Shame on you, Minister

Toby_Harris_4x3.jpgToby Harris on the government’s belated response to his MoJ commissioned review into the deaths of young prisoners

The independent review I led into self-inflicted deaths of young people in prison was published as The Harris Review: Changing Prisons, Saving Lives on 1 July 2015. The government’s response was finally issued last week.

So was it worth the wait?

The review was the most comprehensive independent examination of penal policy for a generation. Rooted in an enormous volume of evidence, it was underpinned by a detailed analysis of the tragic cases of 87 young people who died in NOMS (National Offender Management System) custody between April 2007 and the end of 2013. Since then, there have been 29 more tragedies.

Some things are welcome in the government’s response, including the promise that: ‘Reducing the rates of violence, self-harm and deaths in all forms of custody is a ministerial priority.’ But while many of the review’s 108 recommendations have been accepted, the detailed wording is not as clear-cut. For example, some are described as agreed and already having been adopted, which rather misses the point that existing policies have been found not to be effective.

33 of the recommendations are rejected outright. These include the fundamental concept at the heart of the review that there should be a suitably trained professional with personal responsibility for the journey of each individual prisoner through the system. This Custody and Rehabilitation Officer would have a case load small enough to know each of the prisoners for whom they are responsible. As part of this, they would ensure that their health, social welfare, security, education, training and rehabilitation needs are being adequately addressed.

Also rejected was the recording of how long prisoners spend in their cells each day compared with time spent engaging in purposeful activity. Despite the evidence that such isolation is likely to be a factor leading to self-harm and suicide.

Michael Gove has committed himself to the rehabilitation revolution, but it is difficult to see how that can be achieved without someone ensuring it happens for individuals. Many lives will continue to be wasted by a system that fails to find what Winston Churchill, when responsible for prisons more than a century ago, called the “curative and regenerating processes … in the heart” of every prisoner.

Other rejected recommendations include policies on bullying, despite evidence that this contributed to many of the deaths we considered. So too were safety measures such as the proposal for a dedicated telephone line for relatives to pass on concerns following visits or telephone calls. Ministers also rejected the proposal of a statutory duty of cooperation between agencies to ensure information about prisoners’ vulnerabilities were shared appropriately; and a duty of candour upon NOMS and its staff in the event of deaths.

Changes to court processes to ensure that custody really is a last resort, by requiring the commissioning of a full written pre-sentence report, were also not accepted by the government. This despite evidence that courts increasingly rely on abbreviated oral assessments of the circumstances and vulnerabilities of young people appearing before them.

Virtually all of the recommendations designed to strengthen transparency and accountability were rejected. These included greater parliamentary oversight, the facility for the Chief Coroner to produce thematic reports on deaths in custody, and increased public reporting by both HM Inspector of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

When the review was submitted to Ministers, I wrote “Those who ignore the lessons of past failures are condemned to repeat them.” Our hope was that the conclusions would be heeded and the tragic preventable loss of young lives would become exceptional and rare.

One recommendation, designed to keep this issue on the top of ministerial agendas, was that in future the Minister for Prisons should personally phone the families of young people who die in NOMS custody. Not just to offer condolences on behalf of the state, but to promise a full investigation and an assurance that the appropriate lessons would be learned.

Perhaps the reason why that specific recommendation was rejected reflects ministerial shame about how often they will still have to make such calls.

Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a backbench Labour Peer. He tweets @LordTobySays

Published 21st December 2015

A longer version of this article was published by The Justice Gap

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