Monday, July 25, 2016

Gove’s Policies 1

Those not intimately involved with the reform process will only note its beginning and its apparent ending, and the lack of change. This is not surprising. The reforms were intended to be strategic, not quick. It is only in examining the specifics of the reform agenda that we can discern how the potential outcomes could actually improve the prison system and how much scope within these changes there may be to address the specific concerns of prisoners.
Policy areas highlighted by Gove include Education, Work, Categorisation, Release on temporary license, and Autonomy. Together, changes in these areas are hoped to lead to better rehabilitation opportunities and so reduced reoffending. In this blog I explore Education and Work.
The problems that have slowly been building within prison education are now self-evident, and no one supports the status quo. Education has been reduced to basic skills, rendering education a desert for the literate and numerate. Access to higher education has been decimated. It is not too much for me to say that under the current structures I would not have been able to achieve what I did educationally. This cannot be right.
Gove understood these issues, and asked Dame Sally Coates to explore the present situation and make positive recommendation. The Coates Review recommendations have been universally applauded for not only discerning the problems but for proposing workable solutions. Two of her recommendations could have a revolutionary effect, and are ideas that I suggest would never be generated from within the Prison Service. Firstly, removing the limit on Governor's  funding courses above Level 3. With ever increasing sentence lengths, prison education has become irrelevant to much of the estate, particularly long termers. Removing this limitation would again make education a viable option for interested prisoners. Prison education could become more than the sum of its current target-driven parts. The catch with this proposal is funding; no Governors have spare in their budgets to increase educational opportunities. The Treasury would have to be persuaded that investing in education would reduce reoffending costs and the Treasury seems incapable of such forward thinking. It’s a hard political reality that the Ministry must function within constraints set by the Treasury.
The present educational structure, centering on basic skills, is driven by managerial targets. It is not driven by prisoner needs. As long as this structure exists, then prison education may continue to be irrelevant. With the adoption of Coates’s recommendations, education could return to being enabling and enriching. This is a desperately needed for those many prisoners who face several years of captivity and who are presently hamstrung.
The second revolutionary recommendation was to provide some level of internet access for educational purposes. I repeat. Internet access. Everyone with any contact with the prison system is made instantly aware of the Dark Age that begins at the Gate. HMPS doesn’t do technology. It has a positive aversion to it. This attitude runs so deep that even attempting to engage HMP about technology is nigh on impossible.
The conversation inevitably runs into the mantra of all unthinking Governors, “Security!!!”. This is the catch-all concern that can be used to prevent any change, and often is. No internal review of prison education would even raise the issue of the internet; it required an outside expert to put the issue on the table. Security is, of course, a legitimate concern. However, the Norwegian prison system manages to provide Net access to all prisoners, the various restrictions based on the security category of the prison. Very circumscribed for High Security, to unrestricted access in Open prison. By comparison, the only Net access available in British Open prisons is on illegal mobile phones.
It is an absurd situation, to expect to deliver quality education in an information economy without the internet. At a stroke, most distance learning is rendered unavailable. Worse, a basic literacy in the use of the web is prohibited, when prisoners are expected to be released and integrate. This is farcical.
Had Gove asked the Prison Service to address the perceived problems in education, we can be confident that the internet wouldn’t even get a mention. The use of outside expertise was crucial just to have the issues raised.
Ken Clark made an exceptionally good speech on work….and no changes followed. Gove not only appreciated the positive effects that can flow from work, but intended to break with historical practice to actually provide a new model.  The willingness to use the goodwill and experience of those like Timpsons suggested that there are possibilities to change the nature of prison work, a view I took some persuading to accept. I have, as you’d expect, seen and heard it all before. Indeed, my most intractable disputes were over exploitative work.
It can be done. Prison work can be made useful, skilled, profitable for everyone, and lead to better opportunities on release. Even a brief glance around the prison estate reveals interesting pockets of inventive solutions. The Clinks restaurants are one example, alongside the Timpsons training and employment schemes. Other small schemes, often transitory, pop up in particular prisons whilst being supported by particular staff, which then wither when those staff move on.
A perfect illustration of what is both possible, yet undermined by prison culture, was the Howard League's Barbed Design Studio. Created through public subscription, Barbed employed and trained prisoners to the standard where Barbed was undertaking design work for commercial clients. This was clearly a model with potential. The problem was, it was sited within a prison. Prison staff failed to throw their weight behind the scheme, leading to workers not being unlocked for work; and the regime did not support a genuine length working day. Commercial work cannot be undertaken in these uncertain circumstances, and despite having a trained workforce and profitable orders, Barbed was forced to close.
The lessons Barbed highlighted were that any scheme must have the full support of Governors and staff, and the institution must be prepared to be flexible on its regime in order to accommodate genuine work and training. It is not the expertise or ideas that are lacking, it’s the Prison Service attitude that undermines genuine work. The drive to fulfil meaningless targets overshadows positive change.
The solutions to the work and training issue exist in the minds of creative business people and the rare creative governor. Using the expertise and goodwill of people such as Timpson’s reveals Gove’s reticence to put this problem into the hands of a Prison Service that’s failed to address it. However, no matter how coherent and positive the business ideas, the attitude of the institutions must be made more flexible and business minded.
There are constraints to changes in prison work which must be acknowledged. Firstly, prison service managers are not businessmen, let alone entrepreneurs. The whole selection and training of managers centres, perhaps inevitably, on selecting out creative thinkers. We have shifted from the old “officer class” of Governors, ex-military, to a class of bureaucrats. This shift accompanied a broader societal move towards managerialism, exemplified behind bars by the endless spawning of regulations and targets that currently comprise “prison”. Secondly, there is the “short termers conundrum”. Will it ever be possible to find meaningful work for prisoners not in prison long enough to be upskilled?

Reforming prison work, making it both meaningful and profitable, is a strategic imperative. If this area cannot be reformed, there must be little confidence that other reforms could be implemented.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What Have the Romans done for Us?

Just how in the hell did I find myself standing alongside the Minister of Justice, taking the ire of prison reformers and wrestling the cynicism of ex prisoners? My life is indeed stranger than I expected. I’m in the position of having to persuade people that Gove was undertaking serious reform. As the most cynical guy on the wings, these are unusual waters to paddle in.
Of course, any Minister who makes reforming noises is met with rolling eyes and a sigh. We’ve heard it all before, every variation of the theme. And those ministers who have actually acted have been the malevolent, petty ones who are more concerned with increasing the misery of prisoners than making an impact on crime rates.
In the face of this depressing history, which has rightly generated a wall of cynicism, then it is hardly surprising that people are already saying “Michael who…?” And yet despite the historical portents, people who really should know better have dismissed the idea that reform can be happening. This includes criminal justice professionals as well as my fellow ex cons and campaigners. To be frank, some of the criticism has been childish denial. “He’s a Tory…..Upper class….Supports Israel…” I have lost friends over this, people whose loathing of anything Tory is so blinding that it obscures reality. Equally, if reforms aren’t the ones highlighted by prisoners, then they aren’t reforms. I have been bemused and disappointed by fellow reformers.
You may ask, why would a Tory Minister push a prison reform agenda? Motives are very important. As we saw with Grayling, a malign motivation can be toxic. Was there political pressure for Gove to push for reform? Not particularly. There was no single “crisis” event demanding immediate and public change. Essentially, Gove could have sat in his office, collected his wages and allow everything to roll on as normal. Any particular prison problems could be squarely and fairly laid at the door of Grayling and the Treasury. Gove had no need to do anything, let alone create a plan for strategic reform. And yet he promptly got stuck in.
What, then, were Gove’s motives? I have blogged before about his involvement in my case, which came from nothing more than a broad sense of justice. Make no mistake, Gove’s motivations were solidly Conservative in their basis. Prison is very expensive, and quite ineffective in reducing crime. In essence, this view is more akin to Hurd’s “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse”, rather than a Howardian “Prison works!”. Whilst not a common strand in Tory thought for over 20 years, it isn’t alien. Efficiency and effectiveness are central Tory concerns. And they can be powerful drivers for change.
This is not prison reform as prisoners and their allies would wish. Gove was not directly addressing the concerns of prisoners. And this appears to be the rub. In not focusing on prisoners, prison campaigners deny any reforms take place. It can be argued that without addressing the core needs of prisoners, then no meaningful reforms are taking place. But it would be silly to claim no reforms can happen.
Gove didn’t look at prison from the perspective of a cell, but as a policy maker concerned with the prison system as an expensive and inefficient part of government activity. His reforms were very much top-down, not bottom up. Not the approach reformers would adopt, but nevertheless a legitimate approach.
Any Minister can, and often have, meddle with prison policy. This tends to end badly, as my two recent blogs on Unintended Consequences suggest. Gove resisted any urge for quick fixes (which aren’t), nor did he rise to any tabloid bait. Previous Ministers, Straw in particular, who were weak and lacked any strategic vision were particularly prone to meddle on a nearly daily basis, to no good end. The lack of public spasms from Gove suggest inactivity; the reality was that his focus was on the long term, strategic issues. In avoiding the usual crisis management style of leadership, a broader view of the prison system and its place in society can be taken.
The methodology that Gove adopted was unusual, if not unique. Rather than merely diving into his own limited knowledge and pronouncing – a la Grayling – Gove canvassed far and wide for views on the penal problems and, more importantly, for solutions to these problems. To some degree NOMS was sidelined as expertise was sought outside the Ministry, at times from quarters who would otherwise be persona non grata with the prison system. The brief everyone bore in mind was: Prison is expensive and doesn’t cut reoffending. It needs to be “an efficient and effective” prison system. And NOMS has presided over a shambles. 
The question I had to ponder was, could the actual policies that flow from this brief lead to positive changes for prisoners on the landing, even as a secondary effect? This was, at the beginning, the Great Unknown. I had to make a serious determination – was this a reform process that I wanted to become involved with? I was aware of some others involved, such as John Podmore and James Timpson; both very serious people with significant and positive ideas. I also knew that Gove was interested in Education and Work, both issues ripe for change. After sniffing around, I made my decision – Gove seemed to have the right motivation, he was consulting people I respect and his way forward seemed politically interesting. I closed my eyes and jumped in. I must be circumspect in what I share, Chatham House Rules.
The approach from Gove that I found interesting was his use of outsiders, specialists. A political cynic might suggest that Gove selected experts who then made recommendations he wanted, but it is more subtle. Gove appreciated the problems with, for example, education and then handed the issue to an expert. In this case, Dame Sally Coates. Having outside experts making recommendations adds weight to a Minister who may have to force changes on the wholly negative and obstructive prison service. Ministers may not be able to force their changes onto NOMS, historically ministers are strongest in relation to NOMS when a serious crisis occurs. In the absence of that imperative to act, a Minister leveraging outside expertise against NOMS is creative and astute. 
This is my overview of the Gove process. I really shouldn’t need to point out that I am one of the penal reform community’s most experienced contributors. And unlike most, I suffered badly for my campaigning. Equally, I have a historical perspective that few others can match. I can even express this in the harsher terms – my activities cost me 22 years. And it is from this foundation that I say to dismiss Gove’s proposals as empty and meaningless is myopic.

Next blog – examining the Gove proposals in detail and what they can deliver. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reform, unintended consequences 2
Prison reform is spasmodic and complex. This is part two of a brief examination of reforms which although were attractive on their face, were actually disastrous. Prison reform highlights the immutable Law of Unintended Consequences.
The idea wasn’t completely improbable. A small number of criminals commit a disproportionate amount of crime and generate high levels of social misery. If these people could be identified and imprisoned, then some significant social good would accrue. The mechanism chosen to enable this was a new sentence, Indefinite detention for Public Protection, the IPP sentence.
As it implies, this was not a sentence that delivered fixed terms of imprisonment. Rather, it was an indefinite sentence. It’s important to appreciate the nature of this sentence, which is bifurcated. The first part of the sentence, the tariff, is the amount of time that the person would have served if given a fixed sentence, the punishment for their crime. This may be measured in days, weeks, months or years. Once this period of time has been served the IPP prisoner remains in prison until and unless they can persuade the Parole Board that they are an acceptable risk to release.
At the time, questions were raised as to whether we require yet another variant of a Life sentence, which is what IPP is in essence. Already available to Judges was the Discretionary Life sentence, partly used to stop an escalating criminal in their tracks. It is now realised that most IPP were never liable to get a Discretionary Life sentence, as their crimes were not serious enough.
Indeed, we were meeting IPPs on the landings that had tariffs of mere weeks. They had a legitimate expectation of timely release. Us old hands quietly raised our eyebrows, tried not to disabuse them, and sat back to see how this fiasco would unfold.
The Government predicted that some 300 people would fall into the clutches of the IPP sentence. As the numbers crept into the thousands, IPP criteria was altered so that only those who would be given a fixed sentence of 2 or more years would get IPP. That is, the minimum tariff became 2 years. Even so, the Government’s projected figure of 300 rapidly rose to 6,000, as the Judiciary responded to the harsh political tone of the time.
Capturing and imprisoning people was the initial part of the IPP plan. Rehabilitation and release was the conclusion. And this is where the IPP sentence slid from being a minor political spasm into a major disaster.
Actually getting released from an indefinite sentence is a complicated matter (as anyone who followed my blog will appreciate!). Prisoners must demonstrate a reduction in their risk of reoffending to the Parole Board. This is done by completing psychological treatments known as Offending Behaviour Programmes.
Predicting the haul of IPPs would be around 300, the Prison Service wasn’t allocated extra resources to offer sufficient places on Offending Behaviour Programmes (OBP). With some 6,000 IPP joining the lists for OBP, the system simply couldn’t cope. Prisoners with 2 year tariffs could face waits of several years before they could access the needed courses. A logjam has developed, so that now most IPPs remain in prison after their tariff not due to any actions of their own; but simply because their route to release is so narrow and oversubscribed.
The IPP sentence became a shambles. At one point the High Court declared the situation so chaotic that it ruled IPP detention to be arbitrary and therefore unlawful (a judgement swiftly reversed on Appeal).
And there the situation remains. Thousands of men are stranded in prison simply because they cannot access the routes to release. The Parole Board is overwhelmed. An attempt to capture prolific offenders has become a moral and political cancer, a festering wound on Justice with no end in sight.
A report from Labour’s Social Exclusion Unit asserted – on fragile data – that most prisoners were functionally illiterate and innumerate, which has a significant impact on reoffending. The policy that followed aimed to remedy this deficiency by directing the resources of prison education to inculcating basic skills.
Prior to this rearrangement, education in prison was often eclectic. English language at one end of the corridor, politics and philosophy at the other, and all instructional ports in between. These were the days when I was able to complete my O Levels, A Levels, and my undergraduate degree.
No longer. The focus on basic skills took place at the expense of breadth. In this truncated system, education is driven by targets, and an illiterate prisoner can pretty much exhaust all offerings within a couple of years. What was a flowering tree is reduced to a fragile branch.
With a background of ever increasing sentences, the limitation of funding to basic skills has a devastating effect. Prisoners find themselves abandoned by the education system once basic competence is achieved. This flows from a logical error in the Social Exclusion Unit report, which notes illiteracy rules prisoners out of most employment on release. Whilst true, it assumes that literacy is a sufficient condition for employment. It isn’t. Literacy is necessary, but not sufficient in itself. And yet, it is at this point that educational resources become extremely meagre.
Tens of thousands of prisoners have been stranded, abandoned just when they are ready to embark upon serious education. An effort intended to increase education and better employment chances has had the unintended consequence of limiting education to those who genuinely desire it.

The search for effective means to reduce reoffending can only be a laudable one. In theory. In practice….
The mid 1990’s saw an explosion of psychologists in prison, and they quickly became the most despised of staff. The government had noted the birth of psychological treatment programmes in North America, and unveiled the “What Works?” agenda. As implied, this was meant to be a thorough examination of the potential for policies to cut reoffending. Alas, this inquisitorial approach swiftly saw the “?” fall into a chasm, with “What Works” becoming highly specific – it was decided that cognitive psychological treatments were the path forward.
A generation of forensic psychologists descended onto prisons and swiftly became the gatekeepers to release, particularly for Lifers. Courses included Thinking Skills, Anger Management, Violence Reduction and Sex Offender Treatment. Release without undertaking various courses became nigh on impossible (I never did a course, the Parole Board noting that “there aren’t any courses for being awkward”).
These courses became Holy Writ. And as such, funding them became a drain on other areas. Specifically, there was an overwhelming collapse in the provision of Trades training and courses. What was once a thriving sector spanning bricklaying to light engineering has become a wasteland. Imbuing people with useful work skills fell to the wayside, trampled by the psychology hoard.
This enterprise has so far cost some £500 Million. That’s direct cost. Indirect cost must include the thousands of extra years of imprisonment prisoners serve waiting to complete these courses.
The result of this agenda, which has been running for some 20 years now, has been negligible. The programmes continue.
It should be appreciated that reform is a complex and uncertain effort. Many good ideas are actually rotten.