'The way things are now in prisons reflect very badly on us as a country', says Chair of Parole Board
“How you treat people who are in prison is a test of the state of your nation. And I think the way things are now in prisons reflect very badly on us as a country. It does say something about the sort of society that we are.”
As Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick was an outspoken critic of the conditions he found inside our homes for the incarcerated.
When he finished his six-year stint last year, he said he was afraid he was becoming desensitised, that “you shouldn’t do this job for too long because you get used to things you shouldn’t get used to”.
Now, as Chair of the Parole Board – which decides whether prisoners can be safely released back into the community – Mr Hardwick is still willing to vocalise his concerns.
He seemed overwhelmed by the first question I asked him when we met at the Parole Board’s offices inside the Ministry of Justice.
What’s going wrong?
“The answer to that question would be what perspective you look at it from,” he told me after a minute of deliberating.
“A common concern raised by people interested in prison reform is that the prison population is rising, that leads to overcrowding, actual conditions are very poor, rising levels of violence, suicide and self-harm.
“But, there would be a very large part of the population who would say ‘well, good, that’s what’s supposed to be happening - it’s good that more people are in prison because it acts as a deterrent’, that people shouldn’t have a good time in prison, that if they have a horrible time they’re less likely to want to come back and, in any case, they should pay for what they’ve done. Probably more people think like that than think there’s something badly going wrong.
“The test I would apply is: is this a good use of taxpayers’ money? What about the recidivism rates which are stubbornly high? But also, more importantly, how you treat people who are in prison is a test of the state of your nation. And I think the way things are now in prisons reflect very badly on us as a country. It does say something about the sort of society we are. So for all those practical, economic and ethical reasons, I would argue there are things going wrong that need to be fixed.”
The primary cause of the deterioration he identifies is rooted in a question of resources and common sense.
“We have more people in prison than we have resources available to work with them properly so you either have to put money in or take people out,” he said.
While staff reductions, restricted regimes, violence, drugs and self-harm have all been ingredients chucked into the simmering cauldron, Mr Hardwick stressed that it is an increase in the length of longer-term prison sentences which has led to it bubbling over.
According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, at the end of September, 44% of prisoners were serving a sentence of more than four years - the most common sentence being served.
“That’s what’s driven the rise in population and the pressure on resources,” he said.
“The issue isn’t short-term sentences. It’s about those middle-ranking sentences where people a couple of decades ago might have done four years, now they’re doing six. So, if on average, for the longer-term sentences, which is most people in prison, they’re now doing six years instead of four, that turns out at a 50% rise in the population. But do you think that doing six years instead of four has that much impact as an additional deterrent?”
When he took over as Chair of the Parole Board last March, Mr Hardwick was faced with a big backlog of unheard parole hearings and just over 4,000 offenders who were still serving the indeterminate IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) sentence, which was abolished in 2012.
He told me things have now improved. Waiting lists for hearings have disappeared, meaning people are not getting held up in the system and contributing to the existing pressures for longer than necessary, with 66% of prisoners eligible for parole either being released or moved to open prisons in preparation for release.
“The issue is not what’s happening within the Parole Board itself, it’s what happens to people before they get to us,” he added. “Are they properly prepared for their parole hearing, have they done the courses and work and had the environment that will give them the best possible chance of changing and being able to demonstrate they’ve changed? Are those systems in place - which is about what’s happening in prisons and probation.”
The number of offenders being recalled to prison has been increasing in recent years – something Mr Hardwick puts down to creaking probation services, which are charged with supervising prisoners on release, and a general lack of support for these individuals in the community.
“The support services are wider than just probation,” he said. “It’s about the other social welfare services doing enough to divert people from the criminal justice system in the first place.
“One of the things about parole which is really striking is the number of cases we receive where you have someone with a low-level mental health type problem. They have trouble coping, their behaviour is chaotic, sometimes inappropriate. The point is not that they’re going to commit a serious further offence, they’re just a nuisance. You don’t particularly want them living next door to you, you don’t want them coming up to you in the street and they find it really hard to keep licence conditions.
"So, you put them in approved premises and they keep going out and getting drunk and they don’t come back. So, they’ve broken their licence conditions. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to go off and commit an offence, probably, but it means that they’re very difficult to manage and you need the resources in the community that are available to supervise and support them.”
Released IPP prisoners have also been adding to the recalls, with 760 of them returning to prison in the past year – a 22% increase from the year before.
The Parole Board’s ‘release and progression rate’ for IPP prisoners is now 75%, Mr Hardwick said, with those remaining “a stain on our justice system”.
“I don’t think the IPP sentence has been a success. Some people have gotten worse while they’ve been inside.”
But, he added: “A lot of the cases that are left are the ones that are very complex. It’s complicated to deal with because there aren’t any circumstances in which it is ethically right to release onto the streets people where there is evidence that they are dangerous. These aren’t people where it’s a bit marginal.
“Our serious further offence rate [for released offenders] as a whole is less than 1% which you might think is pretty good and might even indicate that we’re being a bit risk averse. But, what it amounts to is about 20 people a year who have been murdered or raped. If you’re one of the 20 people or their family then that feels like a lot. It is a lot. It’s really important that we are honest about the risk that some of these people pose.”
He said recall rates are high among released IPP prisoners as “a lot of them have very chaotic behaviour”, which can be difficult to assess to determine the risk they pose.
“We’ve got to be really careful that we don’t make facile judgements about probation. What actually might be relatively minor behaviour might nevertheless be a very real indicator of future risk. On the other hand, it might be something more substantial and potentially criminal - you’ve nicked some food from the supermarket, but that’s not an indicator of your future risk. It requires very careful judgement. It’s called risk because it’s not certain.
"Then you have a set of wider issues around how society looks at professionals in all sorts of cases that are taking judgements about risk and other people’s behaviour. Where people have taken a decision properly but they just happen to be wrong then we have to be much less judgemental about it.
“There’s a real problem with the idea that the state can keep you safe and if it hasn’t it means somebody’s guilty of something. The state can’t keep you completely safe without actually taking away your liberties and freedoms to a certain extent that life would be intolerable.
“It’s really important that probation has experienced, skilled, stable staff with the time and back-up they need to do their job because they’re making these incredibly difficult decisions about recall. I wouldn’t blame individual probation officers who are under pressure in terms of time and workload.”
So, what are the solutions?
“You have to confront the issue that’s true of all public services – you get what you pay for. Be realistic about that. There is obviously a resources question,” Mr Hardwick said.
“The more open and transparent we can make the system, the more we can help people understand it. One of the things Michael Gove did as justice secretary is he opened the system up. He let television crews in to see stuff, some of which was stuff going wrong, but at least it gave people a realistic view of what the issues were.
“Most people aren’t going to want to think about prisons and the criminal justice system, but at least try to get to a point where, if you do want to think about it and are interested, then you can get the information you need.”
And if things continue as they are?
“If you were to take a long-term view, over the last 50 years, prisons have improved. We don’t have slopping out anymore, the NHS run the medical services, there is certainly less gratuitous violence from staff, visiting arrangements are much better.”
He believes the 2,500 extra prison officers pledged by the Government by 2020 will make a difference, and that the Justice Secretary’s stated aim, to reduce the prison population, “could start to reverse the trend”.
“An alternative scenario is that, in fact, the economy gets worse, there’s even less money for prisons than there is now, there’s a more punitive atmosphere and so the pressures get even greater. Because what happens in prisons is largely out of sight, things can get a lot worse before anyone actually cares very much about what’s happening."
“One of the things that’s quite significant now, regardless of popular feeling, if you look right across the political spectrum there is a view that prisons are in a poor state and they need to change," he added.
“I’m not completely despairing about the future – I think there is a prospect of improvement, but I certainly don’t think that’s a done deal.”
(Read Part 2 of my interview with Mr Hardwick here)
Follow me on Twitter for prisons and criminal justice updates @Hardeep_Matharu