The latest report on the working of 'Through the gate' services in prisons – under which private companies ('Community Rehabilitation Companies') are contracted to prepare prisoners for release into the community – is one of the most damning inspection reports I have ever read.
Admittedly, this transition from prison to community was ever the Achilles heel of the correctional system. Partly because it was at the junction of so many different organisation, each of which was needed to assist, and all of which were heavily stretched by their main role (and many of which have IT systems that couldn't talk to each other); partly because offenders have many needs which relate to risk of re-offending and which are not easy to meet (drugs, alcohol, low skills, no accommodation, mental illness – you name it); and partly because split responsibilities and poor metrics meant no-one was really accountable for results, nor were they readily visible publicly. (Ironically, although prisons are always portrayed as closed institutions, invisible to the outside world, it is nowadays pretty easy to spot a failing prison: failing probation services, not so much).
So the CRCs, the fruit of Grayling's privatisation of probation, were given the job. (Or I should say, partial privatisation: just to make things more interesting, a truncated public sector probation service remained in each area, dealing with the more risky and difficult offenders – thus instead of one probation service working with all offenders, there are now always two. Some rationalisation!) The idea was that CRCs, being private sector, would – of course! - do the job so much better that they could be paid by results, in terms of reducing re-offending.
So, how is that working out?
This is what the joint inspection team says:
“CRCs are making little difference to their [prisoners'] prospects on release. We found them no better served than their more transient fellow prisoners were some eight months ago. The overall picture was bleak. If Through the Gate services were removed tomorrow, in our view the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible [my emphasis]”
Of 98 prisoners they saw, none had been helped into employment; only 2 into accommodation; only 1 had been given a mentor to help him after release. One third of resettlement plans make no provision for meeting the recognised needs of prisoners. Most staff didn't understand public protection issues, so there was inadequate assessment of risk to the public and inadequate mitigation of those risk.
Why has so much effort – including the costly, disruptive wholesale reorganisation of the entire probation service – made absolutely no difference at all on the ground?
A couple of things stand out.
First (deep breath): the contracts do not require the CRCs to make any difference. All the contracts require – the single outcome they specify – was that the CRC produced resettlement plans for each prisoner. So they did. They produced....paper. The CRC staff didn't actually have to do anything for the prisoners – they merely emailed away to agencies outside that might, perhaps, help them. They didn't ever check whether they were helping them. In fact, in most cases the CRC staff didn't know what happens to them once released, so they didn't even know they are failing.
Second, in many cases, the CRCs didn't talk to or work with the prison staff, who had been working with prisoners up to the point of release. I mean literally did not talk to them, in some cases – or simply couldn't talk to them, because they use a multitude of separate IT systems. Even those who were working with the same prisoners in the same prison:
"In HMP Rochester, workers have to record in six different places after interviewing a prisoner for their resettlement plan: NOMIS, OASys, nDelius, the CRC ‘front sheet’, the Through the Gate tracker, and an email to the responsible officer in the community
"We were told that some prisons in the south east of England had been exempted from completing prisoner screenings due to staff shortages. They were producing blank screening documents, which provided no information for Through the Gate staff when they came to complete resettlement plans.
"In HMP Holme House, we found a real lack of integration between the offender supervisors and the CRC staff. Neither knew what the other was doing
What will happen now? Well, ironically, there's a fair chance that the CRCs will be paid for 'results', despite this appalling report. Re-offending has been slowly falling for some years, despite the descent of the prison and probation services into chaos. This is why I have argued that payment by results, like so much Tory dogma on the management of services, is a nonsense. The truth is, we don't know why offending rises and falls.
And in any case, I hear that the MoJ has decided that because the volume assumptions on which privatisation was based have proved wrong, they will stuff a lot more money into the CRCs, on top of the original contract. This is called 'risk transfer': i.e. when the going gets tough, the private sector transfer risk back to the public sector. It's a bit awkward, isn't it, to announce you are giving more money to companies because they are failing, when you said you'd give them money for succeeeding: so expect this to be announed on the day Parliament breaks up.
The report makes various recommendations. I suggest one more: that the officials who wrote these useless contracts, and the officials who signed off on them, and the Permanent Secretary at that time, should all be brought back before the Justice Committee and given a grilling, whether still in that post or not. Chances of that happening? About the same as a smooth, trouble-free Brexit. The Civil Service may not be good at much, but it surely knows how to defend itself.
Finally, one important thing we have got right. On this showing, we still have well-informed, intelligent people who combine can passion with fine judgement (and remarkable restraint!) in the often thankless roles of Chief Inspectors of Prisons and of Probation – despite Grayling's best efforts to interfere with the selection process (1). It's vital that this appointment be taken away from the very politicians who have most to fear from Chief Inspectors who do their job fearlessly, as (on this showing) these two do.
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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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