Failure to return BILL HARTLEY


Failure to return

BILL HARTLEY finds that today’s prison staff are sometimes more constrained than their charges

The recent abscond of a high profile prisoner from Stanford Hill open prison is nothing new. Each year there are a steady trickle of disappearances, or ‘failures to return’ as they are known in the trade. When a notorious prisoner absconds then a constant operating problem for the Prison Service attracts fresh media scrutiny, with subsequent disappearances gaining a greater level of interest than might otherwise have been the case. Stanford Hill has until now kept a low profile. In the past the focus was generally on Ford and Leyhill prisons, which are rather better known for losing prisoners. The governors of these jails may be casting nervous glances at their gates each morning as prisoners exit for work or day release.

The first victim of the heightened media attention following the Stanford Hill abscond was HMP Kennet situated in Liverpool, where two prisoners went awol. Unlike the other prisons mentioned this is a Category ‘C’ jail, not an open prison. Here as a reward for good behaviour prisoners are allowed the occasional day out. However, the only real difference is that at Kennet the prisoners who failed to return will have had a few hours less of a head start before the alarm was raised.

Be prepared for the inevitable ‘tightening up’ as politicians demand action. No-one in Prison Service senior management is likely to suggest to politicians that they are getting over excited about a system which in the main does what it is meant to.  Temporary release is firmly embedded in the Rehabilitation Revolution that ministers like to talk about. The public might not like the idea of prisoners wandering along the high street but that is what happens. At an open prison going out to work each day is the reality for many prisoners. The problem lies not in the idea but its execution. The majority of prisoners coming towards the end of a long sentence or with the prospect of release on license looming, will treat temporary or day release as a test of their reliability and quite possibly as an opportunity to reintegrate back into society. Most will be careful not to jeopardise this.

Over the past decade or so and particularly since the creation of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) the drive to create a seamless organisation out of the prison and probation services has led to prison management being driven by the rehabilitation agenda. Everything is focussed on offending behaviour programmes and sentence management, underpinned by performance targets. Prisoners are wise to this and they know that pressing the right buttons, i.e. completing the prescribed programmes, creates a de facto entitlement to temporary release or a move to an open prison. For a prisoner denied such things the complaints system both internal and external is wide ranging and elaborate. Don’t like a decision made by a humble wing manager? Take it to his boss. Still disappointed? Go to the governor, or indeed his boss. Parallel to this lie the Prisons Ombudsman as an external source of redress and those solicitors who advertise their expertise in ‘prison law’.

Ministers will no doubt be demanding that risk assessments are tightened to reassure the public, implying that by doing so absconds or failures to return will be reduced. At the very least this may mean anyone with who has absconded and been recaptured won’t be returned to an open prison after a few weeks cooling off in a proper prison, as is currently the case – although it’s always worth trying the: ‘I had to abscond for my own safety’ excuse. This defence can serve to unsettle the authorities since they know that open prisons are so lightly staffed that bullying and extortion are hard to detect. It’s easy to imagine a solicitor with expertise in ‘prison law’ using that one; implying that low staffing levels and lack of supervision forced his client to flee for his own safety.

The fact is though that if a prisoner is smart enough to comply with the requirements of a sentence plan then whatever it was that got him into jail in the first place will be of little consequence. Severity of crime or notoriety will count for little when he is risk assessed for temporary release or allocation to an open prison. The system has been nailed down and codified and is open to public scrutiny and indeed legal challenge. Risk assessment based on offending behaviour: what the prisoner has done in the past and what he might be capable of in the future hardly matters. The assessment is based on his recent custodial history. Ironically past criminal behaviour does become an issue when the public are alerted by police.

Previously it used to be the case that governors and senior staff could rely as much on their experience, known as jailcraft, than on a box-ticking risk assessment exercise. Harbouring suspicions about prisoners’ motives might be enough to deny access to an open prison or temporary release and the decision maker would generally be backed up by his seniors. Drawing upon jailcraft is no longer grounds for a denial and it would be a brave governor who tried it. The forces ranged against him are too great and sticking your neck out in an unwinnable fight would not be a good career move.

Enhanced risk assessments are unlikely to stem the steady trickle of absconds and failures to return. Denied the opportunity to use their jailcraft means that prison staff will be unable to exercise their experience, skill and judgement as part of the decision-making process.

BILL HARTLEY is a freelance writer based in Yorkshire


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