bums.

My staff go sick at the drop of a hat.

Instructors are told to get them through whatever…..

Our biggest issue outside of self-harm and violence is staff related issues with NEW staff.. in my opinion less than 10% of staff are good, sadly the rest are in it just for a job.

We need to bring back Boards, where potential staff are interviewed on their suitability – let me say, many are NOT suitable and we spend too much time dealing with staff issues.

I’m pretty fortunate, my reputation gives me a degree of flexibility in terms of how I have managed my staff, they respect me, because I don’t sugar coat issues, I don’t blow smoke up their asses either.

I tell them every day what I expect, I give them SMART objectives, they get them done.

To be fair, when I’m not the Orderly Officer, I’m on my wing, I have an open-door policy and both staff and residents are continually in and out. I am everything that I disliked about my PO/CM when I was an officer.

The residents like it, I tend to sort out more issues, my staff like it because I take the pressure off them and I will stand on the landings and talk with the lads and in some cases the girls too, but unfortunately experience is very rare.

In time they will get experience, but sadly we don’t have that time.

You can’t blame the Governors; they’re doing a job with one arm and leg tied behind their backs.

As for the Prison Officers Association, I have been a member of the POA for over 20 years, the current National Chairman, Fairhurst is a pr..k, he won’t answer, he’s weak.

I’ve called him out a couple of times, he doesn’t return… just like that sanctimonious pr..k Gillan…those two are going to do what the Tories and even Labour have failed to do over the years…bring the POA down.

The POA Membership is getting less as a result of the Corbyn issue, it seems that without a POA Membership vote they have apparently given Corbyn £30,000 of the Union’s money for his war chest..

All is clearly not well inside our prisons.

Getting more staff on the landings is vital – but nowhere near as important as getting the right staff on the landings and the evidence of this senior manager is that this is simply not happening.

In April 2017 when the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was subject to yet another reorganisation and morphed into what is today HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), one of the consequences was that it lost control of prison officer recruitment – which was passed to the Ministry of Justice.

I have never understood the logic behind it and the consequences of it are that we are today clearly locked in a desperate scramble to get the number of officers on the landings back to where they should be; but this cannot simply be a numerical issue.

It has to be the right people, selected for the right reasons, capable of doing an extremely difficult job in the right way – HMPPS today has the task of training Prison Officers, surely they should be the ones who select those people in the first place?

As for the Prison Officers Association, it is true to say I have been a critic of this organisation for many years. Prior to the opening of the first private prison in 1992, POA entrenched industrial practices developed over decades meant that prison governors where held in an industrial headlock by the POA – forbidden from introducing any changes unless the local branch of the POA first agreed; the tail was wagging the dog.

If the local branch of the POA disagreed with a reform a prison governor wanted to introduce they entered what was called a Failure To Agree process, a series of negotiations that could go on for years, and often did.

Prior to 1992 prisons were run for the benefit of prison staff, not for prisoners or the public who paid for them. Many prisoners were locked up 23 hours a day, in appalling Dickensian conditions where many were subject to abuse and violence from prison officers.

Many officers were racist, openly displaying National Front lapel badges.

Some prisons at this time – 1990 – had their own social clubs, usually just outside the main prison gate, which served alcohol at lunchtime with the result some staff went back on duty in the afternoon having been drinking and creating a danger to themselves, their judgment and everyone else – and there was little the Governor could do about it.

If you are interested in what our prisons were really like just a couple of years before the first private prison opened in the UK watch this documentary.

When privatisation came along in 1992 finally those in charge in private prisons were freed from the industrial POA headlock. The union representing private sector prison officers signed no strike agreements, where their industrial issues were settled by discussing things like adults around a table.

It incensed the POA who staged walk outs and took strike action – in effect they cut their own throats.

Prison officers were then banned from striking under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Under Section 127 of the Act it is an offence for any prison officer to take, continue to take, or be induced by others to take,  any industrial action or to commit a breach of discipline.

Following the election of a Labour Government in 1997 this law was temporarily replaced in 2000 by a voluntary agreement between the government and the POA, which ruled out strike action as a way of solving disputes – but the POA failed to keep to their word.

After a “protest meeting” in 2006, the government responded by re-enacting the 1994 Act and legally banned strikes again at the High Court.

The High Court clarified in 2017 the effect of section 127, which the court said meant that POA members cannot withhold their “services as a prison officer”, or take any action that would be “likely to put at risk the safety of any person”.

This included withdrawal from what were voluntary services – like the provision of first aid and the taking of assessments to determine whether prisoners are at risk of suicide or self-harm – in addition to their contractual obligations; POA industrial action of any kind had been neutered – and it only had itself to blame.

The POA is a union locked in industrial practices that are 40 years out of date, they behave in many respects like the British Leyland Shop Stewards of the 1970s, believing, wrongly, that they are in some way a layer of prison management – which they are not and must never be.

The mentality of the POA is to criticise everything that the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS does, to see nothing good in any kind of reform for prisons, and many POA officials have all the negotiating skills of a brick wall.

Technically the POA represent the vast majority of prison staff – but in practice the only reason prison officers join the POA is for the legal cover it provides them with in cases of injury or disciplinary conduct hearings.

When it comes to the POA membership having faith in elected POA officials, the union’s pathetic election results speak for themselves.

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The results of the most recent POA Election of Union Officials in 2017 makes the point starkly.

In June 2017 the POA sent out 25,529 ballot papers to its Members to Elect a National Chairman and NEC officials – less than 10 percent of these ballot papers were even returned; 2,225 to be exact or just 8.7% – and of those, almost 200 ballot papers were spoilt – an effective way for even the 8.7% of POA Members who voted making the point they believed in none of those who were standing for office.

Mark Fairhurst was elected as National Chairman by just four percent (4%) of POA Members – FOUR PER CENT.

Put another way, Ninety Six percent (96%) of POA Members eligible to vote did NOT vote for him – yet he is their National Chairman – paid for by you and me, the taxpayer, who funds his salary as a Prison Officer despite the fact that half the time he doesn’t work as one at all.

I believe in trade unions, I fully support what they do, the vital functions they discharge and their right to represent their members – what I object to is that in the case of the POA it is the taxpayer who pays 100% of the salaries of POA union officials – yet gives them 50% time off from being the prison officers they are paid to be.

If they work half the time for their members, then it is their members who, deriving the benefits of their union work, that should pay half their salary.

The public deserves value for its money, and it simply isn’t getting it when we pay people to do a full time job but who only work half the time.

The POA are the first to claim that the chaos in our prison system has been caused by the loss of 7,000 experienced frontline prison officers, who were given generous voluntary redundancy packages – known as VEDS – in 2013/14.

What they are less keen to admit to is that it was themselves who did not object to the loss of these officers at the time – they did not ask their Members to vote on VEDS, they sought no mandate from them as to whether they should support or oppose these brutal staff cuts, quietly they went along with it – and the chaos we have today is the result.

In 2018 Phil Wheatley, the former Director General of the Prison Service explained it like this:

At this time the only way of making the required expenditure cuts, now that reducing the prison population was off the political agenda, was by reducing both the numbers of prison staff, at all levels – and also their cost.
The POA did not, as might have been expected, oppose this; lured by a promise that market-testing prisons would be abandoned and that generous early retirement terms would be offered to existing staff.

When I asked Mark Fairhurst, the POA National Chairman, in September 2018, why the POA had not opposed these disastrous staffing cuts, given the chaos that had resulted and which they surely must have seen coming a mile off he admitted the POA had whimpishly caved in, sacrificing the safety of their members on their altar of anti-privatisation.

“We had no choice” he wrote. “There was a gun to our heads.
“Accept it or go through wholesale market testing leading to a majority of private prisons.”

So there we have it – the POA were prepared to risk absolute chaos in our prisons,  where prison staff (their members) would be massively outnumbered, subject to increasing levels of assaults and all because the POA did not want to compete with private prisons.

And its not only their agreement to staff cuts that the POA seek to conceal, it is when their members are convicted in criminal courts of corruption that they remain tight-lipped too.

The POA refuses to issue any press statement condemning any prison officer convicted of corruption – whether it is bringing in drugs, mobile phones or knives, engaging in illicit sexual affairs with prisoners, stealing prisoners’  property, or forging documents that conceal the truth about deaths in custody – and there have been convictions of prison officers for each of these things – they say nothing.

On the other hand, when staff are assaulted by prisoners who are then rightly convicted and punished by the courts – the POA screams from the rooftops.

I don’t blame them for that, I condemn assaults on prison staff publicly too – but all I ask for is some degree of balance; you can’t condemn a prisoner for assaulting an officer on one hand, and yet say nothing at all when five prison officers are jailed for physical assaults on prisoners.

But that is what they do.

And it isn’t just that they are silent when prison officers are convicted of attacking prisoners either – the POA remain silent and complicit when prison officers attack other prison officers too.

The recent shameful case of Prison Officer Ben Plaistow, who suffered a year long series of homophobic assaults and humiliation by fellow prison officers and who recently won a damning case before an Employment Tribunal – he too has been totally ignored by the POA.

The vast majority of prison officers are decent, professional, hard-working honest people, doing a job I personally would not do for a £100K a year.

They each deserve the public’s support, they all deserve the public’s appreciation, but most importantly they all deserve professional industrial representation by a trade union that believes in decency and respect for everyone.

They deserve a trade union that isn’t constantly banging the table issuing  demands, holding out the prospect of unrest by taking prisoners hostage with threats of illegal strike action in order to force industrial concessions.

They deserve a trade union that recognises those tactics achieve nothing at all for anyone; least of all their increasingly demoralised membership whose refusal to vote for union officials in their tens of thousands, should ring POA alarm bells like nothing else ever could.

Rehabilitation of Offenders Act – Other than in the most serious cases Rehabilitation Periods to be extended for those sentenced to more than four years

Some former prisoners who were sentenced to more than four years will no longer have to tell employers after a certain amount of time has passed – some experts point out though there are serious issues with it.

It is hoped the reforms will “break barriers” to employment faced by ex-offenders who want to turn their lives around.

The new legislation, which changes what must be disclosed to employers, will not apply where offences attract the most serious sentences, including life, or for serious sexual, violent and terrorism offences, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said.

In addition to the rule change for sentences of more than four years, the period of time for which shorter sentences and community sentences have to be revealed to employers will be scaled back.

The MoJ said the exact length of these “rehabilitation periods” will be determined following discussions with stakeholders.

Currently, where a sentence of more than four years is passed, crimes committed decades earlier, including those committed as a child, must be disclosed to employers for the remainder of the offender’s life.

The reforms will only apply to non-sensitive roles, with separate and stricter rules for those working with children or vulnerable adults, as well as national security roles or positions of public trust.

Justice Secretary David Gauke said: “The responsibility, structure and support provided by regular work is an essential component of effective rehabilitation, something which benefits us all by reducing reoffending and cutting the cost of crime.

“That’s why we are introducing reforms to break barriers faced by ex-offenders who genuinely want to turn their lives around through employment.

“While these reforms will help remove the stigma of convictions, we will never compromise public safety.

“That is why separate and more stringent rules will continue to apply for sensitive roles, including those which involve working with children and vulnerable adults.”

Penelope Gibbs, chairwoman of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said: “Currently anyone convicted of shop-lifting twice aged 12 must disclose that when applying to be a traffic warden aged 55.

“Such laws prevent people moving on in their lives. We welcome the Government’s proposal to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

“This will help people get employment, but will not wipe the slate clean. Shortening rehabilitation periods should be a first step in reform of whole criminal records disclosure system.

“This has the potential to be of enormous benefit, but there are real issues with it” said Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales.

“While it should mean that finally, almost 25 years after I left prison, I will be able to turn the page and leave my past behind, what about online reports?

“The issue is how we prevent ‘spent’ convictions from popping up in online news reports in perpetuity?

“Unless we can resolve that, then largely the benefits of this will become trumped by technology.”

Prison Reform isn’t helped when lazy journalism meets an outdated Trade Union

By Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales.

“Inmates to be handed cell keys” – the headline to Richard Ford’s article in The Times today on the new Incentives policy framework for prisons issued by the Ministry of Justice yesterday, stretches disingenuousness to the very edge of dishonesty.

Let’s cut straight to the chase: prisoners are not ‘handed cell keys’.

Prisoners will be issued with keys to a ‘privacy lock’; a lock that is physically separate to the central cell door lock and one which, in any event, prison staff have master keys that can override the prisoners’ privacy lock at all times.

Another basic but vital point missed completely by Richard Ford’s lamentable article is this: prisoners can use the privacy keys to get into their cells – but there is no keyhole on the inside of the cell door by which they can use their privacy keys to get out.

An important and simple enough point to grasp – but one that was either unrecognised or ignored by Richard Ford.

Another important point is that last year over a million pounds of public money was paid out in compensation for lost and stolen prisoners’ property, where cells doors negligently left open by prison officers while prisoners were not present, allowed other prisoners access to steal the belongings of fellow inmates – yes, shocking isn’t it: there are thieves in our prisons.

Richard Ford’s article is an example of the worst kind of warped reporting that one doesn’t expect from The Times but which has become all too common; lazy journalists who can’t be bothered to ascertain the real facts much less report them.

The new Incentives Policy Framework, which has been a year in the making, is very much to be welcomed – it strikes exactly the right balance between incentive and disincentive.

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It has received widespread praise from all quarters with the notable – and predictable – exception of the Prison Officers Association (POA). The POA’s National Chairman, Mark Fairhurst, describing the revised policy as “a recipe for disaster”.

The POA is a Trade Union that trumpets its support for its Members but in truth the vast majority of prison officers couldn’t care less about it – in reality it actually ‘represents’ very few at all.

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Mark Fairhurst was elected in 2017 – of the 25,529 Members who were sent ballot papers for the Election of National Chairman, just 1,113 voted for him – 4.39%

The POA are a Union  who have little support from its Membership – until they need legal help. Of the 25,529 Ballot Papers sent out just 2,225 were even returned – and of those 189 were either spoilt or left blank – presumably a way of asserting ‘none of the above’.

It is time the POA were challenged, and confronted with the damage they are responsible for, their failure to possess any negotiating skills and the fact that an increasing number of prison officers writing on social media say they are a waste of time.

Our Prison Service has been in meltdown since the loss of 7,000 experienced frontline officers in 2014 – it is a simple but painful fact that the POA agreed to the loss of those 7,000 Officers – who they now constantly blame the Government for when they were themselves responsible for raising not a single objection to any of those officers leaving.

Prison Officers must now retire at the age of 68 – a ridiculous age for any prison officer to still be walking the landings – and yet the POA, with their constant abuse of Government, their ballots to carry out illegal strike action,  their being taken to court and made the subject of injunctions, their demand that their staff stand outside the main prison gate in the pouring rain in a fruitless attempt to change policy that hasn’t worked as a negotiating tactic since mid 1980s – and for which the end result is that those prison officers lose pay – shows what an out of touch, unrepresentative, failed Union they really are.

The POA are rightly quick to make press statements condemning when officers are injured – but despite prison officers being convicted and jailed for corruption, inappropriate relationships with prisoners, violence and abuse against prisoners, fraudulent doctoring of documents, importation of drugs, phones and even knives into prisons, the POA says nothing; refusing to publicly condemn a single one of these corrupt members; complicit by its silence lest they lose even more of the few members they have left.

Today industrial disputes are resolved around a table, not stood outside a prison gate engaged in an illegal battle they can never win. Modern Trade Unions work in partnership with their employers, putting their case forward for change, based on evidence and a desire to work together – not banging the table, demanding change, on the basis of threats and walk-outs; the failure of that as a negotiating tactic is proven by the fact that the POA achieve so little.

Thankfully we are now seeing change in the prison system, a new breed of prison officer is coming through, better educated, better trained, more intelligent and the POA needs to reform itself in the same way, or become less of a effective Trade Union than even they currently are.

HMP Manchester: Some improvements but progress is slow and weak in key areas

HMP Manchester, an important local prison in a major English city, was assessed by inspectors as having made slow and weak progress in many key areas where improvement was urged after a full inspection in 2018.

An Independent Review of Progress (IRP) at Manchester took place in June 2019, 11 months after the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, said the prison needed to “up its game.”

Mr Clarke said: “The response to the 2018 inspection can only be described as too late and too weak. It is true that there were some encouraging outcomes, and most functional heads demonstrated enthusiasm and a commitment to improving their areas. However, we found there had been little or no meaningful progress against two-thirds of our recommendations.”

The prison had recently revised its safety strategy. “Assaults on prisoners had reduced significantly since the full inspection, and we judged there to have been reasonable progress in this area.” Mr Clarke added, though: “If the establishment is to reduce violence further, particularly against staff, the lengthy list of actions aimed at reducing violence should be prioritised.”

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The use of force by staff remained high. “Despite this, there had been no meaningful progress against this recommendation; governance had not improved, staff rarely used their body-worn cameras, with no adequate explanation for this, and too few recorded incidents were scrutinised to provide assurance and institutional learning.”

The prison had made reasonable progress – the second-highest assessment, below good – in efforts to reduce the supply of drugs. Mandatory testing results showed that drug use was relatively low compared with other local prisons.

However, promising work to support prisoners in crisis had started so recently that progress at the time of the IRP visit had to be judged as insufficient. “This was very concerning given that there had been three further self-inflicted deaths since the full inspection in July 2018. It was bewildering to find that actions to prevent deaths in custody simply had not been reviewed until shortly before our visit. Similarly, the introduction of key work and wing peer support had been so slow that we could not yet see sufficient progress in this area.”

The prison had made concerted efforts to tackle the ongoing vermin problem, and some improvements had been made to living conditions.

There was also evidence of reasonable progress in the quality of teaching, learning and assessment, though Ofsted inspectors found that attendance at work and education was not prioritised and too much activity was curtailed. Too few prisoners completed their courses and achievements were not sufficiently good.

Mr Clarke said there had been no meaningful progress in the important areas of equality and diversity or time out of cell. A spot check on one wing found 49% of prisoners locked up during the day.

Mr Clarke said: “HMP Manchester was relatively well resourced and had fewer inexperienced staff than we have found at similar prisons. It was therefore hard to understand why progress had been so slow in many critical areas. Such progress as there had been had only started in the weeks and months immediately leading up to this review visit.

“Without a fundamental shift in attitude towards the findings of HM Inspectorate of Prisons, we had no confidence that there could be significant improvements in the future. At the full inspection we had been told that reconfiguration to a category B training prison was imminent. On this visit… we were told that the target date had been moved to October 2019. It is my considered view that unless the culture of the prison changes, and the need for improvement is taken seriously, it will not be ready for this change.”

Read the Report

HMP BERWYN – A good start for a new prison but some important weaknesses

HMP Berwyn, a large, two-year-old prison near Wrexham, was found in its first inspection to be generally ordered, with good living conditions, but with some key weaknesses.

Notable features from this inspection

  • Only a quarter of the population were Welsh.
  • The prison’s capacity was 2,106 prisoners but it held 1,273.
  • Just over three-quarters of the population were serving four years or more.
  • Almost half of prisoners said drugs were easily available.
  • Three-quarters of officers had been in service for less than two years and about a third for less than a year.
  • All cells had a shower, telephone and laptop computer.
  • Levels of self-harm were low for the type of prison.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that opening a new prison was a big challenge. “The prison opened with a very clear rehabilitative vision which has faced resistance at times. The leadership team are still working hard to find and maintain the right balance between rehabilitation and security, freedom and control, and sanctions and reward.

“Some mistakes have been made and we identify some important weaknesses, but we also acknowledge the great effort that has been made to give this prison a good start. The prison is generally ordered and settled, and… we found Berwyn to be a reasonably respectful place.” There was more to do, though, in the areas of safety, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning.

Though Berwyn is a Welsh prison, about 75% of those held in March 2019 were from England. Around 23% of prisoners felt unsafe at the time of the inspection, a figure comparable with other training prisons. Assaults on prisoners were lower than in similar prisons, but the rate of assaults on staff was higher. There were signs, though, that both were gradually reducing.

Some work was being done to reduce violence but “delivery often lacked drive and needed to be implemented more effectively.” Inspectors found 25 self-isolating prisoners who were completely unsupported. Use of force by staff was higher than in similar prisons and incidents usually involved the full application of restraints. However, oversight was satisfactory.

Drugs had been too readily available, but actions by the prison to reduce drugs supply seemed to have had some impact, and the positive drug testing rate had reduced to 21.49%. This was, however, still too high and supply reduction initiatives required greater coordination and drive. Nearly half of prisoners said it was easy to get drugs and almost one in four said they had developed a drug problem while at the prison.

There had been no self-inflicted deaths since the prison opened and self-harm was comparatively low, but those at risk who inspectors spoke to did not feel well cared for.

Most staff at Berwyn were inexperienced and, though they were doing their best and contributing to a relaxed and positive atmosphere, many prisoners felt frustrated by staff inconsistency and uncertainty. Some poor behaviour went unchallenged.

The quality of accommodation and the general environment were very good, with in-cell showers, telephones and access to amenities.

Mr Clarke said: “The prison had been successful in its aim to make such a large prison feel small. There was a real sense of community in most of the wings.”

Employed prisoners had reasonable time out of cell, though it was much worse for those without employment, who had about two and a half hours a day. Inspectors found 28% of prisoners locked up during the working day, “which for a new training prison was very disappointing.”

One of the greatest challenges facing the prison was the lack of activity places. Mr Clarke said: “It is difficult to understand how and why the procurement of work and training places for a new prison could be so delayed. Facing a rising population and too few activity places, prison managers had created a range of activities and there were sufficient places for the current population, but some were of inadequate quality and lacked challenge. Even those that were available were not fully used. Many prisoners were unemployed or failed to attend, and staff did too little to support a sound work ethic.” Those attending education or vocational training, however, generally received excellent teaching, made useful progress and achieved well.

The prison was struggling to develop its approach to offender management and resettlement. The make-up of the population was not as had been originally envisaged. Many prisoners were serving long sentences and presented a high risk of harm. Too many prisoners did not have an up-to-date assessment of risk.

Offender management caseloads were too high and case management was inconsistent and reactive. Public protection measures were similarly weak and the prison lacked sufficient offending behaviour interventions to meet the needs of the population. Work to resettle prisoners was, however, better.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“We met many managers and staff who were working hard to make a success of this new prison. Senior managers described themselves as ‘being on a journey’ and we saw lots of work, many policies and numerous plans. What was needed was better oversight, better coordination and more sustained delivery. The staff seemed to us to be a strength of the prison, but they needed support in delivering the basics consistently. We thought the prison had made a good start. We were impressed by the energy and optimism we observed and there was clearly the potential to move on rapidly.”

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales described the report as ‘very positive’.

Mr Leech said: “Many people really underestimate what opening a new prison involves, a new establishment, with new processes, new staff, new prisoners – it can so easily go horribly wrong as we have seen in the past.

“This is a very positive report on Berwyn , it has some significant problems ahead, drugs are a major concern like in the majority of prisons, but it has a sound basis from which to move forward and I welcome this report.”

FACTS:

Task of the establishment: A category C training and resettlement establishment holding adult males.

Certified normal accommodation and operational capacity: Prisoners held at the time of inspection: 1,273. Baseline certified normal capacity: 2,106. In-use certified normal capacity: 1,584. Operational capacity: 1,300 (currently capped at this number while awaiting more staffing and provision).

Prison status (public or private) and key providers: Public
Physical health provider: Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
Mental health provider: Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
Substance misuse provider: Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board
Learning and skills provider: Novus Cambria
Community rehabilitation company (CRC): Seetec Justice (Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC)
Escort contractor: GEOAmey
Prison group: North Wales

Brief history
In 2014, permission was granted for a prison to be built in Wrexham, and Berwyn opened on 27 February 2017. Built on a former Firestone Tyre site, Berwyn (when full) is the largest prison in England and Wales and the second largest in Europe.

Short description of residential units.
There are three houses. Alwen, Bala and Ceiriog, each divided into eight communities that can accommodate up to 88 general population residents, including the following. Alwen C Uppers life-sentenced/indeterminate sentence for public protection Alwen D Uppers enhanced life-sentenced Bala B Lowers healthy living Bala C Lowers Glyndŵr: progressive unit Bala D Lowers Gobaith: resettlement unit Bala B Uppers Menai: assisted living Bala C Uppers Shaun Stocker: veterans and first-timers Bala D Uppers improving family futures Ceiriog A Lowers Snowdon: mature residents Ceiriog D Lowers induction and first night unit. Ogwen care and support (segregation) unit (up to 21 prisoners)
Name of governor and date in post: Nick Leader (April 2019)
Independent Monitoring Board chair: Eileen Darbyshire
Date of last inspection: This was the prison’s first inspection.

Read the Report

Annual Report 2018/2019 Prisons Inspectorate – Too Much Violence, Drugs & Inactivity In Prisons, But Independent Scrutiny Having More Impact

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) generated new and unprecedented levels of accountability and transparency in the scrutiny of prisons in England and Wales in 2018–19, according to HM Chief Inspector Peter Clarke.

Publishing his annual report, Mr Clarke made clear that robust independent scrutiny was vital after another deeply troubling year for some parts of the prison estate. Too many prisons continued to be plagued by drugs, violence, appalling living conditions and a lack of access to meaningful rehabilitative activity.

What goes on in prisons remained largely unseen by the public and the media.  However, in 2018–19 Mr Clarke used the Urgent Notification protocol – requiring the Secretary of State publicly to respond with action to improve a jail with significant problems – three times. Those prisons were HMPs Exeter, Bedford and Birmingham, where inspectors found some of the worst conditions they had ever seen.

The Inspectorate also secured funding and developed the methodology for its new Independent Reviews of Progress (IRPs), designed to give ministers an independent assessment of how well failing jails were addressing key Inspectorate recommendations. The Justice Select Committee, in its report on HMIP’s inspection of HMP Liverpool in 2017, had expressed concern that the prison service was effectively ‘marking its own homework’ and concluded there should be an injection of independence in the follow up to inspection reports.

 Transparency and accountability

In his annual report, Mr Clarke asks: “How do we independently assess accountability in the inevitably closed world of prisons? The need for greater transparency in the delivery of this key public service has led to some important developments over the past two years that I hope will prove to be a turning point in improving the impact of independent prison inspection in England and Wales.

“There will be around 15–20 IRPs in 2019–20 and each subsequent year and these will be focused on prisons subject to an Urgent Notification or where there are other causes for serious concern.”

Mr Clarke added: “They will concentrate on progress in implementing key recommendations, and will look to see if action plans are properly focused, resourced, and with clear timelines and lines of accountability for improvement.

“As with Urgent Notifications, IRPs will be published, affording a higher level of both political and public accountability than has hitherto been the case. Our first IRPs (in 2019–20) at HMPs Exeter, Chelmsford, The Mount and Birmingham have suggested that a great deal of energy has gone into responding to Urgent Notifications and some other very concerning inspection reports, but that in some instances the response has been disappointingly slow.

“Nevertheless, the early indications are that they are prompting a more focused response than we have become accustomed to seeing in the past.”

Special measures

Mr Clarke made clear he believes such independent scrutiny is vital, given his reservations about the effectiveness of the current HMPPS ‘special measures’ system.

“On some occasions the response has been to place a struggling prison in ‘special measures’, but I do not have confidence in that as a reliable means of driving improvement. The inspection of HMP Lewes in January 2019 found a prison that had been in special measures for two years, and yet had declined in no less than three of our four healthy prison tests and failed to improve in the vital test of safety.

“Similarly, the special measures at HMP Bedford left me with little confidence that the prison could improve, and the use of the Urgent Notification process was inevitable.

He added: “HMI Prisons will remain resolutely independent in all that it does, but that should not and will not stop us being supportive and, where appropriate, collaborative in helping prisons to improve. We are therefore pleased that early indications are that establishments are warmly welcoming the advent of IRPs. Managers have appreciated the focus that the IRP visits have given.”

The most troubled part of the prison estate

As in previous years, men’s local and training prisons – with their high throughput of prisoners, often worn-out fabric, vulnerable populations and levels of violence and illicit drugs use – caused most concern.

The report also discloses significant prisoner vulnerability. Across the service, levels of self‑harm were disturbingly high and self-inflicted deaths tragically increased by nearly one-fifth on the previous year.

Mr Clarke said the prison service response to the “deluge of drugs flowing into many prisons in recent years,” generating debt, bullying and violence, had often been slow and neither robust nor sophisticated. “The introduction of new technology that is necessary to help counter the threat has been patchy.”

The extraordinary dedication of staff

Inspectors were struck, as in previous years, “by the extraordinary dedication of those who work in our prisons. Their work is difficult, often dangerous, largely unseen by the public and, as a result, little understood.

“Many worked through a period in which reduced resources, both in terms of staff and investment, made it extremely difficult to run some of our jails.” New staff deserved support in an environment where, in too many establishments, drug-fuelled violence remained a daily reality.

Variations in performance and the quality of leadership

The report highlights evidence that performance varies between comparable prisons and makes clear the Chief Inspector’s view that the quality of leadership is a vital factor. “Some issues that have an adverse impact on prisoners are often outside the control of prison leaders.

“However, there is much that is firmly within the control of those whose responsibility it is to lead and manage these complex establishments. It is as clear as day… that the variations in performance of apparently comparable jails is directly influenced by the quality of their leadership. “

Key findings

The report contains information from inspections of adult prisons and children’s detention, as well as immigration and other forms of detention.

  • Men’s prisons: Too many prisoners were still being held in prisons that were unsafe. Levels of violence had increased in more than half the prisons we inspected.
  • Respectful detention and living conditions: Inspectors noted the positive impact of in-cell phones and electronic kiosks for prisoners to make applications, health care appointments, arrange visits and make complaints. However, far too many prisoners still endured very poor and overcrowded living conditions. Though around two-thirds of prisoners overall were positive about the way they were treated by staff, inspectors frequently found that prisoners from black and minority ethnic backgrounds had less positive views of their treatment and conditions. There was no clear strategy for older prisoners.
  • Purposeful activity: In only a third of the adult male prisons inspected was purposeful activity, which includes the provision of education, work and training, judged to be good or reasonably good.
  • Rehabilitation and release planning: Overall, there was some progress but much remained to be done, particularly  around prisoners who presented a potentially high risk of harm to the public being released without a full risk assessment. Inspectors saw large cohorts of sex offenders in prisons where specialist interventions were not available.
  • Women’s prisons: Overall, inspectors continued to find that outcomes for women held in prison were better than for men.
  • Children’s custody: HMIP inspected four young offender institutions and three secure training centres. Safety assessment had improved in three inspections. Nevertheless, levels of violence remained high and bullying was a constant concern.
  • Immigration detention: Inspection outcomes were good or reasonably good. However, detainees continued to feel unsafe and uncertain because there was too often a lack of clarity as to what the future held for them.
  • Police custody: HMIP, with HMICFRS, jointly wrote to Chief Constables expressing concern about the governance and oversight of the use of force.

Read the Report

Helen’s Law: What Happens When Juries Believe A Liar?

By Mark Leech

Harry Mackenney

Like any parent I can’t even begin to understand the heartache of Marie McCourt, the mother of Helen McCourt, who has no idea where her daughter’s body is located because the person convicted of her murder, Ian Simms, refuses to say – insisting he is innocent of the crime.

The planned law change announced today by Justice Secretary David Gauke, to be known as ‘Helen’s Law’ in her memory, will in future compel the Parole Board to take account of a failure to reveal the location of a victim’s remains when considering a killer’s release.

To any sane person it seems reasonable – doesn’t it?

But what happens if juries get it wrong?

What happens if they convict an innocent person?

What happens when juries believe a liar?

On 30th November 1980, at the Old Bailey, Terence Joseph Pinfold and Henry Jeremiah MacKenney were convicted of six contract killings and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Both men insisted they were innocent and knew nothing about any of the alleged murders.

It was a curious case.

There was no dispute that each of their six ‘victims’ had existed, nor that all of them had suddenly vanished. But the involvement of both Pinfold and MacKenney in their disappearances depended on the word of just one man: John Childs.

Childs, originally arrested and questioned by Flying Squad detectives for armed robbery, a crime he admitted, went on to tell them a bizarre story of six contract murders which, Childs claimed, had each been procured by Pinfold and then carried out by himself and MacKenney.

So where were the bodies?

Childs told detectives each of the six bodies had been dismembered in his east London flat, after which he attempted to mince the victims remains with an industrial three-phase electrical mincing machine.

When that failed, claiming the three-phase machine “would not turn at all” when connected to the flat’s two-phase electricity supply, the dismembered bodies he said had been cremated and reduced to ash in the flat’s fire grate – with the ashes then being dispersed into the wind at numerous rural locations.

Flying Squad detectives, led by Detective Superintendent Frank Cater, were dumbstruck by the story.

MacKenney was a man they knew well. They had arrested him dozens of times for a string of armed robberies but, despite standing over 6’4″ tall and being placed on over 60 of the Flying Squad’s Identity Parades, MacKenney had not been picked out as a culprit on any of them.

MacKenney’s one previous conviction was for punching a bus driver in the early 1960’s – hardly the monstrous murderer portrayed by Childs, but Cater, and his boss, Chief Superintendent Tony Lundy, threw everything they had into the investigation.

It came to nothing.

No bodies of any of the alleged victims were ever found.

Despite months of examinations not a single piece of forensic evidence was ever discovered linking either Pinfold or MacKenney to any of the alleged crime scenes – nor any evidence at all linking even Childs himself to the crimes.

No blood was ever found in the flat occupied by Childs, where the bodies were alleged by him to have been dismembered, and despite detailed searches no trace of the industrial mincing Childs claimed to have used unsuccessfully to mince the bodies, no trace of that was ever found either.

Despite a trawl through three years worth of Exchange and Mart newspapers, through which Childs claimed Penfold had purchased the mincer, no such machine was ever discovered that could to be linked to Pinfold, MacKenney or even Childs himself.

A detailed a month-long forensic search of the domestic fire grate in Childs’ flat, where he claimed each of the six dismembered bodies had been burnt to cinders, produced not a single speck of forensic evidence to support his claims.

Thorough forensic searches of the various locations where Childs claimed to have disposed of the victims’ ashes, also revealed nothing; not a single speck of evidence.

The Crown themselves were forced to confront this when Childs himself appeared for sentencing having pleaded guilty to the six murders.

John Matthew QC, prosecuting, told Mr Justice Lawson at the Old Bailey that, frankly, the only reason Childs was before the court at all was due to his admissions: “Without the admissions of this defendant the Crown could not have brought a prosecution at all in respect of any of these brutal murders.”

So how could Pinfold and MacKenney have been convicted – and how did I become involved in this case?

In 1994 I received a letter from Harry ‘Big H’ MacKenney, I was at the time myself in prison for robbery and writing regular feature articles on prison for The Guardian – the story MacKenney told me seemed utterly beyond belief.

I had been in jail for 14 years, I was no stranger to claims of innocence, but there was something different about his story, it was just so incredibly outlandish that I wanted to know more.

Private inquiries I made with other prisoners, at other prisons, brought the clear response: ‘Big H’ was telling the truth.

I asked Harry MacKenney to send me details of his case; four weeks later five large egg boxes stacked with trial papers arrived and with nine months of my own sentence still to serve, I settled down to read.

It was an astonishing example of justice gone wrong.

Soon after my release in March 1995 I took the case of Harry MacKenney to Michael Levy, a Manchester solicitor I respected and asked him to take the case on, he agreed and employed me as the Case Consultant.

With the advice and guidance of Edward Fitzgerald QC, a barrister I had known and respected for well over 20 years, I got to work.

It was obvious that getting to the bottom of this case meant dismantling the evidence of Bruce Childs.

Childs was a psychopath, that much was known from a report available at the trial of Pinfold and MacKenney, prepared by Mr Barry Irving.

Irving held a master’s degree in Social Psychology and was a member of the permanent research staff at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, he wrote: “I believe Childs to be severely psychopathic insofar as he shows an abnormal lack of reaction to social pressures, he will not exhibit to the court any of the normal externally observable signs of fabrication upon which the jury depend to detect lying from the witness’s demeanour.”

The Pinfold and MacKenney trial judge, Mr Justice May, ruled Irving’s report could not go before the jury.

“It is for juries, not psychiatrists or psychologists to determine whether a witness is telling the truth” he ruled. On the law as it stood at the time, he was absolutely right in his ruling.

Since then however the law had changed – although that of itself was not a sufficient ground of appeal.

I turned to Professor Morgan, a professor of Electrical Engineering at UMIST – the University of Manchester’s Institute of Science and Technology – and a world leader on three-phase electrical machines.

Sitting in his office I came straight to the point: Why would a three-phase industrial mincing machine, when connected to the two-phase domestic electricity supply in Childs’ flat, not work?

Answer: it would work.

In direct contradiction to the evidence of Childs that the mincing machine he had used ‘would not turn at all’, Professor Morgan explained that it would definitely turn, it would lack power, certainly, it may not be able to mince anything, but it would definitely turn because of what he termed ‘its characteristic of inherent torque’ – it was way above my pay grade.

Next, on the advice of Edward Fitzgerald QC, I needed a fire expert.

Inquiries I had made revealed that crematoria needed 1600-1800 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce a body to ash – could a fire in a domestic grate produce such temperatures?

Paul Williamson, a fire expert and Assistant Chief Fire Officer who I approached was adamant it could not; a domestic fire, even with an accelerant would not exceed 1000 degrees, way below the temperatures needed to reduce a body to ash as Childs claimed had happened.

More worryingly, evidence found in police files, but not disclosed to the defence at the trial, revealed that one of the alleged victims, Terry Eve, had actually been tracked down by police, living under an assumed name in west London, three years after Childs and the Crown alleged he had been murdered – and the Detective Chief Inspector who had been told this was still alive and able to corroborate it.

Finally Childs himself admitted, in a sworn affidavit, the whole story was fictitious from beginning to end, he had taken the details from newspaper reports – MacKeney and Pinfold he said were innocent.

It also became clear that Childs had a history of bogus admissions to crimes.

Childs told police he was responsible for:

i) The killing of an inmate when he was at Rochester Borstal in 1958/9. The police investigation of his confession concluded that although he had given a truthful account of his violent behaviour at Borstal, he had embellished it by making up the account of the murder of an inmate.

ii) A murder at the Kray Brothers Club in Holloway in 1964/5. Childs claimed that with criminal associates he “tried” a person alleged to be an informer and then shot him. The police concluded that it was extremely unlikely that this happened.

iii) The robbery and shooting at the Soho Club in 1966/7, stabbings in a public houses in Hillingdon and drive by shootings; the police could trace no record of these.

iv) A murder in Poplar High Street in 1978 of a vagrant whom Childs then claimed to have dismembered and burnt. The police could find no evidence to support this.

In July 2001 the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) having spent 18 months considering MacKenney’s application, referred the case back to the Court of Appeal.

More than two years later, in October 2003, the Appeal Court finally quashed the convictions of Harry MacKenney and Terry Pinfold and both men, after spending 24 years in prison, finally walked free.

But pause now for a moment.

What if none of this had happened?

What if Helen’s Law had been in place?

How could anyone convicted of a murder they knew nothing about reveal the location of the body whose death or disposal they had nothing to do with?

Juries do get it wrong, the case of MacKenney and Pinfold proves that six times over – and what happens even when juries get it right?

What happens when the Parole Board, forced to employ Helen’s Law comes up against someone genuinely guilty of a murder?

Someone who admits their part in it, who is remorseful, has made great progress in custody, whose risk of harm can be safely managed in the community – but who asserts the body was disposed of not by them, but by a third party, who are themselves now deceased, and they have no idea where the body of the person they killed is located?

Are they to be denied release?

And what of those killers who don’t care about getting out, what of those who have nothing to go out to?

What of those who will see this as a sick game, who wish to inflict even greater pain on the victim’s families who may well over the years have constantly abused them in the media whenever their case was mentioned – and who now demand their help?

What if they deliberately mislead by identifying as ‘burial sites’ what are today major buildings, motorways, railway lines, saying these are the final resting place of the deceased?

What if a person claims the body is buried in what is now Canary Wharf, the Port of Dover, or in future along what will be HS2?

How many times are these places to be shut down, sites excavated, and all in vain – raising a family’s hopes, only to have them trashed once again?

What happens if it is claimed the body was buried at sea – how does the Parole Board even start to look into that?

This is a difficult and complex area, one that politicians interfere with at their peril – what seems like the prospect of gaining political kudos may well in reality bring unforeseen and untold distress.

It is understandable why any parent wants to locate the body of their child, brutally slain and left to rot in some godforsaken place and of which they have no idea where.

But we are dealing here with some people to whom feelings do not matter, and the end result of Helen’s Law, however well-intentioned, may well be not what people have every right to wish for, demand and expect.

Justice itself.

Mark Leech, is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales.

He tweets as @prisonsorguk:

Mother ‘Elated’ Helen’s Law Will Deny Killers Parole Until Bodies Are Found

Read our Comment Piece:
Helen’s Law: What Happens When Juries Believe A Liar?

The mother of murdered Helen McCourt said she is “elated” laws are to finally change so killers are denied parole if they refuse to reveal where they hid their victim’s body.

Marie McCourt has begged murderer Ian Simms to tell her the whereabouts of her daughter’s remains ever since the insurance clerk vanished on her way home from work in 1988.

But the pub landlord, who was convicted by a jury on overwhelming DNA evidence of the 22-year-old’s abduction and murder and is still in jail, has always maintained his innocence.

She campaigned relentlessly to keep Simms behind bars until he helped lead police to her daughter’s body.

MPs voted in favour of the law in 2016 but it had yet to receive Government backing, until Justice Secretary David Gauke announced the move on Saturday.

Helen’s Law will make it a legal requirement for the Parole Board to take into account a killer’s failure to disclose the location of their victim’s remains when considering them for release.

Mrs McCourt, from St Helens, Merseyside, said she hoped it would stop the “torture” of killers “calling the shots” and realise they need to co-operate.

If they do help, it should not automatically mean they can be released, she added.

She told PA: “I feel really elated and quite relieved that it’s finally happening.

“I really can’t believe it. I have been trying for so long

“It has been a terrible stress on me since I started the petition in 2015. It was voted for in Parliament but then it was delayed after the general election.

“I just know Brexit took up too much time in Parliament.

“This law will help so many other families.”

When she marks what would have been her daughter’s 54th birthday later this month, she said it would be with her “heart lifted” in light of the news.

But she said it was still agony being denied the chance to recover her daughter’s remains, adding: “I wrote to him, begging him ‘please, please just tell me and you will not hear from me again’.

“I still hope he will remain in prison until he tells me.

“I hope one day I will know.”

She thanked her “amazing” MP Conor McGinn and Mr Gauke for their support in the campaign and said the wait for change was long but worth it.

Parole Board guidance already says offenders who withhold information may still pose a risk to the public and could therefore face longer in prison.

But Helen’s Law will for the first time make it a legal requirement to consider this withholding of information when making a decision on whether to release an offender, the Ministry of Justice said.

It is hoped the legislation will be brought into force as soon as possible.

Courts can also hand down tougher sentences for murderers who deliberately conceal the location of a body.

Mr Gauke said: “It is a particular cruelty to deny grieving families the opportunity to lay their murdered loved one to rest and I have immense sympathy with Marie McCourt and others in her situation.

“Those responsible should know that if they choose to compound this further through their behaviour, they will be held accountable.”

Read our Comment Piece:
Helen’s Law: What Happens When Juries Believe A Liar?

Boris Johnson backs an end to automatic half-way release for sexual and violent offenders – described as ‘nonsense’ by one prisons expert.

Boris Johnson has indicated violent or sexual offenders could remain locked up for longer if he becomes prime minister – which one prisons expert has described as ‘political posturing and sheer nonsense.’

The Tory leadership hopeful said it was wrong that prisoners were routinely let out after serving just half of the sentence handed down in court.

Mr Johnson also said Theresa May had been wrong to introduce curbs on the police’s stop and search powers, and said it was important to “change that balance back” in favour of officers.

But while he struck a tough tone on law and order, Mr Johnson hinted to the Daily Mail he could grant an amnesty for long-term illegal migrants.

Setting out his views on sentencing, the former London mayor told the newspaper: “I’m afraid there are too many people, because of the way the sentencing law works, who have committed serious violence or sexual offences who are being let out, as the law prescribes, after they’ve served only half the sentence that is pronounced in open court.

“This is happening. And I’m talking about serious sexual or violent offenders.

“And I think the public is noticing this, quite properly. They don’t think it’s right, and I don’t think it’s right.”

Mr Johnson promised a “relentless focus” on knife crime and criticised the 2014 measures on stop and search brought in by Mrs May.

“When it comes to stop and search, the fact is that we went wrong when we decided to change the rules on the best use of stop and search.

“We made it more difficult. And I think it’s important that we change that balance back.”

Mr Johnson has already pledged to spend £1.1 billion a year funding 20,000 extra police officers as part of his pitch to Tory members to elect him as their leader on July 23.

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales writes:

This is political posturing and sheer nonsense of the worst kind, not least because it places prison officers in even greater danger in terms of discipline and control, but because it also assumes Judges know nothing about release arrangements and, what’s more, it totally ignores the reality that the power to issue an extended sentence to sexual and violent offenders already exists.

The fact is there is not a single prison officer or governor who would thank you for imposing a regime where the most dangerous violent and sexual offenders have to serve their whole sentence in custody.

The prospect of early release is one of the most potent weapons they have in their armoury to encourage compliance, removing it would render that weapon impotent and place the most dangerous offenders in a position where they have nothing to gain or lose from custodial behaviour.

Secondly, our judges know exactly that the Criminal Justice Act 2003 means the vast majority of offenders are released at the half-way point of their sentence, and are then subject to strict licence conditions and recall until the end of the sentence.

Judges I have spoken to tell me that, within sentencing guidelines, which confer a wide discretion on sentence length, they determine the amount of time they want a person to serve in custody and, where the law allows, they double it.

Removing that automatic release wouldn’t mean someone sentenced today to ten years would then serve ten years – the reality is that the sentence imposed would simply be halved so the custodial portion of the sentence remains exactly the same.

Finally the reality is that the courts already have the power to impose an extended sentence on dangerous violent or sexual offenders, which may be given to an offender aged 18 or over when:

the offender is guilty of a specified violent or sexual offence;

the court assesses the offender as a significant risk to the public of committing further specified offences; 

a sentence of imprisonment for life is not available or justified; and

the offender has a previous conviction for an offence listed in schedule 15B to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 or the current offence justifies an appropriate custodial term of at least four years.

These sentences were introduced to provide extra protection to the public in certain types of cases where the court has found that the offender is dangerous and an extended licence period is required to protect the public from risk of harm.

The judge decides how long the offender should stay in prison and also fixes the extended licence period up to a maximum of eight years. The offender will either be entitled to automatic release at the two thirds point of the custodial sentence, not the half-way point as Johnson asserts, or be entitled to apply for parole at that point.

If parole is refused the offender will be released at the expiry of the prison term. Following release, the offender will be subject to the licence where he will remain under the supervision of HM Prison and Probation Service until the expiry of the extended period.

The combined total of the prison term and extension period cannot be more than the maximum sentence for the offence committed.

In 2017, a total of 575 offenders were given an extended sentence.

If, as appears likely, Johnson is the next Conservative politician to be crowned Prime Minister, I can only hope that senior Civil Servants will educate him on the reality of the situation which, at the current time he appears to be completely ignorant about.

Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales and tweets under the tag @prisonsorguk

Fresh inquest into Stephen Port murders to examine police probe, court told

Families of the victims of serial killer Stephen Port have been told a fresh inquest into their deaths will focus on possible failings in the police investigation.

But the Old Bailey was told it would not be lawful to investigate the conduct of another coroner who previously failed to identify foul play in the deaths of two of the young men before Port was caught.

Port, now aged 44, drugged and raped four young men and dumped their bodies near his home in Barking, east London, between 2014 and 2015.

Following a trial at the Old Bailey, he was handed a whole-life sentence for the murders of fashion student Anthony Walgate, 23, Gabriel Kovari, 22, Kent chef Daniel Whitworth, 21, and Jack Taylor, 25, a forklift truck driver from Dagenham.

Since then, the victims’ families have question why he was not stopped sooner and the Independent Office for Police Conduct has investigated.

An earlier inquest into the deaths of Mr Whitworth and Mr Kovari which had reached an open conclusion was quashed.

During the trial it had transpired a suicide note purporting to be penned by Mr Whitworth admitting involvement in Mr Kovari’s death had been faked by Port to cover his tracks.

On Friday, Judge Sarah Munro QC, sitting as assistant coroner for east London, vowed to hold a “full, fair and fearless” inquest.

She offered her “sincere condolences” to the family of Mr Taylor and Mr Whitworth’s partner in court as well as bereaved relatives not present.

Andrew O’Connor QC, counsel for the coroner, told the court: “The main focus of these inquests should be the adequacy of the police investigation into Mr Port.”

He said it would not be necessary to call extensive evidence on the circumstances of the deaths because Port’s conviction was evidence in itself.

On the scope of the inquest, he said: “The starting point will be evidence of police involvement and knowledge of Stephen Port prior to the death of Anthony Walgate.

“It will then be necessary for you to examine the way the police responded to each of the four deaths, the response to earlier deaths being relevant.

“It will inform your investigation into whether steps should have been taken before the later deaths – even before the last death of Jack Taylor.”

Mr O’Connor argued that Ms Munro had no power to investigate any “insufficiency” by the original coroner in the inquest into the deaths of Mr Kovari and Mr Whitworth.

That included whether she properly scrutinised the fake suicide note and Mr Whitworth’s movements in the days before his death.

He said: “What this boils down to is evidence relating to these matters was not called at the inquest into Mr Kovari and Mr Whitworth’s deaths. When witnesses and a police officer were called they were not pressed.”

But he said: “The inquests happened. We will be hearing evidence of those inquests. The transcripts will be before you.

“Witnesses, police officers who took part in those inquests can and no doubt will be asked about what they said at those inquests, what they did before those inquests and what they did or did not do after those inquests.”

He stressed Ms Munro would not be able to look at whether the original coroner in some way “failed”.

Mr O’Connor said Port himself had the legal right to take part in the inquests but it was not yet known if he wanted to.

If he did, it was suggested he could hear evidence by video link from prison and it would not be necessary for him to give evidence.

Any involvement by Port in his victims’ inquests would cause “upset” to the families, the court heard.

During the hearing, Ms Munro said: “My priority this morning is to express my sincere condolences to the families both present and absent for the loss of their loved ones.

“You have my assurance that I will conduct full, fair and fearless inquests.”

“I recognise you will all feel frustration at the time it has taken to reach this point. I assure you work has been progressing as expeditiously as possible. There is a considerable amount of work to be done.

“I note that concerns have previously been raised about independence of the process. Those concerns can be allayed by my appointment.”

Afterwards, lawyer Andrew Petherbridge, acting for the families, said: “It’s clear from today’s hearing that there remains a long process ahead for the families.

“However, they remain committed to unearthing the truth and are grateful to the coroner for the careful consideration she is giving all matters.”

A further pre-inquest review will take place at the Old Bailey in November with a full inquest at the same venue as soon as possible in 2020.

A decision on whether to hold the inquest with a jury was put off until the next hearing.