by Jon Robins
Our prisons appear to be in a state of permanent crisis but what little we on the outside know about what goes inside our chaotic and violent jails owes little to journalists. Media has been effectively banned by the Government from going into prisons.
This makes the role of those watchdog organisations that act as our “eyes and ears” vital. Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) are made up of unpaid members of the public who might give up two to three days a month of their time to assess life in prisons and immigration detention centres.
In theory, they have considerable powers. They can visit a prison at any time of day or night, nowhere and no-one is off limits. Members can inspect the kitchens and workshops and check out healthcare provision. They are free to talk to any prisoner they want and they can have those conversations in private.
Well, that’s the idea.
Recently the Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah wrote to the chairman of Hollesley Bay prison to “terminate” her appointment. Faith Spear had written an article complaining that those extensive powers were largely illusory for the 2016 Prisons Handbook. “I am a whistleblower without a whistle,” Ms Spear wrote under the pseudonym “Daisy Mallet”.
“I see so much going on around the prison estate, and not just where I work, that doesn’t add up,” she continued. “At times it’s like having your hands tied behind your back because there is little you can do about it… . At times I want to ask staff what the hell are they doing or not doing. I want to be a voice, that is the purpose of my existence.”
Ms Spear went on to say: “I want to speak out. I am here as the public’s eyes and ears, but my voice is silenced.”
It was the Prison Act 1898 that introduced Boards of Visitors which were renamed IMBs in 2003. In her article, Ms Spear argued that over the last 50 years they had been “subtly conditioned” to behave themselves and complained that she felt “gagged by grooming”. The threat of removal is ever present, and although Parliament has given me extensive powers I feel impotent to exercise them,” she wrote.
Faith Spear was responding to the editor of the Prisons Handbook, Mark Leech, who wanted to know why IMBs never did night visits. According to “Daisy Mallet”, IMBs used “the excuse” that there would only be a skeleton staff on duty and, if there was a disturbance, they would be held responsible. “In truth, however, we do not do them because we know it would be frowned upon,” she added.
Two months before the riot at HMP Bedford in Bedford, 230 inmates got out of their cells and took control of two wings for six hours, the IMB took what it called the unprecedented step of writing to Sam Gyimah. It warned that staff shortages were “beyond crisis point” and of the “alarming rise in prisoners attempting to hang themselves”.
Similarly, a couple of months prior to the major disturbance at HMP Birmingham before Christmas, described as the worst since the Strangeways riot 26 years ago, the local board also warned the MoJ of the prospect of trouble ahead. “Many staff are concerned for their personal safety as well as for the safety of prisoners and how to deal with the next ‘mamba attack’. A solution is required urgently,” it wrote.
Unfortunately for Faith Spear, her colleagues either disagreed with her critical, but hardly earth shattering analysis – or else they are only happy to be muzzled. When they discovered that their chair was “Daisy Mallet”, the vice chair wrote to her saying that their unanimous decision was that she had to resign and, if she didn’t, they would no longer attend meetings which she headed up.
It was her or them.
Now Sam Gyimah has written to her to terminate her contact. The Prison Minister accused her of having had “repeatedly disclosed official, classified and other information, often in an inaccurate manner”. “You have not denied this and in doing so failed to comply with agreed policies and procedures. You have also failed to comply with the standards expected of public appointees,” the minister said.
Ms Spear has been banned from sitting on any IMB for five years. She told the BBC the letter was “shock and upsetting”; but she is unlikely to be silenced. “The IMBs have to change,” she said. “It has to be part of the reform process. If people monitoring are not allowed to speak out about what they see, but are effectively shut down, then I think that is very dangerous.”
A 2014 review of IMBs by Karen Page Associates found that many members reckoned that “insufficient influence” over policy and regimes as “a key frustration”. “It was not enough to efficiently report issues (be the “eyes and ears”), members expected this to be a catalyst for change,” it said. “To some extent they may have been over optimistic about the extent to which they could have a direct impact.” It also noted that the IMBs “did not have enough credibility with key stakeholders to be seriously influential”. That report called for “urgent root and branch review and reform” of governance and arrangements.
In the 10 weeks between the posting of the IMB letter alerting the MoJ to the brewing crisis at Bedford and the rising incidents of self harm and suicide, two prisoners were found hanged. In an article for The Guardian, a serving board member Christopher Padfield called the response from Sam Gyimah little more than “a pat on the head”. For the last eight years, the volunteer had visited the prison most weeks. According to Mr Padfield: “In effect, he was saying: “This is a prison! If you can’t stand the heat, keep out of the kitchen. Sorry to hear that it has made you anxious. Less the two weeks later, there was a riot.”
Jon Robins is a journalist & editor of The Justice Gap
This article was originally published on Criminal Law & Justice Weekly