Lord Martin Thomas writes: Building a justice system that offers rehabilitation and hope

No one will forget the pictures three weeks ago of the shaven headed prisoners  clad in orange trousers, sardined together in an improvised prison cell in Northern Syria. Nothing to do except exist. They were captured ISIL fighters, at least a third of whom were foreigners, including British citizens, who had flocked to join the caliphate. My sympathy for them is non existent.  Their captors, the Kurdish SDF, regard them as a time bomb and in the events of the last few days, can no  longer guarantee to hold them. But it was their eyes that caught my attention.

I have seen eyes like that before. In the early eighties, I was privileged to tour the Vietnamese Boat People’s heavily guarded camps in Hong Kong where refugee families were warehoused in three storey high, square steel pods, awaiting endlessly to be processed. They had nothing to do. My Report, made for the Leader of the Liberal Party, Lord Steel, and passed to the British government, was according to my UNHCR contacts at the time, influential in opening the gates of the camps to permit the males useful daytime work within the HK community.

Contrast Death Row in a Caribbean country, where 180 men sentenced to death stood around in a compound built for fifty and despaired. The opposition campaigned vigorously for the abolition of appeals to the Privy Council  so that the gallows at the end of the building could do their work. Why bother with rehabilitation?

So it was with some weariness that I heard again the proposal in the Queen’s Speech to waste the limited resources of the Justice Department on lengthening sentences of imprisonment, instead of focusing on running the jails properly, killing off the drug trade, and making a real effort to release into the community people who will not offend again.In 2014, with the active support of the Liberal Democrats in the Welsh Parliament, permission was granted for the Berwyn training prison to be built on the Industrial Estate of my home town, Wrexham. I was intrigued because in my youth, I had worked on that very site as a member of a railway gang with my pick and shovel. We were replacing wooden war time sleepers with concrete supports. I know the area well. I watched the buildings go up to open at a cost of £250 millions as the largest operational prison in the UK and the second largest in Europe. Here, I thought, was the opportunity with the excellent modern design and facilities, really to do something to tackle attitudes, to change people’s lives, to turn prisoners away from crime.  All “rooms” have integral sanitation, a shower cubicle, a PIN phone, and a UniLink laptop terminal. It opened in February 2017. It is designed to hold up to  2106 prisoners serving 4 years or more.

A local rugby player, an experienced prison officer from a Merseyside prison, warned me that despite attractive offers,  no regular trained officers would be attracted to work there. “It’ll be full of Newbees” he said, “You need to know who you are dealing with, whose standing next to you.” He was right: A recent report by the Welsh Affairs Committee on Prison Provision revealed that 89% of prison staff are in the first two years of training. The POA say the recruitment pool in North Wales is exhausted: “We see very young inexperienced officers joining with very inexperienced staff to guide them”. The prison currently has to be capped at 1300. An inmate released in May said “It’s being run like a youth club”.

A first inspection led by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke,  took place unannounced earlier this year. He found that the prison had “opened with a very clear rehabilitative vision which has faced resistance at times.” He found that because of the inexperience of the staff, assaults on them were higher and the use of force by the staff in response was far higher  with full control and restraint used in 90% of the cases. The staff failed to challenge low level poor behaviour. Although there were sufficient activity places, a substantial number of prisoners were unemployed or failed to attend their allocated education, training or work place. Staff did not do enough to challenge those who chose not to participate.

A chance meeting with 20 year old Levi in a Wrexham street last week.  He’d just been released from a six month sentence: “It was a right laugh –you could get ketamine, spice, and any drug you fancied. I had a bit of a bill to pay when I came out.. We spent the day stoned, playing video games.” Three weeks ago, an inmate was convicted of a sexual assault on a female guard.  His mitigation system was that he had drunk four litres of jail house hooch and was dared to touch her for another litre. Earlier in the year, a female guard was sent to prison for 12 months for having sex with a prisoner.

The Chief Inspector’s Report confirmed that drugs were too readily available: 48% of the prisoners had told his team so. “The substance use strategy was weak and not supported by a plan to co-ordinate drive and measure the effectiveness of actions taken”.

He expressed a particular concern: About 40 prisoners a month were released – about half to Wales and half to England. There was no realistic plan to address the resettlement needs of prisoners to be released to England  from April 2019. The response by the Department published last month is that they hope to complete arrangements by December of this year through their Community Rehabilitation Contracts with its Through the Gate programmes.

The Chief Inspector concluded that there were not enough offending behaviour programmes to meet the needs of the population, with only enough places in the coming year for about a third of prisoners who meet the criteria for treatment.The Response to this recommendation is that the it is only ‘Partly Agreed’ as the establishment is limited to the amount of programmes the prison is commissioned to provide and the accommodation/resources needed to provide these programmes. The cohort of prisoners serving indefinite public protection sentences have no access to courses which might qualify them for release.

This is the context in which the Lord Chancellor winds up the rhetoric to “restore public faith in sentencing” to ensure that the most serious violent and sexual offenders “face longer behind bars”, by abolishing the current half way release for serious offenders. As the Prison Reform Trust pointed out, judges already have the power to do everything the Lord Chancellor says he wants. He wants to move to an “earned release system”.

It is a function of government to govern: to use public resources to administer and to get results. The history of Berwyn to date indicates that the Justice Department  is failing in this basic duty. Do not waste the time and energy of those managers who are at the coalface trying to cope. Fund the programmes that are required, recruit the staff, use the resources in such a way that the outcomes are positive and that offenders are given not a drug fuelled holiday, but a rigorous training which unlike those men in Syria, or the despairing inmates of Death Row, give them some hope for the future of their lives and families.

* Martin Thomas is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and the party's Shadow Attorney General

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  • I agree Martin, it’s a huge waste of money to be spending money on pointless extensions to sentences when that same money could and should be better spent on rehabilitation. There are so many areas of the justice system that could greatly benefit from additional funding that would ultimately result in us all being safer and less pressure on the system in the long-term (saving us money), and it seems far too obvious and logical to invest in those areas.

    Unfortunately, logic goes out of the window when talking about justice. It’s just too emotive for many of us, and too easy for media outlets to sensationalise crime and the impact of crime, and many politicians are happy enough to push populist policies that I’m sure half don’t personally believe in.

    I’m not entirely sure what we can do to encourage people to think about crime and sentencing in more practical terms, especially not in the short-term. Better understanding of the legal system would be helpful, with at least some time dedicated to it in schools.

    Far from expert myself, I am now following @BarristerSecret on twitter, which is insightful and I note that his/her book which touches on this issue is still in the top ten best sellers list. One of the themes of the book is that the justice system doesn’t get proper consideration in politics because the general public have no interaction with it. But the continuing success of this book suggests that there is an appetite, amongst some, to learn more.

  • As expected, a thoughtful and liberal article by Martin.

    There is a clear problem with staff recruitment and quality control. I would argue
    privatisation of much of the prison service is partly responsible for this.

    On a philosophical basis – given that offenders have offended against society – I would argue that society should be responsible for providing the remedies for this rather than leaving it to the profit motive, including a proper structured career structure.

    In April, the Financial Times questioned the privatisation of the prison and probation services :
    “While outsourcing of public services, pioneered by the Thatcher government in the 1980s, can point to successes in some cases, there have been failures with privatisation in other parts of the criminal justice system. Stories range from G4S and Serco overcharging the government for tagging former offenders to bullying by staff at youth detention centres. There have also been problems in the privatisation of the probation service, which MPs branded a “mess” last year.

    Proponents of prison privatisation argue that competition keeps costs down, introduces innovation and brings market discipline through strict performance targets. Since there is only a handful of providers, however, competition is limited. Innovation is also difficult given the tight rules the government sets for prisons. Cost savings have not always been delivered, or have come at a price. Both Thameside prison run by Serco and Oakwood have primarily made savings by paying staff less than public sector rivals. This raises questions about the suitability, experience and morale of the personnel”. FT 8 April, 2019.

    It’s worth noting that the former prisons minister Rory Stewart (‘I will resign if….’) has long gone.

  • I have read this very powerful contribution. I would start earlier. We know that a worryingly high percentage of looked after children are at some time in prison. We know that many prisoners have been classed as having special educational needs when at school. This is our responsibility. Ot is time to look afresh at the way we deal these problems. We need to positively support those reachers who show they can make a posited contribution to their development. We need to support the many people involved in our work for looked after children.
    Most urgently I suggest we need to remove Ofsted from the scene and replace them with a genuinely supportive organisation.
    Most of all we need to deal with the stress and poverty which underlies so many problems in our society.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Oct '19 - 11:41am

    David Raw 20th Oct ’19 – 12:09pm
    Rory Stewart is not the only one. David Cameron sidelined the experienced Ken Clarke, while calling him “my learned friend” and criticising his bird-watching. Boris dropped David Gauke from the cabinet, withdrew the Tory whip and threatened his position as an MP. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Gauke

  • Peter Hirst 21st Oct '19 - 1:07pm

    Rehabilitating prisoners requires a different culture from guarding them; for both to work the two cultures must be aware of and not interfere with each other though their aims conflict. This differentiation is essential as one person can’t do both. They require different mind sets.

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