There is now just one member of the independent monitoring board of Hollesley Bay prison. Last Tuesday, the board wrote to their chair, Faith Spear, telling her that either she resigned or they did. She didn’t resign. So they did.
Spear’s crime was to write an article in the 2016 edition of the Prisons Handbook, using a pseudonym, in which she issued several complaints about the way the the boards operate. These strange little groups, which are supposed to scrutinise prisons, use a baffling recruitment process to recruit an army of wealthy retired people to monitor prisons full of people whose lives they will never be able to understand. Why, Faith asked, was the secretariat for the boards literally in the Ministry of Justice and entirely dependant on it for funding? Why were they discouraged from speaking to the press, or conducting night-time visits?
These criticisms did not go down well.
"I had a call from my vice chair saying I’d been identified as Daisy Mallet [the pseudonym the article was written under]," she says. "She said I had to prepare a statement for the annual board meeting on the 19th and to state in it that I was the author of the piece."
Spear prepared her statement, went to the board meeting and delivered it. What she didn’t know is that they had already met and prepared questions for her.
"One by one they all fired questions at me," she says. "For 50 minutes I was bombarded. The venom in some of those people was unbelievable. Every one of them. Then I was asked by the vice-chair to leave the room while they deliberated. On what? I didn’t know because no one would say anything."
They told her to go home and come in again tomorrow to hear the outcome, but she refused. Instead, she went and sat in her car for 40 minutes. Then a member of the board came out and took her to meet the vice chair.
"They sat me down and said there’d been a unanimous vote for me to step down as chairman," she says. "I had no clue that was what they were doing. I said: 'I won’t make that decision right now'. They said if I didn’t, the whole board would refuse to work with me. I would receive a formal letter in the post."
The letter came. She sent one back refusing to step down. So now Spear is, to all intents and purposes, the one and only member of the monitoring board.
Spear’s article was critical of the boards, but it was hardly man-the-barricades stuff. The reaction to it suggests a culture which is desperate to shield itself against criticism. And for good reason, because in a justice system which blocks almost all forms of scrutiny, many independent monitoring boards are failing to hold prison authorities to account.
There are three parts to the prison scrutiny system: The press, the inspectorate and the monitoring boards. The first part is useless. It’s very difficult indeed for journalists to access prisons. And even if they could, most couldn’t care less, outside of a couple of shrieking tabloid headlines about Playstations. There is almost no media scrutiny of the way prisons operate.
So a lot of responsibility is left to the chief inspector of prisons. The outgoing inspector, Nick Hardwick, has proved hugely impressive and, consequently, ended up at loggerheads with former justice secretary Chris Grayling, who tried to get him to take out criticism of government policy from his annual report. The chief inspector is appointed by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and reliant on it for his budget, setting up a rather unhelpful dynamic given he’s supposed to be scrutinising the results of its policies.
And then there’s the monitoring boards. These are small local groups made up of volunteers who will very often make daily trips to the prison. In a way they’re more useful than the chief inspector – or they could be – because they know the place inside and out.
But there’s a fundamental problem with their purpose: no-one knows exactly what it is. They are, on some level, meant to be the eyes and ears of the justice secretary, sending him reports about how the prison and its governor are doing. But in fact those reports take a route through the governor, even though there are rules about how much they can influence it.
On another level they are plainly scrutinising MoJ policy, because most things going wrong in prison are as much a reflection of the orders that came down from Whitehall as they are the behaviour of the governor. For others they’re not a scrutiny body at all, just a sort of administrative organisation helping connect prisoners with services. Although that being said, many prisoners have never heard of the independent monitoring boards.
In short, it’s a mess. The first part of the prison scrutiny system is useless, the second part is in an MoJ headlock, and the third part isn’t sure what it’s supposed to be doing. This is why, incidentally, penal reform groups like the Howard League are so crucial: their contact with prisoners and their families, even when hamstrung by the government, is invaluable.
You can see this discrepancy in the work on the monitoring boards. You really never know what you’re going to get with their reports. Take the 2014-15 report into Long Lartin. It is absolutely brilliant, particularly on the issue of education, where the board highlighted the insanely counter-productive practice of actually stopping prisoners from receiving education past basic skills.
"Men who have these basic skills, whether acquired in prison or without, continue to seek what Education can provide," the report says. "This is particularly true of those who face many years in custody. Education offers them stimulus and challenge, engagement with a wider world and a framework for reflection. If imprisonment is to work it has to hold the possibility of individual development.
"It is frustrating to long term prisoners – and galling to the board – when they find that success at City and Guilds Level 2 or its equivalent disqualifies them from further formal study. In a broad sense it is opportunities for rehabilitation which are being lost; underlying this is a denial of something which our society claims to value. More immediately, it is a neglect of opportunities to contribute to the stability of the prison."
Clear-sighted and very useful. Now compare that to the 2012-13 report for the Serco-run Thameside prison, where the board appears to have gone native. The report came just after a damning assessment by the inspectorate, which said the "prison’s regime was one of the most restricted we have ever seen".
It went on:
"Levels of assaults were too high and of concern. In the autumn, and as an operational response to rising levels of violence the prison had taken the unusual step of effectively locking down the prison, severely curtailing the regime and in particular prisoner access to time unlocked. The prison had done little to evaluate the success of this quite extreme strategy and at the time of our visit there seemed only vague plans to restore the prison to normality."
In a remarkable turnaround, the monitoring board seemed more angry with the inspector for producing a critical report than they were with the prison for allowing a regime in which violent assaults had become commonplace.
"In January 2013, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons inspected the prison," their report said. "The report (dated May 2013) gives a snapshot of the prison as inspectors saw it in January. The picture has been rapidly overtaken by events and the Band 1 (overall performance is ‘of serious concern’) awarded on the Prison Rating System for 2012/13 is a travesty."
There then follows an astonishing section in which the board starts attacking critics of privately-run prisons.
"HMP Thameside is operated by a public limited company (plc), under contract to the Ministry of Justice. Some who work in the public sector and other organisations concerned with criminal justice believe that private sector involvement of this sort is wrong. This is a legitimate point of view, but it is not honest to cite incomplete evidence to justify inaccurate criticisms or to create circumstances that make successful operation of the prison more difficult. Such things have happened during the period covered by this report and the people who ultimately suffer the consequences are the prisoners themselves."
It’s just bizarre and goes some way towards reflecting the inconsistency and muddled agendas with which the boards operate across the country.
How is this happening? Partly it’s to do with membership. These are time-demanding roles with zero remuneration beyond travel expenses, so they tend to attract a particular kind of person: retired, well-off, usually white. Imagine magistrates and you’re on the right path. There are even stories of recruitment notices being put up in the local golf club.
"I addressed a gathering of the board’s members last year," Jonathan Robinson, author of the book In It, says. "I don’t think anyone present – the frontline independent inspectors – was under the age of 50. An awful lot of tweed was being worn. I’ve never seen so many hearing aids in one space and the car park had more than an average quota of Volvos parked within.
"I pleaded with them to attempt to attract a younger group to join their ranks. Fresh eyes… inquisitive eyes… perhaps university criminology students… individuals possibly less likely to be diverted by box-ticking prison governors with cups of tea and biscuits."
Spear offered the same assessment in her piece. "I’m 51 and there’s one person younger than me on the board," she tells me. "Most are twenty years older than me. It’s like the prisoners are talking to their grandad. Some of the things they have had to face… we’ve never faced anything like that. It needs to be more representative."
But it’s hard to make the boards more representative because they are unpaid and very time-demanding. Then there’s the application process, which is just bizarre. Firstly, it is mostly done by word of mouth and MoJ websites, which all but guarantees that people will be selected from a limited talent pool. In most cases the boards are so understaffed that they will accept literally anyone who applies.
Looking for a new challenge in 2016?
How about volunteering with your local Independent Monitoring Board?
— Inside Time (@InsideTimeUK) January 14, 2016
The applicant is taken around the prison, which Spear says is a very useful way to measure how comfortable and effective they’d be in the role. But the assessment of the person taking them around the prison can’t be used in the interview for the position. So the most useful, hands-on element of the recruitment process is made operationally irrelevant.
All these slapdash arrangements are reflected in the output of the boards. As a 2014 independent review by Karen Page Associates found:
"The boards did not have enough credibility with key stakeholders to be seriously influential, despite many instances of boards working effectively locally. Some members did not inspire confidence because of the way they undertook monitoring or because they seemed not to know enough about prisons or immigration removals systems. This minority could affect the way all members were perceived. There were unexplained inconsistencies between boards in the way they worked. Boards did not express their findings in a sufficiently compelling, evidence-based way."
It gets worse.
"The boards’ independent status sat uncomfortably with a reliance on civil servants who are, in effect, acting for the secretary of state. Civil service structures and systems do not lend themselves to the support and administration of an independent federation of volunteer based bodies. This created operational difficulties for members and for staff of the secretariat. It could also give the erroneous impression to the public that the boards are part of government. The system must change if the boards are to be the kind of public service its members want them to be and which the public recognises and values."
But then, it’s hardly surprising that things don’t improve when whistleblowers issuing warnings about the system are treated as Spear has been.
"It’s been ridiculous," she says. "I haven’t slept or eaten properly as a result of it. But I won’t be bullied." Nevertheless, as things stand, she remains the only member on her board: a chaotic situation which neatly encapsulates the haphazard way they are operating.
As this article was being written, the latest stats for deaths, assaults and self-harm in prisons were published.
There were 100 suicides last year – up from 79 the year before. There were 32,313 incidents of self harm incidents – up from 25,843 in 2014. There were 20,518 assaults – up from 16,219 in 2014. A total of 2,813 of them were serious assaults, up 31% from the year before. Of these, 625 were on staff.
There is a prison crisis in this country. Journalists are effectively blocked from getting into prisons and seeing it first hand. The chief inspector of prisons has been doing his best to make it public but is constrained by the way the system operates. Monitoring boards, with their local knowledge and daily visits, could be doing so much more to scrutinise what is happening and help prisoners trying to access services like education. Instead, they are a muddled mess where the fiercest criticism is reserved for those who speak out against them.
Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners