Justice Secretary

PRISON CRISIS? YOU CAN SPRAY THAT AGAIN

This week Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has been defending himself against further criticism that there is a prisons crisis. A little over a week ago Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, told the Independent newspaper that overcrowding and staff shortages were directly related to the growing number of suicides in prisons. The very body which represents prison governors have said that staff shortages mean that it is impossible to run a safe and decent prison regime. The Howard League for Penal Reform has calculated that prison officer numbers dropped by 30% between 2010 and 2013, while the prison population has continued to increase. Attacks in prison are increasing, assaults on prison staff are increasing, and the prison service’s riot squad was called out two hundred times last year, a sixty per cent rise on the previous year.

In terms of the rise in prison population, Grayling puts this down, in part, to what he calls ‘the Savile effect’; the courts are now imprisoning more sex offenders and particularly historic sex offenders. Andrew Neilson of the Howard League, however, claims that the real driver is that remand in custody is being overused, alongside the fact that sentencers are being influenced by, and responding to, contemporary political rhetoric from the government about being ‘tough on crime’. Grayling’s response to this most recent spate of criticism looks more and more as though it is based on sticking two fingers in his ears, humming loudly and hoping that he can keep a lid on the crisis, at least until the next election when the problem will either no longer be his, or alternatively he’ll be in another government post.

In March 1996 a young man called Simon Sunderland appeared before His Honour Judge Robert Moore at Sheffield Crown Court, and was sentenced to five years in prison. He hadn’t burgled or robbed anyone, glassed anyone in the face, or committed any sexual offence against sheep or other livestock. Although many citizens of the ‘Steel City’ applauded the sentence, even the man who hunted him down and brought him to justice said at the time “I hate to think of him rotting in prison.” The crimes for which Sunderland, who at the time went by the moniker ‘Fista’, was incarcerated related to his activities as a ‘graffiti artist’ and were all charged as criminal
damage.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not for one moment saying that what Sunderland did was not, or should not be, a criminal offence. Francis Butler, the councillor who led the hunt for ‘Fista’ over a five year period, said at the time “No one living outside of Sheffield can imagine the chaos he caused over the years. He painted on everything: walls, public buildings….street signs, even a bus that had broken down.” As fast as the council cleaned off the graffiti, ‘Fista’ would redecorate. As I indicated earlier, Mr Butler felt no sense of triumph in the sentence. He said “My own personal view is that I imagine he had already learnt his lesson by the time he came to court.” Councillor Pat Midgeley felt that the sentence sent a powerful deterrent message, saying “This sentence should stop people in their tracks. It shows what people are beginning to think about public order offences.” At this point, it should be said that ‘Fista’ did appeal his sentence, having it reduced to 21 months by the Court of Appeal. Nonetheless, it would be hard to deny that Sunderland surely must have been made to suffer for his ‘art’. No sane person wants their liberty taken away, do they?

Except that, for whatever reason, prison did not deter Sunderland. Having been released from prison, he found himself back before the courts in 2002 for similar graffiti offences involving two bridges in Barnsley (although I would have thought that any attempt to add colour to Barnsley ought to have earned him the freedom of the town in any sane society). On Friday this week, Sunderland, now 41, is due back again before the Sheffield Crown Court for sentence, having admitted numerous further offences of damaging railway property in Sheffield, Rotherham and Chesterfield in 2009 by way of graffiti ‘art’.

In an excellent and thought-provoking article in the Guardian newspaper this week, Simon Jenkins said “The British are prison addicts. We scour the country for reasons to imprison. We jail for not having a television licence, for Googling in jury rooms, for smoking cannabis, for hacking a phone…”* The point he makes, in a nutshell, is that this is not a ‘prison crisis’ but one in our courts and parliament. We live in a culture which seems to have prison as some kind of all-encompassing answer or antidote to every ‘anti-social behaviour’ hard-wired into its DNA. That is all well and good if you also have a society which is willing to spend whatever it takes to build prisons and staff them appropriately. But if you want to keep imprisoning people, or remanding them in custody, and you are not prepared to allocate sufficient resources, then you are going to be sitting on a ticking time bomb so far as the prison population is concerned. If you want to send someone to prison because they can’t seem to stop rambling ‘in the buff’, well, you have to provide the resources to keep them locked up. But of course the reality is that the government either can’t, or won’t, allocate sufficient resources to ensure both the physical space to incarcerate an ever-expanding prison population or prison staff to watch over them. The result? Grayling fiddles while Rome burns.

And in all of this, very few people ask the real question: what is prison meant to achieve? What has prison achieved for Simon Sunderland, for example?

In her 2008 memoir ‘How To Survive Puberty At 25’, Nina Bhadreshwar recalls an interview she conducted with Simon Sunderland, during which she asked him ‘What would stop you doing graffiti?’ To this, Sunderland replied ‘Having my hands chopped off.’ A five year prison sentence, albeit reduced on appeal, and further court appearances for similar matters has failed to prevent Sunderland committing further offences of criminal damage. What is the answer? Longer and longer prison sentences? Some would probably endorse the answer that Sunderland himself gave, and have his hands surgically removed, with or without anaesthetic. Or does the answer lie in the realisation that society has to be more creative, particularly in situations where nobody has been killed, nobody has been physically injured, nobody has even had their personal belongings stolen or their personal security threatened.

The stock response to Simon Sunderland’s case is to suggest that if he simply cannot stop spraying on buildings, bridges and walls, he will have to go back inside for longer and longer periods to ‘keep him out of circulation’. Is this really the best that society can do in the 21st century? One way or another, resources are going to have to be found: either to keep people like Sunderland locked away in a regime that satisfies the lust of those who think the answer to every ‘crime’ is to bang up the perpetrator for long periods of time, or to support creative and imaginative ways of responding to behaviours we deem ‘anti-social’. Sunderland is not a murderer, rapist, violent criminal, robber or house-breaker, but it is possible that in less than two days time he will be back in a prison system that is – in spite of Grayling’s denials – in a state of crisis, under-resourced and with no clue as to what it is really now trying to achieve beyond the will of political masters whose interests really are no more than being re-elected. Is this really the best we can do?

*”How can Chris Grayling deny our prisons crisis?”: Simon Jenkins, 19th August 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/19/chris-grayling-prisons-crisis-inspectors-overcrowded-violent-jails

 

Mark Fletton is a former barrister. Now a writer and researcher, he lives in Exeter & is a hardened Sheffield Wednesday (amended after suitable bollocking) supporter.

SPEAK NOW OR FOREVER HOLD YOUR JUSTICE OF THE PEACE

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Until last week, Abid Sharif was a magistrate who had been appointed to the Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale bench in Lancashire. Following an investigation by the Conduct Panel, Mr Sharif was removed from the Magistracy with the approval of the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice.

The Conduct Investigation into Mr Sharif was in relation to comments Mr Sharif had made to the press* , including the allegation that what he described as the “slap on the wrist” justice system threatened to make vigilantes of householders, that police cutbacks were “crazy”, and apparently that criminals knew more about human rights law than their legal representatives.

On the face of it, Mr Sharif was just the kind of ‘ordinary bloke’ that many people would want to see more of in the magistrates’ court. He is a bus driver and family man, and far removed from the type of stuffy middle-class image that many have of those who sit on magistrates’ benches up and down the country. And in many ways, Mr Sharif was simply expressing views that may well be shared by a substantial number of people up and down the country. So what, exactly, was the problem here?

Well, firstly, Mr Sharif had been the recent victim of a domestic burglary himself where those responsible had stolen some £10,000 worth of electrical items and his wedding ring. Mr Sharif told the press that had he confronted the perpetrators in flagrante delicto and used force to confront them, then he would have been sent to prison for assault. He said “If I had been in my house when these people came in and I had knocked one of them out I would be inside for assault and I don’t think it’s fair.”

In some ways I feel a little sorry for Mr Sharif. On the one hand he was simply displaying his human nature openly, and for all to see. He was honest enough, in the light of what is the obvious trauma of having your home and privacy invaded and personal items taken, to express how frustrated he felt. If he had not been quite so honest he would perhaps have held his tongue, and would now still be sitting in Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale – but still harbouring all these opinions that he publicly aired. And in that circumstance he would, of course, still be sitting in cases involving burglaries, day in and day out, which according to the press report occupied in his experience a good part of the court day.

It is clear that what Mr Sharif said creates an issue in relation to his suitability to continue to sit. At the end of the day, all parties to a criminal case need to know that those who are deciding their guilt, and their punishment, are as free from personal bias against them as possible. Can anyone really say that if they were to appear before Mr Sharif accused of burglary any time soon they would be expecting a fair trial?

Mr Sharif was clearly frustrated by many things, from police response times to incidents, to the powers of householders to protect their homes, to the powers that the law gave him and other magistrates to deal with those who came before him. I don’t doubt that many lay magistrates up and down the country share his sentiments and frustration. It is simply that those who play the game and keep their frustrations to themselves are still sitting in judgement on those that come before them, and Mr Sharif has surrendered to his humanity and told us explicitly what we already know: that the criminal justice system in this country is a source of frustration and is, frankly, in a bit of a mess.

* The original press report is to be found at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/10610025/Magistrate-warns-of-Britains-slap-on-the-wrist-justice-system.html

About the author: Mark Fletton is a former barrister.

Women In Prison

Fabulous – the great team over at Ending Victimisation sent this.

Last night I found an article in the Express detailing a planned naked protest by women in custody (I never call these women “inmates”) at HMP Drake Hall.

It’s such a simple thing, underwear. We take it for granted and many women are passionate about underwear. As the ever-eloquent, Planet Cath points out, the book ban campaign drew immense support. I made a concerted effort last night to bring this to the attention of underwear manufacturers, followers, women in the US and various people engaged in what we have called, #BriefStatement.

We had some fabulous support in the short burst that I did. We had pictures of knickers posted up and I rather daringly posted a picture of me in a pair of knickers. Stretch marks, the lot.

Jonathan Robinson – you know him? He was that idiot who went to prison, kindly produced a pair of knickers for us with the #hashtag added. He did declare this the “strangest” request to date. We also have procured from JR, his #Thongscanonlygetbetter

Knickers With the utmost thanks to my very dear friend, Dr Rita Pal, editor at World Medical Times , who rooted through her knicker drawer to offer her support and the great team who I truly support at and of course, Planet Cath, who has written the original article.

Ladies, we and many others support you in your protest. There aren’t many of us who are shouting for you, but by bra hook and knicker elastic, we are with you…

opinionatedplanet

This week has seen the most blatant display of women’s erasure that I’ve seen in a while.
Firstly, there was the Centre for Social Justice report on Girls and Gangs on 24th March.
Then there was the HMIC report in to the failing of the police to tackle domestic abuse.
And now it’s the book ban for prisoners which Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform wrote extremely passionately and eloquently about here.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as appalled as the next woman that those who are incarcerated for rehabilitation purposes are being refused access to books. As a former youth justice social worker, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in prisons, and I am fully aware of the importance for prisoners of being able to escape from the reality of prison life.
I don’t oppose the writers and poets who…

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The End – A Woman’s Journey in the CJS is complete. It’s not over till the Disclosure & Barring Service Sings

ImageThe journey is complete. I have been through the grubby hands of Mr Grayling’s department for a year. And what a journey. Homelessness, a trip up the M6 in a “sweat van” bringing my business back from the brink of collapse and myself back from the edge of brinkwomanship. (Not a word, but it is now)

I have also watched Probation (sadly) as we once knew it, end. My journey has been well-documented in various outlets connected with the CJS and I have learned a new skill or two.

There are positives despite what the tyrannical risk-aware DBS says about me. I have sent out my CV as an experiment to various job advertisements detailing the gap in 2013-14 as being in The Criminal Justice System. I added “Further details to be disclosed at interview”  The response? I shall update here if I hear anything back. This is to look at the discrimination that is not always evident but is hidden away as let us face it, companies are hardly going to admit to discriminating against a person with convictions are they?  Given a quick Google of my name leads back to everything I have written about the CJS,  my court appearances and sentence, why would I not offer up the information? This really will prove whether I shall be discriminated against. Having spoken to one HR department of a local company, they were unsure of their own policy and I was told the usual “Each case is based on the circumstances”  This was the same when I asked Fostering Solutions for a discussion on their policy on fostering with convictions. Aside from the obvious that any person with offences against children would not be considered, the same answer: “It depends on the offence, when it was and what it was”  Given the climate of risk-aware DBS, I’d like to think that Fostering Children Solutions were able to deliver concise and up-to-date information on their screening process over the telephone. Seemingly not… Yes, for Fostering Children…

Essentially, what stands out for me is the lack of knowledge that is still in place around disclosure. There is little room for discussion and while I am not looking for a job as in paid employment, I know the rules around this data. I have studied it for a year and what a knotty topic it is. Frankly in my experience and my full-time work does not require me to disclose information, the most people who know about the DBS are those who are concerned about it the most. Those whose hearts sink with a thud when the “have you ever” question appears.  My regular clients are fully aware of my history and have no problem with it. In fact two of them had no idea what I was talking about in terms of DBS. As I often work in a supply chain, the end user in two projects I work on, is the employer. He needs to learn about this and we are currently working on this.

What else have I learned? Lots. I have learned as an “ex-offender” (a term that should be abolished to the nearest bin with immediate effect) if you have knowledge of how the CJS and the rehabilitation process works, this is the biggest obstacle. If you’re not willing to confirm to the standards and “volunteer” I have gained from my journey, I’ve about as much chance as becoming the Governor of the Bank of England with a fraud conviction than I have of ever providing a service to other women in the hands of the CJS. But, I can certainly look at alternatives and emerge from the ether. I am nothing if not a little resourceful. There are some excellent services out there to help those who are in the community and soon about to be given 12-month’s supervision. I know many of these services do work yet we are still missing the bigger picture. With the best will in the world, only those who carry out acts of criminal behaviour, can stop doing what they’re doing.

But the biggest area in which I have learned is that the system is so hard. It in many ways makes it harder because connections with other systems are swamped with people. The creation of new services is all very well and there are many fantastic opportunities out there for people released from prison or on a community sentence. But we are still missing the largest area of any person’s life on where they are to build a future. That of homes. Any person cannot build anything if they are sofa-surfing or in hostels for long periods. We have to find a way of getting things the right way around. A training course is pointless if a person has nowhere to call home and the rental market is so hungry, landlords can cherry-pick the best tenants. A person who is released from prison, with little more than £47 in their pockets needs to have any housing issues dealt with first and foremost before a journey can begin. I have recently seen a woman passed around from department to department and endless trips to housing benefit departments. She has had an unsettled history, has forsaken many tenancies previously, there is not a landlord around who is going to accept a person unless they have clean and healthy past. The private rental sector has become another monster and during my research, even those who are renting rooms in their homes are asking for a month’s rent in advance. Because of my history, I had to have a guarantor. Fair enough – a landlord should have his/her rent paid when due and be assured that his tenants are going to look after his/her property/home. I was lucky, I had people around me who were happy to support and guarantor my home. If the rental criterion remains as strident as it is currently and with more people ending up in the hands of justice, then we are going to end up with an even bigger homeless situation.

Everything I have come across takes me back to education and those around me as a child. Fair enough, my parents were not quite tooled up to have a child, I was a mistake and a shotgun wedding followed quickly. Two people who should never have married and even more importantly never had a child together. By today’s standards, I’d have been whipped into care and that is one awful system from what I have read and spoken about with little support for care leavers. I had grandparents who saved me as my parents entered a bitter war in the seventies that took me to Ireland and back many times as my parents battled it out viciously over me. My grandparents protected me and ensured I had an education. Educated enough to not break the law – but I did and I knew I was breaking the law. That’s why I pleaded guilty, eventually. to what the acts I chose to do. There is much about rehabilitation in prison and what is not happening. In my experience, I have seen more educated people who have been in prison and emerged from those gates as educated and smart people who I would and do trust implicitly. So something goes on behind those walls.. Those who are illiterate went in illiterate.  Nuff said…

Am I free? Free of the CJS now. Or will be on Friday. There are endearments to be felt of the amount of support I have had from friends and family. It has been a journey and a new journey begins with added knowledge of the CJS. Rehabilitation from behaviours that are against the law can only be actioned by the person who commits them. Support is plentiful in moving forward, some of it misplaced but with the best interests at heart. Rehabilitation comes from inside the person who really does want to change their life for the better.

One thing I am not, is an ex-offender. This is a manufactured term which has become a money-making gravy and ketchup train. I am still the person I was before, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend. Older, a little wiser, happier and sure of my own territory. I have left the past where it belongs, and can move forward and no doubt I still cause a twitch of a net curtain, but I cannot change other people’s opinions of me and I cannot change the acts I once committed.

I paid the price and I have served my sentence. When I wake up on Saturday, it will be as any other member of society… What the DBS sings about me is of no relevance unless I choose to make it relevant. It might sing the joyous tone of my criminal acts but it’s just data used in a society that is over-burdened with risk assessing. Risk-assessing is data gathering and only data gathering for the purposes of monitoring. Given I was not monitored in the last year, the DBS can fuck off with their singing. :)))

 

You Cannot Melt Ice with Snow – The Ice Mountain that is Chris Grayling

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I love to study body language and there is no better body language to study than that of Chris Grayling. This Ice Mountain of a man, appointed as Lord Chancellor & Secretary of State for Justice, has been the subject of criticism from lawyers, probation and lest we not forget those who have been sentenced at the hands of his department. Chris Grayling has caused a stand-off between the Criminal Bar Association of monumental proportions. Even the Yanks are writing about this. My time being in the cells ceased in the 70s. Mr Grayling is the most talked about Secretary of State for Justice in my lifetime and I am 55-years old.

Since his appearance on the panel of Question Time this week, I have seen cries of injustice that questions about the injustices of his axe coming down on the Probation Service and The Criminal Bar, were not put to him. Housing and immigration were the order of the day. The lawyers and Probation staff felt cheated. (From what I have been reading)

We know Chris Grayling is not a lawyer. He has a degree in history. He’s made history, I’ll grant him that. Grayling towers over people as his hatchet comes crashing down on legal aid and the ever controversial figures of re-offending. Controversy theories reign large – he must have something on Cameron to be able to cause collateral damage of massive proportions on the Justice System and not content with pissing off barristers and Probation staff, he’s happy to lock kids up in a modern-day borstal.

So what is it about Grayling that intrigues me? The MoJ have a frontman who is unshakeable. He has a photographic memory. I have watched him on various news outlets and the man never flinches. He is unemotional and chilling in his delivery.  A well-versed public speaker who is not stupid. He knows exactly what he is doing and as the MoJ shuffle their balance sheets, worrying about the cost of legal aid, who better to front out controversial changes than an Ice Mountain who raises an eyebrow and places his hands together, before he launches his missile attack on lawyers and Probation? I have respect for the legal profession and the Probation Service but the missile Chris Grayling has launched on them is huge and he simply, raises an eyebrow as our esteemed legal profession stand off against him and NAPO write daily on the hatchet job he has done on their members.

I am not in a profession. I am a former builder and have worked with people diagnosed with acute mental health illnesses. That took some doing and gave me a few skills to look at behaviours. Chris Grayling’s behaviours have caused the Masters of The Criminal Bar and they are no shrinking violets to stand up to him, but even the Masters of Inner Temples cannot shake the Grand Master who is without a doubt, The Ice Mountain that is unconquerable. One thing you cannot take away from Grayling is that he is an educated man, his use & understanding of words leaves everybody lost for words.

Public opinion is not divided on Grayling. He has obliterated it and everybody detests the man. One cannot even align him to Marmite. People don’t love or hate him, they just hate him. Grayling shows no signs of psychotic episodes, he is neither a sociapath or psychopath, take away the rage and contempt people have for him and look at the man, one could attribute him to an adored Mary Magdalene. The Criminal Bar and The Probation Service are the ones on the pilgrimage. Thou shalt not worship false gods.

The legal profession have their ice picks out and have chipped away at the base of the ice mountain. Despite the overturning on appeal of the halting of a major fraud trial, the legal profession chipped away at the ice mountain. Chris Grayling and the MoJ then used the little-known Public Defender Service and began to offer a recruitment process for lawyers. The Criminal Bar’s reaction to this was to dismiss any lawyer who went and got themselves a paid job.  Sadly the Probation Service have not yet used an ice pick, they have used a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

David Cameron may well be the leader of the Conservative Party, but Grayling is the Don. Grayling decides who lives, dies and who gets to be a volunteer for those pesky re-offenders who will be mentored by a range of private enterprises when sentenced to less than 12-months in prison or a community based sentence.

My opinions are entirely my own and without prejudice. Time to go and take my medication.

Author – JP Riley