Prison window, flickr under creatruve comms

Whatever has gone on at HMP Oakwood the most important thing is that the problems it is facing are addressed with some urgency. We are allowed some schadenfreude. Pic from Flickr under creative comms, decade_null

G4S is big enough and ugly enough and they pay themselves enough to take some flak. But there are 1,600 prisoners there plus staff and victims in the community to which we have a responsibly. Oakwood needs to be safe, secure and constructive, and soon. I have written (HERE) and others including Jerry Petherick, MD of Custodial Services in G4S, have commented (HERE), that it takes time for a new prison to settle in and for staff to gain the right sort of experience to manage a sophisticated prison population.

But what precisely needs to be done, what is being done and how long should it take? Is two years too long, not long enough and what other questions does the Oakwood ‘crisis’ pose?

Three things will currently be in play. The most visible to the general public is the report last year of HMCIP Nick Hardwick (PDF), one of the most damming I have seen or been party to. That will have triggered an action plan which will be revisited by Hardwicke when he sees fit. That should be soon.

The prison service also has a plethora of processes and departments auditing and monitoring the performance of Oakwood and all other jails. More output than the outcome focus of HMCIP, it will help paint a picture of what precisely is going wrong and indeed right.

A key part of that process is a tool of which I have long been a proponent but which in my view is underused, MQPL – the measurement of the quality of prisoner life: a sophisticated prisoner survey doing exactly what it says on the tin.

Its results can often be at odds with the more quantitative audit processes and dismissed at times on the basis that ‘prisoners would say that wouldn’t they’ but it informs a process of improvement like no other.

Overlaying all if this is the mysterious contract between MoJ and G4S. This is the commercial in confidence, definitive description of what G4S should do, what it gets paid for and what it loses if it fails to do. There will be fines and penalties centred around such things as escapes, levels of assault, drug finds and many many more.

Ironically the measurement of such outputs is more closely monitored and less easily ‘misreported’ than in the public sector. Whether it requires police costs to be reimbursed if they attend a disturbance is less well known.

Jerry Petherick stated on yesterday’s Today Programme on Radio 4 that public sector prison riot control staff are provided on a reciprocal basis. That would appear to be a good deal. But whether there is true, full cost recovery for all ‘unintended consequences’ will never be known. Perhaps we as tax payers should know.

Bigger, but not better
Is Oakwood a prompt for the public vs private debate? I would suggest not.

It has been said that the best private sector prisons are better than the best public sector prisons but that the worst private prisons are worse than the worst public sector prisons. The evidence would suggest that’s about right.

The moral debate on prisons for profit remains and ironically whilst the UK has a greater percentage of private prisons than most other jurisdictions across the world, Secretary of State Chris Grayling has stemmed the tide of wholesale privatisation for now, in favour of more rapid savings within the public sector through lower staffing levels and the contacting out of ancillary services. The appetite for large Government contracts in criminal justice has been satiated with the privatisation of probation.

 But supersize Oakwood and the proposed Titan in Wrexham represent more worrying aspects of Government policy. They are heralded as modernisation and cost cutting, economies of scale driving down unit costs. But even the NAO has questioned this approach particularly in the context of the closure of small but high quality prisons like HMP Northallerton.

There is no evidence that big is beautiful. Risks are high and benefits to anyone beyond the usual suspects that trouser millions on the back of major capital projects unlikely.

There is no point in hiding away from the fact that savings have to be made.

Health and education may be ringfenced and protected by the chancellor but Justice lies alongside welfare as a department to be plundered. The problem is that such policies cannot run alongside the ‘get tough’ rhetoric that the two main political parties will beat each other over the head with in the run up to 2015.

It has already started, as evidenced today with Shadow Secretary of State Sadiq Khan accusing the Government of letting large numbers of offenders off with community punishments . Whatever the truth of the figures we are not a lenient nation. Sentences are getting longer and passing new laws are seen as the answer to everything. Even today the House of Lords is debating the issue of whether ‘being annoying’ is an offence – that’s 10 years for me then!

We save money in criminal justice by locking up only those that need to be. Four years after Lord Bradley reached the obvious conclusion in his report that people with a mental illness should be diverted into health and away from prison, a small pilot scheme has been merely extended. Some would argue that is because there is no capacity in health to deal with the numbers. If true it is a sad indictment of society and serves only to underpin the widely held view that prison is the backstop for many of society’s wider problems.

But if evidence were needed of our obsession with incarceration, last week the inimitable Naked Rambler was sentence to 16 months in prison. That’s tough on nudity, tough on the causes of nudity then.

Profile photo of John Podmore About John Podmore
John is a freelance criminal justice consultant. He worked in the prison service for 25 years and governed three prisons – Belmarsh, Swaleside and Brixton - and spent three years as an inspector of prisons

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