Friday, 2 September 2011

It’s all about perspective - Almost British?

Lee Jasper: It’s all about perspective [1.5217391304348]
Wandsworth Prison
Buried amidst the rubble in the aftermath of London’s troubled week is news about the spot inspection at Wandsworth prison being “demeaning” and “unsafe”. The BBC report outlines a number of alarming failings: the unacceptably high levels of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths; prisoners being locked in their cells from anything between 16.5 hours to 22 hours per day; the poor provision for Foreign Nationals; and the conclusion that Black and Minority Ethnic prisoners were disadvantaged in significant areas of the prison. In the government’s bid to mete out swift justice, courts across London, Birmingham and Manchester have pulled all-nighters to process 1,700 defendants (so far) for burglary, violent disorder and arson. As tough sentences are passed in response to David Cameron’s pledge to track down, charge and punish offenders, I wonder where he will send them all afterwards.

Only two years ago, the Independent reported that two-thirds of the prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded, with some jails holding hundreds more offenders than they were built for. Since then various initiatives have been considered to reduce overcrowding including the building of Titan prisons and early release programmes. The Government bowed to public pressure and abandoned their plans for Titan prisons but went ahead with early release schemes at a controversial cost of up to £3 million within the first year of the scheme. This initiative was not without it’s problems as it has been reported that some of those released have committed more crime and are now back in jail and around 100 ex-offenders were on the run having been recalled to prison.

All this ‘activity’ has still left us with the question: Once the midnight-oil, mass processing of offenders is done, what does the government propose to do with them? Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that acts of criminality should go unpunished. I am merely suggesting that once the dust has settled the cleanup can’t end with brooms and bin bags.
In response to the Wandsworth Prison Inspection Report, Frances Crook, Chief Executive from the Howard League for Penal Reform said: "Such abuse [of prisoners] hampers safe return to the community and puts victims at risk.”

‘Well boo hoo’ I hear the unsympathetic sarcastically say, ‘prison is supposed to be hard and demeaning’. Indeed it was shocking to see the fires and the looting in the week that England went insane. If you were on the receiving end of the violence I have no doubt that your anger is justified. Whilst not diminishing anyone’s pain and loss, I am looking further down the line. What do we really want? The guilty punished? Yes absolutely! But what then? They won’t stay behind bars forever – they will be coming out. Will they come out worse than they went in and if they do, who pays the price for that?

I have recently come across a book that raises the kind of issues identified in the Wandsworth Inspection Report called ‘Almost British’ by Olivea M Ebanks. Ms Ebanks worked as a senior manager in the Prison Service (an agency of the Ministry of Justice) and experienced racism whilst working at the Prison Service College training Governors and managers that she took them to court for direct racial discrimination, harassment and victimisation. In 2008 she bravely represented herself in a 15 day hearing and won rulings against the Prison Service and some of the named perpetrators. Ms Ebanks went on to write her story to encourage others to stand up to unfair treatment, but also to raise the alarm that racism and unacceptably high levels of use of force along with unfair treatment of Black and Minority prisoners can only end in tragedy. This astonishing prediction is eerily confirmed in the Wandsworth Inspection Report months later. Nick Hardwick Chief Inspector of Prison summarises the main failings:

“There had been 11 deaths in custody between January 2010 and the time of this inspection [28 February – 4 March 2011]... four of these had apparently been self-inflicted...We observed frequently indifferent and sometimes abusive staff interactions with prisoners... Victims of bullying behaviour were not adequately protected... The level of use of force remained high and our examination of records of incidents showed that de-escalation was not always used...neither we nor the prison could be assured that all use of force was proportionate and necessary....The treatment and conditions of simply too many prisoners at Wandsworth was demeaning, unsafe and fell below what could be classed as decent. I did not detect sufficient willingness in the prison to acknowledge and address these concerns.”

The Prison Service or as they are now known the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) immediately issued the standard civil service rhetoric by Michael Spurr the Chief Executive saying "a robust action plan is in place to address the recommendations in the report and managers and staff at the prison are in no doubt that they must improve performance."

Quite right too, but why did they not respond to Ms Ebanks concerns raised nearly a year ago. Surprisingly they have responded to Ms Ebanks by silencing her and telling her not to promote her published book even though (according to her husband) she made her new managers at the Judicial College aware of her plans to publish. Their initial response of congratulations very quickly turned to threats of discipline, dismissal for gross misconduct and led to a formal investigation into her conduct. Another civil service standard response to her book is that Ms Ebanks’ account and concerns are “unbalanced and misleading”, yet when I consider the content of her book I find that her worries about poor treatment of prisoners is uncannily close to the findings of this report. The MoJ seems to have made a very odd and disproportionate response to a member of staff’s genuine concerns which are based on her own experience of discrimination and unfair treatment as upheld by law.

This brings me back to my original questions, ‘what kind of environments are we sending those convicted of crime this last week into; will they come back having paid the debt due to society as better, well-adjusted and rehabilitated individuals or will their stay end in tragedy as predicted by Ms Ebanks and now shown as a real outcome by the Wandsworth Inspection Report. With the potential of overcrowding once again becoming an issue because of an upsurge in convictions, overstretched and (in the case of Wandsworth) indifferent staff, use of force on prisoners as a first response, and Foreign Nationals being held up to 3 years beyond their sentence, the next 18 months will be very telling.

Ms Ebanks is still an employee of the Ministry of Justice and now has to go back to court on 8th December 2011 to fight to have the harsh restrictions imposed, taken off her book. I wonder just how “robust” the action plan that Michael Spurr is referring to is going to be? Particularly, in light of the fact that NOMS is prepared to spend public money to defend a case that articulated problems from a member of staff’s perspective with regard to prisoner treatment and whose perspective is now echoed as evidence in an official report. It doesn’t seem right to me to relentlessly pursue a member of staff who drew from her own experience and the statistics that are in the public domain to raise concerns about the welfare of others, for those concerns to be met with institutional force, belittlement and attempts at gagging. But then that’s only my perspective.

Lee Jasper

(First publised at OBV

Connected article:  The Ministry of Justice or dystopian fiction?