Why Failure Must Be Explained

By Mark Leech

Yesterday I was taken to task for not being positive enough when I wrote about HMP Garth where, following (unusually) an announced HMIP inspection, it was revealed the prison had high levels of drugs and violence, where in terms of the four Healthy Prison Tests, safety had crept up from 1/4 to 2/4, respect from 2/4 to 3/4 and both purposeful activity and release planning had stalled at 3/4 since the last inspection two years ago.

It was said that I did not give enough credit where it was due.

Well that is certainly one view and one with some value to it, but on the other side of the coin Garth was also a prison where 56% of all the HMIP recommendations made and accepted by the prison two years previously had not been achieved at all.

Its really important that staff are given credit for progress, but those same staff also need to be able to take reality on the chin too – once we start to view a 56% failure rate on implementation as something to be proud of, something for which to quote one member of staff at Garth they should be given a ‘pat on the back’ for, then there is a real danger in my view that we are celebrating failure not success.

Mistaking failure for progress just skews reality; implementing 75% or 80% of HMI recommendations deserves praise, but when that drops to less than half, to just 44% that ought to be viewed as a cause for concern not credit – or the danger is that it becomes accepted as normalised and that must never be the case.

Personally I would like to see every Governor who has failed to implement 50% or more of HMI recommendations being required to publicly explain to the Prisons Inspectorate, in a written document that appears in an Annex to the Report, exactly why in two years they have been unable to do better.

There are two sides to every story and one story is only good until another one is told – if nothing else if provides an opportunity to explain the reasons why more progress wasn’t made and I imagine some would be surprised at the reasons given which currently remain hidden from view.

If the Justice Secretary has to explain publicly what has gone wrong and what he will do to put it right when faced with an HMI Urgent Notification, the same principle of accountability should apply to Governing Governors too: they too have their story to tell – and they ought to be allowed to tell it.

The buck stops on their desk and with it credit for success and responsibility for failure too.

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

HMP GARTH – high levels of violence and a daunting drugs problem found at this announced inspection

Published 9th May 2019
Leaders and staff at HMP Garth, a training prison in Lancashire, were commended for their work to reduce drugs and violence since inspectors found it in 2017 to be one of the most unsafe they had seen.

  • Note: For this Inspection, unusually, the prison had been given prior warning of the Inspection and had the been able to prepare for it in advance.

HMP Garth opened in 1988. A category B men’s establishment, it is part of the newly formed long-term and high-security estate directorate, holding a complex population. The population was predominantly made up of convicted adults serving more than four years and those serving indeterminate sentences. In addition to the mainstream residential accommodation, the prison had a number of specialist units: The Beacon Unit, offering the offender personality disorder pathway service; The Building Hope Unit, a psychologically informed therapeutic environment; a substance misuse therapeutic community and a residential support unit.

Almost all prisoners in HMP Garth were serving prison sentences of longer than 10 years and 89% presented a high risk of harm to others. Sixty-three per cent of prisoners had been convicted of serious violent offences and almost a quarter had been convicted of sexual offences. Just over a third of prisoners were serving an indeterminate sentence. In our survey, 60% of prisoners said it was easy to get hold of illicit drugs, and about one in four said they had developed a drug problem while being at HMP Garth. HMP Garth had a nationally resourced offender personality disorder pathway (OPDP) service operating from The Beacon Unit.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons said: “It is pleasing to be able to report that in the space of two years [since January 2017] there had been significant improvements at the prison.

  • High levels of violence but slowing

“Although there was still too much violence, it had not risen in line with the overall trend across the prison estate, and credit is due to the staff at Garth for working hard to understand and contain it. There is absolutely no room for complacency, but there were some early encouraging signs of improvement.

  • Drugs: the scale of this problem was daunting

“As with many other prisons, the ready availability of illicit drugs drove much of the violence, and the scale of the challenge in this respect at Garth was daunting. Sixty per cent of prisoners told us it was easy to obtain drugs, 30% were testing positive for drugs and around a quarter had developed a drug habit since entering the prison.” Drugs and violence reduction strategies must be kept under constant review to maintain the progress.

  • Long-term, high risk population,

Garth held just over 800 prisoners, the vast majority serving sentences of more than 10 years and presenting a high risk of harm. Around two-thirds had been convicted of serious violence and a quarter were convicted of sexual offences.

  • Slight improvements in safety and respect

The poor safety assessment in 2017, in a jail in which drugs and violence then dominated the men’s lives, led inspectors to make it subject to one of only a handful of announced inspections. By late 2018, safety had risen from a poor assessment to not sufficiently good. Respect rose to reasonably good and purposeful activity and rehabilitation and resettlement remained at that level.

Mr Clarke said: “My confidence that the prison can continue to make progress was strengthened by what I saw and heard during my meeting with the senior management team. It was very clear to me that they worked together in a highly collaborative way to address the serious challenges faced by the establishment.

Members of the team, from whatever specialised function, were eager to contribute to what their colleagues were trying to achieve in their particular areas of responsibility. It was heartening to see this approach and to experience the obvious enthusiasm.”

  • Serious concerns about cancelled hospital appointments and Public Protection

Although the assessment of respect had improved, there was serious concern about the high cancellation rate for external hospital appointments. Inspectors were also concerned about some weaknesses in managing the potential risks to the public posed by those few prisoners who were released from Garth.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“The leadership of HMP Garth were keen to point out to me that there were early signs of improvement, and it was to their credit that what had been achieved was sufficient to raise our assessments in two of our healthy prison tests. Given the overall context in which establishments such as Garth have been operating over the past few years, this is an achievement that should not be underestimated.

For the future, dealing with the twin scourges of drugs and violence will be the key to making further progress, and I hope that when we next inspect HMP Garth we will be able to report that the momentum we saw on this occasion will have been maintained.”

Phil Copple, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) Director General of Prisons, said:

“It is extremely encouraging to see significant progress being made at HMP Garth, and I echo the Chief Inspector’s confidence that the hard work of the prison officers in the establishment will maintain this going forward. The prison continues to tackle drugs and violence head on, ensuring that prisoners can focus on rehabilitation, and I’m delighted to see that their efforts are leading to real improvements.”

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

I’m the first to give governors and staff a pat on the back for progress, encouragement is vital, but so too is reality.

To talk about ‘commendable improvements’ in a prison that still has serious problems with drugs and violence, where self-harm is very high and where less than half of the safety recommendations  made two years ago have still not been implemented, to me is is premature and to value its progress too highly.

Inspectors said:

“At the last inspection in 2017 we found that outcomes for prisoners in Garth were poor against this [Safety] healthy prison test. We made 13 recommendations in the area of safety. At this inspection we found that six of the recommendations had been achieved and seven had not been achieved.”

This was an average report, and I would have expected more progress given that the prison knew of the Inspection months in advance and were able to prepare for it – the fact that they could not do better suggests the prison is fighting a losing losing battle on a number of serious fronts.”

Read the Report 

@prisonsorg.uk