In a move which has delighted penal reformers, faced with a prison system in crisis – inhumane overcrowding, rising violence and self harm, union unrest – the Government has at long last decided to implement an ambitious and radical strategy for prison reform to address the fundamental problems of the prison system, defying criticisms from the Right-wing press that it is 'soft on crime'.
The programme comprises:
These reforms were announced by the new Minister of Justice in recent weeks.
This article is about France. Come on, whatever did you think?
"The government knew of a plan that could have retrieved more than £360m from Carillion.....but the Cabinet Office, responsible for oversight of government contractors, did not apply any pressure on Carillion’s directors to adopt the proposals" (Guardian, today).
Don't you just love that word: 'oversight'?
A rare balanced and informed article in the FT today on private prisons:
It ends with a comment which for me, sums up exactly where we are, as incompetence on the part of operators and customers alike, plus of course Corbynism, seems to spell the end for outsourcing:
"we’ll spend the next 20 years relearning the downside of self-serving union-dominated public service monopolies.”
That isn't the whole story of course, for there are sectors, like the armed forces, where not even the fanatics of the Right think competition can be applied (although having said that, I fear Rees Mogg may at this very moment be planning a return to medieval mercenary armies). And one of the many delightful internal contradictions on this issue is that the further Right you are, the more wonderful you think those public service monopolies are.
And the fundamental issue is surely not public v private, but this - in cash strapped times (and everyone except John McDonnell knows money is scarce and will remain so indefinitely), how do you run public services of consistent quality, how do you adjust the service to realistic levels given tight funding, how do you manage public expectations, what do you prioritise and what do you not prioritise, how do you give proper accountability and transparency? That it seems to me is the debate we are so determinedly not having, while the Tories deny that funding cuts have caused unacceptable service, and Labour maintain there is money enough to meet every demand.
Note: I am re-posting here with permission this article by Penelope Gibbs, Director of Transform Justice, because I have not seen this point made about evidence of the potential injustice of video hearings, especially (but not only) when imposed compulsorily; and the point is all the more important at a time when MoJ is aiming a huge expansion in hearings by video links to save money on court productions. So it seems important that the point is properly considered, and by her account it is being ignored . The original is at:
"The absence of the applicant in the court automatically depersonalises him/her. His/her feelings and emotions are contained within the detention centre, hence not being felt on a more personal level at the court. Consequently, the applicant becomes a mere ‘detainee’ in the video. This disadvantage is compounded in cases where applicants required interpreters. In some instances, due to reasons such as the incompetency of the interpreter or limited time given to interpret court discussions, the hearing of the case seemed to only be happening among the parties present in the court” (Cardiff University Law School Bail Observation Project 2015-16).
The justice system is fractured, but access to justice and effective participation are important in all jurisdictions. So its good and bad that video hearings seem to be having just as negative effects in immigration bail hearings as in criminal hearings – good because it strengthens the evidence base, but bad because it indicates systemic problems.
Those detained in immigration detention centres like Campsfield and Yarlswood usually apply for bail so they can lead a (semi) normal life while waiting for their next court hearing. Nowadays nearly all those applying for bail do not get transported to the tribunal in secure vans, but appear via video link into the court room. Everyone else involved – judges, lawyers, interpreter, public observers etc are in the court room.
The detainees get no choice as to whether they appear on video or not, and there is no provision for those with physical or mental health problems to be assessed so that reasonable adjustments can be made. And the problems involved are similar to those experienced by defendants and prisoners.
“In video link hearings, the legal representative gets only 10 minutes to talk to the applicant at 10 a.m. or at 2 p.m. before the listed hearings start. By contrast, the representative of an ‘in-person ’applicant can talk to them at any time in the cells for as long as they need. This is not equal treatment. Video link may be effective when the judge enables the applicant to participate actively in the process, when interpreting is not needed and when the machinery functions efficiently. But it is not usual for the judge to act in this way, and on far too many occasions the technology was defective, with poor lighting, noisy feedback, sound distortion and mechanical breakdown. Our major criticism of the video link process, however, concerns the impact on applicants. They are at a distance from the court, and all those in it. Unless they are directly engaged by the judge they may have no opportunity to speak, and unless the judge ensures that there is full interpreting for those who need it, they may miss much of the substance of the hearing. It could be argued that video link does not constitute a hearing in the judicial sense, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no detrimental effect for the applicant” (Still a Travesty: Justice in Bail Immigration Hearings 2013)
These problems mirror those Transform Justice found in its research on video hearings from prison to court and from police station to court.
This would matter less if outcomes of hearings were the same whether or not people appear on video. But there is evidence that outcomes are very different. A study done by the Ministry of Justice in 2010 showed that defendants who appeared on video from the police station were more likely to be imprisoned than those who appeared in the physical courtroom (this was either the direct effect of appearing on video or the indirect effect of more defendants on video being unrepresented). And research done on immigration video hearings in England and Wales backs this up. A fantastic group of volunteers observed bail immigration hearings in 2012 and found that the success rate of bail applications was 21 of 41 when the detainee appeared in person (51%), and 54 of 170 (32%) when by video link. As with video links for criminal hearings, there is no official data for video immigration bail hearings so we do not have access to bigger numbers.
But there is corroboration from across the pond. Professor Ingrid Eagly studied the effect of putting immigration detainees on video in USA for court hearings and found that those who appeared on video were more likely to be deported than those who appeared in person. This wasn’t however because the judges appeared biased against them, but because the detainees on video were more likely to disengage from the process – “less likely to retain counsel, to apply to remain lawfully in the United States, or to seek an immigration benefit known as voluntary departure”.
Its clear from all the research that has been done that video hearings can have a negative effect on outcomes. The pity is that no government research from England and Wales is recent, the best bit of government research is seemingly ignored, and other research is on small numbers.
However anecdotal evidence is important and even the current Lord Chief Justice has experienced how the behaviour of defendants changes when faced by cameras. At his annual press conference Lord Burnett was asked about the filming of sentencing hearings and said he was “afraid some people behave differently - not judges - but some people behave differently in court if they know that something is being recorded”.
If the Lord Chief Justice is convinced the behaviour of someone in court changes simply because there is a video camera there, he undoubtedly also countenances that appearing on video whilst completely isolated from the courtroom may significantly affect the behaviour of defendants/detainees?
Meanwhile HMCTS, which has three senior judges on its board, is piloting a fully virtual immigration court which will have no one in the court room at all.
In outsourcing it takes two to tango - customer and supplier. Both share in success, and in failure.
Thus questions are now being asked about the role of Government in the massive failure of Carillion: in allowing the company to bid so low that its margins were unsustainable, and in continuing to award contracts last year long after it was clear that the company was in deep trouble and might fold.
As the FT argues today, outsourcing in such circumstances risks becoming a Ponzi scheme, where contracts are inherently worth little, but a steady stream of new contracts is needed to maintain the illusion.
To be sure, incompetence was another factor, with cast cost overruns on major projects driving up debt.
All of this a very far cry from the Left orthodoxy that private companies are coining vast profits from outsourcing. That was so sometimes so in the 2000s, but certainly not today. Indeed, the impact of austerity on the private sector outsourcers needs to be better understood. By both parties.
Interesting NAO report on commercial relationships across Government, accounting for a third of all public spending (1). If you read that the big spenders are MoD (Type 45s), Transport (Network rail and franchises), MoJ (probation, tagging) , DBEIS (nuclear energy), you will be unsurprised at the conclusion that there are profound long standing weaknesses in Government procurement, but - and this has been said ever since I were a lad - 'government is now starting to address the issues'. 'Addressing' the easy part, 'delivery' another.
But it isn't as simple as just bringing work back in house. All those Departments have serious problems with direct management as well. 'Management' indeed is just the problem. Plus bringing work back will carry huge bills, eg for migrating all staff onto public sector pensions.
The conclusion I come to: Government should stop trying anything clever or innovative in contracting , because it'll almost certainly cock it up. Make sure you can walk before you try running - never mind hop, skip and jump.
Berwyn Prison near Wrexham, which began operations in February this year, will be the biggest prison in the UK by some margin, with very tight staffing. It is in several ways something of an experiment.
The privately operated Oakwood and Northumberland prisons – also Cat C male, so these are all the same type – have been criticised by opponents of the private sector both for being too large, and having high staff/prisoner ratios, thus causing unsafe conditions.
But Berwyn will be much bigger - but not quite so tightly staffed (1):
capacity operational staff per prisoner (2)
Oakwood 1605 1:5.9
Northumberland 1318 1:6.8
Berwyn 2106 1:5.5
It will be interesting to see what happens, as Berwyn builds up numbers – it is currently only at about a third of capacity .
If it manages to maintain a stable, safe regime, that may put in question the assumption that staffing cuts are the main cause of the worst prison crisis in a generation. Might it also suggest that MoJ has found the 'sweet spot' where staffing is lean, but still safe? No: since prisons with similar or lower ratios are in deep trouble. Even so, MoJ's 9 'new for old' prison programme assume still further staffing cuts, to generate net savings in operating costs. But might it not also suggest that MoJ as customer has driven staffing ratios too high in private sector prison contracts - such as, indeed, Oakwood and Northumberland? (3)
If, on the other hand, Berwyn turns out to be chaotic and unsafe, it will validate the hypotheses about low staffing - and call in question the judgement of those who planned it. And - here's the difference relative to the privately run prisons, which are held to contact - staff numbers may have to increease.
There are differing views about mega-prisons. I haven't any expertise in the matter. They offer economies of scale, so are cheaper per place. Opponents say they will be factory-like and impede the relationships essential to good prisons. Advocates say that 3 or 4 units for different types of prisoner within a mega jail, each with their own identity, management and staff, would in fact be a series of smaller prisons, not one big one, and would have benefits for prisoners eg better specialist healthcare on site. Maybe: but I suspect that despite that, it will still feel like a mega jail, and something will be lost. Their sheeer size means that prisoners cannot be held as close to home as would the case if we built a network of small community prisons instead, though that would cost more.
Berwyn marks a major change in accommodation policy. Hitherto, we had always aimed at one man to a cell: that was how overcrowding was measured - how many were held two or even three to a cell. In Berwyn, many(I think the majoirty) will be housed two to a cell, albeit one designed for double occupancy, whether they like it or not. No credible reason is advanced for this, other than packing more in, and driving down construction and operating cost per place. I am surprised how little comment there has been on this historic change. It should be independently evaluated.
I haven't mentioned cost. The headline figures are:
annual cost per place, £
Berwyn (est., when when full) (1) 14, 000
Oakwood (4) 14, 348
Northumberland (4) 14, 548
So why are privately run prisons more costly, even though they have leaner staffing? Because they aren't. To compare like with like, you'd need to make several additions to the Berwyn figure:
Past experience of trying to ensure a level playing field in competition suggests an addition of around 2% for item 1 (6).
MoJ accounts show the on cost for item 2 is 25% for the private sector but 60% for the public sector, thus we should allow 15% differential on cost to the public sector (7).
3 is unknowable - but pension experts think that even under the reformed PSC scheme, the combined employer and employee contributions are likely to be 5% short of actual costs even on current assumptions, and it could be much more. But we'll never know – that's the beauty of the thing. Uncosted and uncostable (8). As so often nowadays - pensions, nuclear power, climate change, the NHS, social care, the ageing housing stock - when long term costs look too big to ever be affordable, we just ignore them.
That suggests the true comparison requires an additional 22 % for the public sector, thus:
annual cost per place, £
Berwyn (when full) 17, 500
Oakwood 14, 348
Northumberland 14, 548
About 5-7% of the higher cost in the public sector is having more operational staff; the rest is a a mix of higher (though hidden) pension costs, more non operational staff, higher pay, longer holidays, more sick absence, shorter working weeks, less flexibility, or more costly supplies and service contracts including central services (6). Of course, if we were looking at operational cost, rather than cost to the public purse, the gap between sectors will be even larger, because of the profit margin.
The significance of these figures is considerable. It means that in stating to Parliament that public and private prisons are equally efficient, Government has told an untruth (9); indeed that Government doesn't actually know what the true comparison is (10); and that in terminating competition on the bogus basis that there is no longer significant cost difference between sectors, MoJ has shown precisely the kind of 'producer self interest' which might be expected, given that the public sector has, until recently, both awarded contracts for prisons and has also been the biggest competitor in those competitions. (11)
It also implies that on a true cost comparison, the private operators could provide a better service than the public sector for the same money – but is not allowed to, because its costs are being mis-represented, relative to the public sectors.
No wonder the companies I worked for were so wary about competing against public sector prisons! (12). The match is rigged.
MoJ's prison programme can't work as planned - and even if it did, wouldn't address the causes of the prison crisis. Time to dare to....think?
FT article today
Plan to overhaul UK jails faces £1.6bn shortfall Overcrowding and building delays mean problem of prison violence ‘will not be resolved’
Britain's prison populationhas almost reached full capacity, at nearly 90,000 people
A plan to tackle overcrowding and violence in Britain’s prisons is underfunded by £1.6bn over the next five years and will not work, according to a former finance director of the prison service. Julian Le Vay, who was the service’s finance director for five years until 2001, suggested that a higher-than-expected prison population and delays to building plans for new prisons mean that the present levels of unrest and violence will not be solved without fresh funding. The most recent prison population figures show 86,075 people in prisons in England and Wales, only just short of the 87,411 total capacity.
The Prison Reform Trust, which released his analysis, said it showed the fundamental problems with efforts to resolve overcrowding by providing new spaces, rather than by cutting down the numbers of offenders sentenced to prison. The severe overcrowding of prisons has helped to produce a significant rise in violence, with 27,193 assaults or serious assaults in the year to June and a 25 per cent rise in attacks on guards. Many analysts also believe that overcrowded prisons lead to worse rates of reoffending on release. After trying the same failed policy for nearly four decades, the time has surely come for a change Peter Dawson, Prison Reform Trust
Mr Le Vay said he believed a shortfall in cash means the government’s 2015 plan to build nine new prisons “is not going to do what they want it to do.”. The plans for the five years to 2020 were meant to provide around 10,000 new places in five new prisons, at a capital cost of £1.5bn. The project was meant to be funded largely by closing old, expensive-to-operate city-centre prisons such as London’s Holloway and selling the sites for housing. But so far the government has done no more than identify the sites of four new prisons and, in March, told parliament only that it would be submitting planning applications in future.
Mr Le Vay said that, based on the experience of Berwyn Prison, near Wrexham, which opened in February this year, the service could expect a 3½-year gap between planning application and partial opening. That meant none of the new prisons would be open before 2020, while the prison population is expected to grow by 1,600 by 2022. He added that because the facilities would not open on time, it would be impossible to close the city-centre prisons on the anticipated schedule and the money for those sites would not be received as planned.
The study highlights the dilemma that the government faces as courts respond to increasingly tough criminal law by sending growing numbers of offenders to jail, despite a long-term decline in most measures of violent crime. Mr Le Vay calculates that spending for the 2018-19 financial year on prisons in England and Wales will be £162m more than budgeted because of extra staff costs. His projections anticipate steadily higher-than-budgeted spending over the following five years, to £463m by 2022-23. The total underfunding over the period amounts to £1.57bn.
Mr Le Vay argues that efforts to build capacity to relieve overcrowding have never been successful, since courts tend to sentence extra offenders to prison, filling up the capacity. Ministers have generally been wary of changing sentencing policy to divert offenders away from jail because of the risk of a public backlash.
But Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the UK was continuing to “throw” taxpayers’ money at prison building, at a time when many developed countries were reducing their prison populations. “After trying the same failed policy for nearly four decades, the time has surely come for a change,” Mr Dawson said. The Ministry of Justice said the analysis was “pure speculation”. It said it was investing to create “high-quality, modern establishments” and closing older prisons that were not fit for purpose. “This will help deliver prisons that are more safe and secure, so our staff can work more closely with offenders to change their lives and turn their back on crime for good,” it said.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
Difficult times at the MoJ - everything going badly, less money every year, everyone saying you're not doing enough to put things right. Still, David Lidington and his Perm Sec, David Heaton, have found a solution: just don't tell anyone what you're doing. I was searching the other day for the usual Departmental and Agency Plans and Strategies spelling out what they aim to do, the key dates, key targets, how they money will be used - and they no longer exist. All there is now is a super-bland statement of nothing much (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/moj-single-departmental-plan-2015-to-2020/single-departmental-plan-2015-to-2020).
As for Parliament, that great bulwark of our liberties, they simply haven't noticed. Too busy 'taking back control', I expect...
NOTE: This replaces an early version posted on 22 October, following helpful comments from Phil Wheatley.
That Chris Grayling's savage cuts in staffing levels in public sector prisons helped propelled them into violent chaos is understood by everyone (except, naturally, the Secretary of State). But what of privately run ('contracted') prisons? Until now, we haven't had their staffing numbers. However, I recently obtained numbers of PCOs in contracted prisons for each year 2013-2016. There is also data for 2011. Analysis throws up some interesting and partly unexpected points.
I used figures for PCOs in contracted prisons on 1 January each year 2013-17, recently supplied by MoJ in response to a FoI request. The data is missing for some prisons in 2013. I stitched onto the front of this data from a PQ for PCO numbers in March 2011 (1), thus giving a trend 2011-17. The quality of the data is uncertain: MoJ do not regularly collect it, do not quality assure it, and there is ambiguity e.g. the FoI release states these are 'funded' PCO posts, implying an unknown number may be vacant, and it is unclear whether these are all FTEs. I am seeking clarification. I also looked at changes MoJ's annual payments, prisoner numbers (annual average to avoid seasonal fluctuations), rates of assaults and self harm, and compared trends in public sector prisons.
So, what can be said?
Since 2010, staffing in public sector prisons have been cut by over a quarter, but hardly at all in the private sector – charts 1 and 2
Over the period 2010-17, public sector prisons cut the number of prison officers and Operational Support grades grades by 27%; during 2011-17; but the number of PCOs in the contracted sector rose by 8% (chart 1). But the underlying change – once one has stripped out switches of prisons between one sector and other, and opening of 3 new prisons by the private sector - was a reduction of 23 % in the public sector, but a reduction of just 3% for the private sector (chart 2)
Was this unfair? No. MoJ cut numbers in the public sector because it believed, rightly or wrongly, that these prisons could be run safely with fewer staff. No one ever suggested that was true of contracted prisons as a group, which already had much lower staffing levels. In my time as FD, at least, staffing levels in successful bids were as lean as we thought safe. So to cut levels in contracted prisons, as a group, would have been unjustified and unsafe.
Chart 1 - changes in workforce numbers, public and private sector prisons, 2010-17
Notes: Public sector POs and Opp Support grades, private sector PCOs. Data missing for some prisons in 2013 only.
Chart 2 - underlying change in workforces, 2010-17
Note: data as chart 1 but stripping out switches between sectors and effect of new prisons in private sector.
KEY: BLUE = public sector ORANGE = private sector
Raw numbers in workforce Underlying change
More important for prisoner and staff safety and the quality of regimes than absolute staffing levels is the staff:prisoner ratio. In some contracted prisons, this was affected independently of staffing cuts, either by new capacity came on stream, or by more overcrowding in existing prisons. Three contracted prisons opened in the period that were larger than any previous prison, specifically with the aim of enabling higher staff:prisoner ratios to reduce costs. Thus, although less than half contracted prisons suffered staffing cuts, a majority increased the staff:prisoner ratio, as shown in chart 3. But it wasn't necessarily those with the largest staff cuts that suffered the biggest increase in the staff:prisoner ratio.
Chart 3: cuts in staff numbers mapped onto changes in staff:prisoner ratios, 2011-17
KEY BLUE=% change staff numbers ORANGE=% change in staff:prisoner ratio
Different prisons followed different paths
Contracted prisons did not follow the same staffing trends. Rather, they fell into different groups, as follows.
deep cuts: Altcourse
Only one contracted prison suffered the same deep cuts as the public sector: Altcourse. Francis Maude on appointment Cabinet Office Minister from 2010-12 was charged with securing reductions in contract prices across Government in the aftermath of the banking crisis. This is an aspect of the monopsonist market behaviour analysed in my book. When contracting out started, in the 1990s, it was claimed that contracts would protected operators against constant change, of the kind that public sector managers had to endure. But in a market dominated by a single customer, suppliers will find it hard to resist determined interference in contracts by that customer. (Other exmaples of such interference are MoJ's attempts to foist new national contratcs, for FM services and throughcare, both of them now proved disastrous mistakes, on contracted prisons.)
Altcourse was an obvious target for Maude's cuts because it had always been by far the most costly. When the contract was let in 1995, it was no cheaper than the then extremely inefficient public sector. Partly because it was so generously funded, it had always performed well, as evidenced by Inspection reports, performance measures, the views of successive Director Generals and comparative research by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology (2). It had been an outstanding prison. PCO numbers were cut 25% over the period – as deep as the cuts in the public sector. This was partly because MoJ cut prisoner numbers, thinking it would get more places for its money elsewhere. But by 2017, the staff: prisoner ratio had increased from 1:3.8 to 1: 4.4.
lesser cuts: Bronzefield, Rye Hill, Forest Bank
Less steep cuts were made at Bronzefield (-6%, Forest Bank (-4%) and Rye Hill (-8%) and at all of them, the staff:prisoner ratio also increased significantly.
initial cuts, later partly reversed: Doncaster, Dovegate, Lowdham Grange
At Doncaster and Dovegate, early cuts were later partly reversed, so that the ratio at the end of the period was not far off that at the beginning. At Doncaster the contract was re-competed in 2011. At that point, SERCO had high hopes of winning neighbouring prisons in the massive competition then underway, which would have enabled substantial savings through synergy. Understanding that the only thing that mattered to the customer by then was cutting costs, SERCO bid much lower than the existing contract, and won. But it did not win the other prisons – the scandal of SERCO and G4S's shameless milking of the tagging contracts broke, and SERCO was out of the running. So SERCO was stuck with a too-cheap contract. PCO numbers fell by 17% 2011-2013 and payments fell by a quarter. The staff cuts were almost wholly reversed after 2015, and by 2017, the staff:prisoner ratio of 2011 was restored. But MoJ did not restore previous funding, so the extremely lean profit margin the SERCO accepted in 2011 must now been thin indeed. It is even conceivable the place is now being run at a loss.
Dovegate similarly initially cut PCO numbers by 12% modified by later increases to 9%, and the staff: prisoner ratio rose slightly from 1:4.3 to 1:4.6. Lowdham Grange staff numbers were cut by 8% and the staff:prisoner ratio suffered accordingly, although the staffing levels had by 2017 been increased above 2011 levels, and staff:prisoner ratio also slightly improved from 2011 levels.
prisons where staffing increased: Parc, Peterborough
At Parc, numbers were substantially increased, by 14% , but as prisoner numbers increased also, the staff:prisoner ratio rose from 1:4 to 1:4.8. At Peterborough, staff numbers also increased, by 18% - but again, increases in prisoner numbers pushed the staff:prisoner ratio up from 1:3.8 to 1:4.2.
prisons which opened in the period on very tight staffing, later increased: Thameside, Birmingham, Oakwood, Northumberland
Prisons opening during the period were as it were born into austerity, with extremely tight staffing levels from the outset. They faced extra challenges – start up, or transfer of operator, are notoriously volatile periods, and three were much larger and thus more challenging to run than existing prisons.
In three of these prisons, staffing levels were actually increased over the period - but so were prisoner numbers. So ratios did not necessarily improve. At Oakwood, the staff:prisoner ratio rose to 1:6.6, at Thameside to 1:6.3. Only at Northumberland did an increase in staff very slightly improve the ratio, from an astounding 1:7.2 in 2015 to 1:6.9. At Birmingham staff numbers remained unchanged and so also the ratio, although it has fallen in 2017.
Because of missing data and its complete change of role in the middle of the period, it is not possible to make any statement about staffing trends for Ashfield.
Different prisons also fared differently as regards funding cuts, as MoJ tore up contracts in search of savings. Some suffered really deep cuts: Altcourse lost about £4m a year in real terms 2011-14, which could be justified to some extent, as it was always an expensive place and prisoner numbers dropped. Doncaster, never regarded as an expensive prisons, lost much more as a result of the ultra-low re-bid, about £6m a year (without any reduction in numbers of prisoners). Northumberland also did badly, yet adding to staff numbers, one assumes by cutting margins to the bone. Lowdham had no increase for 6 years, thus a real terms cut of 6% at least. Other prisons fared better: Bronzefield, Parc, Peterborough, Dovegate all got increases.
Exploring the link between staffing cuts and deteriorating conditions
Given that different contracted prisons suffered more or less severe staffing cuts, or none at all, it is possible to test the proposition that the main cause of deteriorating safety in prisons, as measured by rates of assault and self harm, has been reduction in staffing numbers.
Clearly, if staffing is cut too far, hours of unlock have to be reduced, witness the recent shaming report that over a third of young offenders are now locked in their cells at least 22 hours a day (and of course that makes nonsense of grandiose ministerial statements about working to reduce re-offending) (3). And a point must be reached that when prisoners are unlocked, there are too few staff on a large wing spot or intervene to stop bullying, trafficking or outright violence, to help the vulnerable or suicidal.
Staffing cuts may additionally cause problems if the more experienced staff choose or are chosen to go, meaning a loss of knowledge and confidence amongst staff. Additionally, if pay is cut, recruitment and retention may become more difficult. Further, if conditions deteriorate, new staff may feel unsafe and intimidated and may not stay, especially if they can easily earn similar pay elsewhere that is less stressful. All these things have happened in the public sector. But what about the contracted sector?
Impact of staff cuts on safety in contracted prisons
The deepest cut was at Altcourse and was accompanied by huge increases in both rates of assault (two fold increase) and self harm (tripled). The last inspection report on Altcourse focussed on rising violence (4). At first sight, it seems plain that the Maude cuts wantonly destroyed one of the best prisons in the country.
But it isn't as straightforward as that. There were actually bigger increases in rates of violence and self harm in prisons where the staff:prisoner ratio had not increased - or had actually improved. Chart 3 shows prisons with those suffering the greatest increases in staff:prisoner ratios at the top, those with no increase or a reduction in the ratio at the bottom, and in each case show the % change in rate of assault and of self harm. Plainly, there isn't much correlation between worsening staff:prisoner ratios and violence or self harm. Equally striking, there isn't much correlation between changes in rates of assault and changes in rates of self harm.
I am at a loss to explain the figures, and would welcome comments. It is always possible - in the prisons world - that the figures cannot be trusted - and some data certainly looks unlikely. But the data is bound to lead one to question the simple proposition that staff cuts directly caused the present crisis.
Another way of looking at it is that if public sector prisons got into trouble by cutting staffing levels by 27% to match those in the contracted sector, one would expect the contracted sector itself to suffer much the same problems – even without cuts - since they were already at that much lower level. (Though presumably the contrracted sector did not have the same problem of losing experienced staff, and turnover levels seem to be lower than in the 2010s).
Thus, the data is somewhat consistent with the proposition that while the causes of deteriorating safety were (as Minsters have insisted) the spread of the new psychoactive drugs, and gang culture, higher staff: positioner ratios made prisons far less able to cope with these challenges. That is also consistent with the experience of Scottish prisons, where there were not cuts, and conditions have not deteriorated to anything like the same extent (5).
But there remain significant variation in the fate of different prisons that cannot be explained through changes in the staff: prisoner ratio. Is it possible that intangibles such as management style or local culture accounted for that variation?
The case of Thameside
Thameside is an interesting exceptional case: rates of violence and self harm reduced, despite a rise in the staff:prisoner ratio. The prison recently received what was, for a prison nowadays, and especially a London one, a pretty positive inspection report (6). Someone ought to take a closer look and find out what they are doing right.
Chart 4: changes in staff:prisoner ratios mapped against changes in rate of assault and self harm 2011-2016
Note: this covers a slighty different period than chart 3.
Prisons are ranked vertically with those with the largest increase in their staff:prisoner ratio (BLUE BAR) at the top, those with the largest fall in that ratio at the bottom, and in each case case the change in the rate of assaults (ORANGE BAR) and self harm (GREY BAR) are shown for each prison. Thus, one would expect all 3 bars to move together.
Since 2010, the 'race to the bottom' has been driven by the public, not the private sector
The line put about by crusaders against privately operated prisons, that because they are run for profit, they must inevitably cut staffing to unsafe levels in order to maximise profit, has been completely turned on its head by the trend 2010-2017 - three time over.
Firstly, because it was the public sector that made really deep staffing cuts – not the contracted sector.
Second, because where staffing cuts were made in contracted prisons, they were made not by contractors seeking bigger profits, but by the public sector as customer, forcing changes in contracts in order to save money - and forcing contracual changes on operators to do so.
Third, because some contracted prisons responded to gathering operational pressure by increasing staffing levels, sometimes without funding to cover it.
Staff: prisoner ratios at contracted and publicly run prisons have converged
Charts 5 shows staff:prisoner ratios in male locals in each sector. Data for Operational Support Grades on the public side is not available by establishment for the whole period. As the ratio of Operational Support grade staff to Prison Officer grades is roughly 1:3, I have shown the public sector staffing levels inflated by that much. I have drawn on research published by the Howard League for these graphs (6).
Chart 5: staff:prisoner ratios at male local prisons 2010-2016
Public sector: Coldingly, High Down, liverpool, Wandsworth
Contracted sector: Altcourse, Doncaster, Forest Bank, Oakwood, Birmingham
These aren't precise comparisons of course, as no two prisons are ever exactly alike in all respects, and I could have chosen other comparators. Still, it's striking how exactly public and contracted sector staff:prisoner ratios converge in 2016.
So are staffing levels, and staff costs, now the same between sectors?
No, for 2 reasons.
First, research we conducted when I was FD showed that about 12% of the cost difference in staffing was because the private sector gets more hours worked from staff: holidays were shorter, they took much less sick leave, they worked a longer week. That data is now a quarter of a century old; but I'm not aware of changes in the public sector that would much erode that difference (if you know of any, please tell me!). So in terms of staff time actually on duty, the work of 100 Prison Officers can be done by around 90 PCOs (7).
Second, staff unit costs remain higher in the public sector. True, MoJ has dramatically reduced starting pay for Prison Officers, Prison Officer pay has been held back by pay restraint, and the Civil Service Pension Scheme has been overhauled. But still, public sector remuneration is bound still to be significantly ahead, for various reasons:
Why aren't staffing data for contracted prisons routinely published?
I had to make a FoI application for this data. In the past, MoJ and before that the Home Office used sometimes to argue that staffing data for contracted prisons couldn't be produced, either because it wasn't held by the Department, or it was commercially confidential. This release disposes of those arguments.
Where a vital public service is delivered under contract, information that is key to understanding the safety and quality of that service ought to be routinely published, even more so where the same data is routinely published for public organisations delivering the identical service, unless it can be shown compellingly to violate commercial confidentiality in a way that would do real damage. That is not the case here. Staff:prisoner ratios are at the heart of prison safety. Some staffing data for contracted prisons – not precisely the same as for public ones, as different issues arise there, but the basic data on numbers of operational staff – should be published routinely alongside the public sector data.
A final thought
Writing this has reminded me how different the crisis now is from that in 1990. Then, we understood that the near collapse of the system reflected decades of appalling physical conditions, weak or non- existent management, waste, a powerful, anarchic and reactionary trade union, negative and oppressive attitudes and behaviour by some staff and absence of any positive sense of mission. These were things we could do soemthing about, and eventually did. By the late 2000s, the service was in an entirely different and much better state.
This collapse, by contrast, overwhelmed the service in just 3 short years. And I am not sure that anyone really knows how to restore safety and decency in our jails. We seem well and truly lost.
I am not confident that all the data is reliable, or that I have always interpreted it correctly, especially for individual prisons. If you can see something wrong, please comment below.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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