“There’s an awful smell of shrimp off that”

By Mark Leech FRSA

On 6th March the Secretary of State for Justice, Rt.Hon David Gauke MP, delivered a refreshingly honest and ambitious speech outlining his approach to managing our prisons; accepting the deadly dangers of Spice, the huge rise in the number of assaults and incidents of self harm that stem from it, and the place that Organised Criminal Gangs (OCG’s) have in controlling its supply and distribution networks.

The government, he said, was spending £14m on tackling organised criminal gangs in prisons, including on creating a serious organised crime unit within the Prison Service.

To tackle the matter further he was looking again at the policy of Security Categorisation which, he said, needed to include custodial behaviour in addition to the risk of escape and consequent danger to the public that it is restricted to at present – and it was reported in The Guardian that as a result as many as 6,000 prisoners may find their security category increased with the consequent move to more restricted closed conditions.

While that is understandable in principle, I heard nothing about processes in practice that, in order to be fair, must include fit-for-purpose safeguards to ensure that those identified for a security upgrade on this basis are rightly identified, and have a means of both making representations and the right to an independent appeal.

There also needs to be support services in place for them too, wherever they are sent, which addresses, challenges and seeks to change their behaviour; this process needs to be a positive journey, not a dead-end disciplinary destination.

Remember too the actual daily consequences to the prisoner of being identified as a OCG ring-leader are immense, in terms of physical restrictions, visits, Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL), access to courses, limited association, accessing skills and offending behaviour courses – not to mention the vital importance of progression towards their release.

On the positive side the Government, he said, was on course to make good its promise of an extra 2500 prison officers by the end of the year. Equally it was good to hear the Justice Secretary’s acknowledgement that incentives to good behaviour are vitally important too – he talked about revising the Incentive Earned Privileges Scheme (IEPS), giving Governors at a local level the ability to manage IEPS in their own prisons by offering privileges they deem appropriate and which are not foisted on them from the top down.

But the danger of course is that the exercise of IEPS discretion locally, within a system that works best with consistency, can be a recipe for trouble. While one Governor may allow an item in his prison, the next one may not – this inconsistency and the problems it brought with it, lest we forget, was the very reason we introduced Prison Service Orders and Instructions (PSO’s and PSI’s) in the first place, to obtain some degree of basic uniformity in the way in which discretions were to be exercised.

Has that policy now been reversed? If so they must have forgotten the terrible troubles in the 1980’s at prisons like Albany and Parkhurst, next door to each other, where the two governors had very different views on how their discretions were exercised; admittedly less of a problem now with clustering, but a lesson to remember nonetheless.

Revisiting Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL), and increasing skills training in order to assist prisoners obtain employment on release were also messages well-received.

But there were huge questions to be asked about this too, something didn’t smell right – or as my Irish grandmother used to say: “There’s an awful smell of shrimp off that.”

David Gauke’s predecessor, David Lidington, only a matter of months ago revealed another £400m cut in the HMPPS budget this year, yet David Gauke said nothing about reversing this in his speech, let alone the promise of more money.

Neither was there anything about reducing the size of the prison population, increasing the number of staff is one thing, but that takes time, training costs a lot of money, and a worryingly high proportion of new staff leave within two years of joining, once they realise what a dangerous and thankless task they have signed up for.

So while increasing staff numbers is important, until we can reduce the prison population to a level that is manageable, acceptable politically and safe for all, we are swimming against a tide where two currents collide – the independence of the Judiciary (who believe it is their divine right to pack people off to jail) and a Ministry of Justice – which seeks ever-more prisoners to the pound.

These forces are just too strong to make any of these commendable aspirations deliverable in real-world reality at all.

And there were other vitally important missing factors too.

Its all very well wanting to improve the employability skills of prisoners whilst they are in custody in order to help them gain employment on their release, but there is no point in starting on that journey unless you also recognise the legislative restrictions that must be changed to encourage it. The restrictions contained within the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA) demand disclosure of criminal convictions in such a way as to undermine so much of what the aspiration itself seeks to achieve.

Under the ROA anyone over 18 sentenced to more than two and a half years in prison is required by law to disclose that conviction for seven years – serve a sentence of more than four years and convictions are disclosable for life.

Since 2005 all those sentenced to custody serve half of that sentence in prison – then they are released on licence and expected to get a job; is it fair a 20 year old who spends two years in jail should be required to disclose that conviction (affecting insurance, mortgages and employment) for what could be the next 50 years, even if they never reoffend again?

Real rehabilitation doesn’t end at the prison gate – it actually starts there.

If we make it nigh on impossible for offenders to move on with their lives with these hideous restrictions, we make it easy for them to fall into the grasp of gangs from which they are unlikely, without severe consequences, ever to be able to break free.

And it doesn’t end there: according to figures released by Barnardo’s 65% of boys with a convicted father will go on to offend themselves; this isn’t penal reform, its self-harm.

I understand that you can’t get everything you want to say in a speech, but you can at least mention the principles that will underpin your policies and, equally important, demonstrate that you have a clear understanding of the obstacles in your way, and vocalise the plan you have to overcome them to achieve delivery.

Lamentably, I heard nothing at all about that.

In setting out a reform agenda, identifying the problems that beset our prison system and accepting the principle that people go to prison as a punishment and not for a punishment, it was a speech to be very-much welcomed – but insofar as it failed to set out how it would be delivered in real terms, it should be filed under ‘well-intentioned rhetoric’ rather than ‘real reform’.

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