Faith Spear blew the whistle on the prison monitoring system just over a month ago. Given how cloaked in secrecy the prison system is, it should come as no surprise that she's now been suspended.
Independent monitoring boards are small local groups which are supposed to see how things are going in their prison, as well as check up on prisoners, report on the governor and generally assess the impact of Ministry of Justice policy. There's generally precious little scrutiny of the prison system, so their work is vital. Unfortunately, as Spear reported, they are incapable of doing their job.
Their staff – mostly retired people – are hopelessly out of touch with prisoners, they have no clear goals or accountability, and their central administrative body is embedded in Whitehall. Given that Spear was actually the chair of one of these boards, she made a very compelling case.
Earlier this week, she received a letter from the prisons minister telling her she was suspended.
— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) June 1, 2016
"Your recent behaviour may have fallen below the standard expected of an IMB [independent monitoring board] member," Andrew Selous wrote. “I have asked that an independent investigation be conducted by a member of staff within the Ministry of Justice to establish whether these allegations are substantiated.”
What had Spear supposedly done wrong? Well firstly she'd failed "to treat colleagues with respect" and secondly she’d acted "in a manner which could bring discredit or cause embarrassment to the IMB".
None of this is surprising. The prison system goes to great lengths to make sure it is not scrutinised. This is typically done by embedding the systems which are meant to hold the Ministry of Justice to account in the Ministry of Justice itself. You can imagine the result.
The secretariat of the independent monitoring boards is literally located inside the Ministry of Justice building in Whitehall. It appears to have been working behind the scenes to leverage Spear out of her role as chair – or at the very least to have been in regular communication with those who were.
A member of the Ministry of Justice staff is also tasked with conducting the "independent" investigation. You don't need to be a cynic to come a wary conclusion on how independent it is likely to be.
It may sound strange that the body scrutinising something should be run from the office of the thing it is supposed to be scrutinising, but that’s how they do things at the Ministry of Justice. The department also funds and resources the chief inspector of prisons. He still managed to produce highly critical reports about the state of the prison system, but even in his case the pressure became hard to bear. At one point former justice secretary Chris Grayling demanded hat he delete criticism of him from his annual report.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, the inspector told the story of a visiting Russian delegation he met in London. "I was going on about how important it is to be independent, and they said, 'Well, who appoints you?' I said, the Ministry of Justice, and they asked, 'Who sets your budget' Well, that’s the Ministry of Justice, I said. And they go, 'Ah, you mean that kind of independence!'"
The press are prevented from doing any sort of detailed coverage of prisons. They are mostly barred from entering the prisons themselves and the rules around prisoners talking to journalists are as long as your arm. Visits, for instance, are only allowed in "exceptional circumstances", for instance where there is "sufficiently strong public interest in the issue sought to be raised during the visit and the assistance of a particular journalist is needed". Not likely, in other words
So it's hardly surprising they're coming down like a ton of bricks on the person highlighting the deficiencies of the monitoring system. When Spear published her long critique of the way the system operated and why her own board was unable to fulfil its remit, the members immediately turned on her. They called her to a meeting, demanded she admit she wrote the article, then told her to leave while they voted on her future. She stood them down and refused to resign.
What’s interesting is that the secretariat, based in the MoJ, seemed to be advising them on what actions to follow. A message sent out by the vice-chair, seen by Politics.co.uk, says:
"The chairing of the meeting by the vice chair had been agreed by the secretariat… prior to the meeting, as part of a suggested process to attempt resolution at a local level."
The message goes on to say that members of the board might consider continuing to work with Spear if she stepped down as chair and accepted "reasonable constraints on publicly criticising its work".
It ends: "We are keen to move forward, with the support we have been told to expect from secretariat… to fulfil the board’s duties… and to repair the damage that has been done."
Given the concerted efforts to get her to resign from her post after she blew the whistle, it’s hardly strange that Spear should speak to the press. She gave an interview to her local paper and Inside Times, the prison magazine, and she showed the editor of the Prisons Handbook emails which had been sent by board members organising against her. It's these actions which the prisons minister flagged up as the reason for her suspension. The MoJ claims none of this is connected to her critical article – only her decision to speak to the press afterwards and reveal the emails. Basically, Spear was expected to sit there and let the board remove her for making valid criticisms of the monitoring system, without fighting back at all.
It's the same old story: censorship and opaque decision-making, with the roar of the prison crisis in the background. Spear blew the whistle on the failures of the system and the system tried to get rid of her. When she fought back, it suspended her on the basis of having done so.
This is the standard operation procedure for a prison system which is determined to remain cloaked in secrecy.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:
"There is an ongoing investigation into Hollesley Bay Independent Monitoring Board. No conclusions have been made and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.
"As with all public appointments, it is standard practice to suspend a member of staff during an investigation. If no wrongdoing is found they will be reinstated.
"We value the work of IMBs, who play an important role in ensuring prisons are places of decency and rehabilitation."