Prison Monitors: “They’re the old gits that visit, right?” by Mark Leech
Four years ago, I was invited to take part in a Ministry of Justice (MOJ) review designed to reform the long-discredited system of Independent Monitoring in our prisons.
I genuinely expected this vital review would finally bring the crucial ‘root and branch’ reform to prison monitoring that so many, myself included, had spent years calling for – looking back four years now, and at the new system of governance that as a result of the review that comes into effect today [1st Nov], I really should have known better.
There have been ‘monitors’ of one kind or another inside our prisons since Tudor times, the modern-day version was created by the Prison Act 1952 – monitors are groups of local unpaid volunteers, selected by the Justice Secretary and appointed to every prison and immigration removal centre in the country to monitor day-to-day life inside.
Until 2003 these monitors were known as ‘Boards of Visitors’ and in addition to their pastoral role in hearing prisoner complaints they also possessed potent powers to punish prisoners – powers they so regularly abused they were stripped of them completely in 1993 after a series of high profile disciplinary decisions and punishments were quashed by the courts for blatant bias towards prison staff; no wonder confidence in their alleged independence has failed to develop.
In one infamous series of cases following a riot at Hull Prison in 1976 (Regina v Hull Prison Visitors, ex parte St Germain [ 1979] QB 425) the Hull Board travelled the country and imposed over 90 years of additional sentences on prisoners.
These ‘adjudication’ hearings were held behind closed doors, prisoners had no legal representation, they were routinely refused permission to call witnesses in their defence, and even stopped from questioning reporting officers. The bias displayed by this Board, and many others around the country too, is a legacy that prisoners have never forgotten; it toxically taints the reputation of the Independent Monitoring Board and their claimed independence to this day.
And it’s not just the ancestors of Independent Monitoring Boards that have lost the confidence of prisoners, modern-day Independent Monitoring Boards have done so too.
When Parliament created prison monitors they invested them with powers, set out Rule 79 of the Prison Rules 1999 as amended, giving them the legal right of access to the prison at any time, and to every prisoner within it. These are vital powers for any independent body to possess, but to be useful they also have to be regularly exercised, and the fact is they’re not.
While Boards often pop in and out of their prison during the week, when it comes to paying visits to the prison during the night, that is a very different story.
Even today very few Independent Monitoring Boards exercise this important right to visit the prison at night – and this despite a 2008 case where a prison officer was found trying to sleep on a rolled-out mattress while the prisoner he was supposed to be monitoring in a CCTV-covered cell on a heightened suicide watch, and who had made four unnoticed suicide attempts in the previous 90 minutes, lay slumped dead against his cell door.
Sadly, nothing in today’s new governance system will change that, and it ought to have done.
The fact is that many prisoners do not even know who the Independent Monitoring Board are, or what their purpose is – and many staff are confused and mistrusting of them too. One inmate when asked if he knew who the Independent Monitoring Board were replied: ‘Yeah, they’re the old gits that visit right?’
Actually, yes they are, but they are supposed to be so much more than that – and they could be if only they practiced their statutory independence as often as they trumpeted it.
Let me be absolutely clear from the off – we need Independent Monitors in our prisons. Full stop.
They fulfil a vital supervisory role and hold the balance between the Governor and the internal management of the prison on one hand, and prisoners and the public on the other.
But to be good they’ve also got to be courageous; and the truth is largely they’re just not.
The 2014 Independent Monitoring Board Ministry of Justice review I took part in came about because of a damning independent report by Karen Page Associates (KPA) into the Independent Monitoring Board system; a Report commissioned by the Ministry of Justice itself.
KPA concluded governance of the current Independent Monitoring Board system was so defective, the Independent Monitoring Board so discredited among prisoners and staff, only complete ‘root and branch’ reform would do.
As a part of that Ministry of Justice Review I saw all the options and I read all the papers, I was optimistic that Independent Monitoring Board reform might be coming at long last, but the new system effective from today is not what the Justice Secretary signed off on, it has been completely rehashed and in effect from today it changes nothing at all.
The new Independent Monitoring Board system is just a rebranding exercise in which governance and accountability haven’t changed at all. Bizarrely for an organisation that seeks to promote itself as independent and transparent, while we happily name the head of MI5, the public are not allowed to know the names of Independent Monitoring Board members for ‘personal security reasons.’
Formerly the Independent Monitoring Board were placed inside the Ministry of Justice where they were administered by an ‘Independent Monitoring Board Secretariat’ that controlled all Boards, being responsible for recruitment, training, publications and they also handle the removal from Boards of any member who goes native, those who are ‘too independent to be independent’ as it was once explained to me.
Each Independent Monitoring Board geographical area also formerly had Regional Representatives, they met four times a year to discuss common issues between Boards, but many Independent Monitoring Board members complained they never actually saw these people very often if at all – the governance system was broken and the review was designed to correct that. Both the Secretariat and the system of regional representatives were identified as focuses for reform.
However, under the new system that comes into effect today, the former ‘Independent Monitoring Board Secretariat’ is now to be known as the ‘Independent Monitoring Board Management Board’, consisting of former Ministry of Justice Secretariat staff, while the Regional Independent Monitoring Board Representatives are now called, well, Regional Independent Monitoring Board Representatives; the reality is they’re exactly the same horses as before, being ridden by exactly the same jockeys, who are just wearing different colours from today that’s all.
One of the many fundamental problems with the Independent Monitoring Board is that while allegedly they’re ‘independent’, the clue is after all in their name, to prisoners and staff alike they’re not independent; staff view them as spies, while prisoners view them as an extension of the prison governor, there to legitimise his actions and rubber-stamp his decisions.
In theory Independent Monitoring Boards are there to independently monitor what happens in their local prisons, but while they come from the community that surrounds the prison, they are not selected by that community and nor are they answerable to it.
Selection is by and answerability is to the Justice Secretary who, in effect, selects his own watchdogs – and he isn’t afraid to kick them out the door if they speak out of turn either.
Faith Spear, the former Independent Monitoring Board Chair of Her Majestys Prison Hollesley Bay, wrote an article for The Prisons Handbook 2016, entitled ‘Whistle Blower Without A Whistle‘, in which she spoke out about how Independent Monitoring Boards were ‘gagged by grooming’. She revealed how Boards were subtlety told to keep their gobs shut and say nothing in public – you tell me: is that a body that bears on its face the classic hallmarks of an Independent Watchdog – or an obedient Lapdog?
For speaking publicly Faith Spears was dismissed from the Independent Monitoring Board and banned from even applying to go back on one for five years – you see the problem with the Independent Monitoring Board today is not with the hard working, dedicated, unpaid, nameless Independent Monitoring Board members, rather it’s the Putin-like grip that the Ministry of Justice keeps on them, preventing them under threat of removal from speaking out publicly – until that is someone else lets the cat out of the bag first.
Last January the Chief Inspector of Prisons issued his first ever Urgent Notification about Birmingham Prison where conditions had become so bad the Ministry of Justice on hearing about it immediately stepped in, removed control of the prison from G4S, and have worked hard to re-establish order and control. Broken windows, bare electrical wires, rat and cockroach infestation, broken toilets and showers, staff with little or no control – it read like a page out of a Dickens novel.
And what made this worse is that Birmingham’s Independent Monitoring Board knew all of this, and they hadn’t said a dicky bird publicly about it at all.
It seemingly never crossed their minds that in addition to telling the Prisons Minister of the meltdown the prison was in, they also had a duty as ‘Independent’ monitors to advise the Birmingham public of the horrors in which their loved ones were working or being detained in the prison.
Publicly, they uttered not a word, for a whole year, and they‘re not alone.
There have been three other Urgent Notifications since Birmingham and in every case, it has become clear the Independent Monitoring Board knew of the dire straits the prison was in but said nothing to the public.
That is not an independent monitoring system, it’s a system riddled with gags, bullying, subversion and bias, and we have no need for either in a decaying prison system that’s already on its last legs.
We need Independent Monitors that are what they claim to be – independent.
Recruited from ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, religions and ethnicities that truly reflect the population of the jail they monitor – at present there’s way too many ‘Old Gits’ still among them who, because they’ve been there for donkey’s years, represent a potent oppositional force to change.
We need new people. young, energised, firm, fair, independent-minded people on our Independent Monitoring Boards, and properly trained too before being let loose on the landings – as the KPA report made clear, due to poor training many Independent Monitoring Board members haven’t a clue how prisons work as a system, nor the way it connects with other systems either, and that basic ignorance makes problems worse not better.
When you’re in an overcrowded, Dickensian prison, awash with drugs, self-harm, violence and gang attacks, the last thing you need is some well-intentioned, management-ingrained, through-the-motions, can’t-hang-about, old geezer who tells you he’ll do what he can to help, and from whom you never hear again.
More than anything though we need Independent Monitoring Board Members who genuinely understand what ‘Independent’ really means; that they’re free from outside control, not subject to another’s authority, have no bias toward either side, and while it is of course right that they keep the Minister informed of what they find, we need an Independent Monitoring Board who also recognise they owe an equal duty to the public, speaking out when matters have become so grave the lives of their loved ones in the prison are at serious risk.
That is the ideal Independent Monitoring Board that we need to strive for, Monitors who properly exercise the powers Parliament has given to them, visiting prisons as Parliament intended, and unafraid to speak out as independent monitors with no axe to grind for either side, just as Parliament intended when it put the word ‘Independent’ in their title.
If that title is no longer apposite, then we should call them ‘Monitoring Boards’, dump the ‘Independent’, because on any reading of the facts it just isn’t who or what they are.
Lamentably, the Independent Monitoring Board system we have today (and now tomorrow too as a result of today’s changes) is one I will continue to have little confidence in – and I suspect many others will have too.
As the stark prison violence figures released a week ago show, with record levels of violence, deaths, suicides, murders and 50,000 acts of self-harm in our prison every year, professional independent monitoring of our prisons has never been more needed, and with today’s changes, it has sadly never seemed so far away too.
Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook. @prisonsorguk