Call it a happy – or unhappy – coincidence, but when I posted my previous thoughts and reflections on prison governors, I wasn’t aware that their professional body, the Prison Governors Association (PGA), was about to hold its 27th annual conference in Buxton. The event kicked off yesterday, however, it is clear from the comments emerging on social media that the situation in our prisons is very grim, confirming much of my own analysis.
Prison governors: “prisons in crisis”
This open criticism of the present state of affairs will not go down well in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) or with the increasingly embattled Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, for whom each new day seems to bring tidings of fresh disasters within the prison system. However, I think we can all be confident that ‘Comical Ali’ Chris will remain in his blissful state of denial about the crisis, even if one nick or another is finally engulfed in the flames of violent riot, with the risk of loss of life and limb.
I think that it is well worth reviewing a few of the highlights of the PGA conference so far. According to the PGA’s official Twitter summary of the opening speech made by PGA President Eoin McLennan-Murray, “Governors are worn down and tired – days not long enough to achieve what we want.” He went on to highlight the negative impact that this is having on staff morale.
Mr McLennan-Murray criticised some governors for being “satisfied with average inspection outcomes” following HM Inspectorate of Prisons reports. He went on to tell PGA members that the Prison Service is “chronically short of staff” – something that everyone in the prison system, as well as every reader of this blog, will be only too aware.
NOMS: fit for purpose?
He observed that the service had “let too many staff leave” – a pointed comment no doubt directed at the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – and that this has now led to the bizarre situation that “staff from [the] North [are] working in [the] South at a cost of £500 per week”.
He then went on highlight the “risks to decency”, pointing to “higher assaults… a large increase in serious incidents [and a] significant rise in self inflicted deaths.” Even more ominously, Mr McLennan-Murray warned that “prisons are moving to a state of instability” and posed the very relevant question: “How can a system in this state effectively reduce reoffending?” It’s a very good question and one which such concern us all.
According to the PGA President, “Prisons are struggling to deliver safe and effective regimes. This risks legitimacy, increases levels of ‘pain’”. He added that the PGA has been “criticised for referring to the current position in prisons as a ‘perfect storm’ when it is clear prisons are in crisis.”
Captain: “a failure to communicate”
If I may quote from the 1967 cult prison movie – Cool Hand Luke – it seems that “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate”, ironically words spoken by the Captain (warden) of the prison in which young con Luke (Paul Newman) finds himself serving his sentence. It seems that the President of the PGA should be addressing these famous words to Mr Grayling and to Mike Spurr, his faithful sidekick at the top of NOMS.
This is not the first time Mr McLennan-Murray has directed pointed words at ideologically-motivated policies handed down by ‘Crisis’ Chris, particularly the highly controversial revision of the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system that was introduced on 1 November 2013 in Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013. This imposed a ban on prisoners receiving parcels, including books and clean clothing, from their families and friends, as well as forcing many more cons onto the highly punitive Basic regime – effective solitary confinement with no privileges, including no rented TV set or personal belongings.
At that time, Mr McLennan-Murray raised the important issue of running prisons with a degree of consent: “In order to run a safe, decent prison it is vital to have the co-operation of the majority of prisoners,” he observed, adding that “this relationship is underpinned by staff having legitimacy in the eyes of prisoners and this is dependent on trust and transparency in decision making. Some of the recent changes to the IEP system have undermined this trust and threaten the legitimacy of decisions made by staff.”
‘Crisis’ Chris: not listening – as usual
He also warned that “if this is allowed to continue unchecked then a tipping point may be reached whereby prisons are more likely to become unstable than stable. We are already seeing the early signs of this with rising levels of assaults, reportable incidents and a disturbing rise in self inflicted deaths.” Similar concerns have recently been raised by both HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
I’d say that this stark analysis of the serious crisis in our prisons couldn’t really make the situation any clearer, if only Mr Grayling and his minions would be prepared to listen to the voice of reason – and experience. Unfortunately, it seems that he really isn’t willing to take on board what his own senior prison managers are telling him. At least he won’t be able to claim that no-one told him when the proverbial eventually hits the fan, because just about everybody did.