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Governments Response to The Harris Review

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Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor on 17 December 2015 has provided the Government’s response to the Harris Review which focused on self-inflicted deaths of 18-24 year olds in National Offender Management Service custody.

Reducing the rates of violence, self harm and deaths in all forms of custody has been described as a “Ministerial priority”. The Lord Chancellor has described his vision of a prison system with a renewed focus on rehabilitation that demands a focus on keeping offenders of all age groups safe in custody, and discharging their duty of care.

When commenting upon health services, £1.5 billion is said to be invested additionally to support the development of improved, more accessible services for young people’s mental health and well being however, this funding is for within the community and not towards those already incarcerated. The work currently being carried out by the Government includes early intervention by working closely with families to divert young people away from criminality and supporting families who find themselves coping with multiple problems such as domestic violence, mental health issues and parental offending.

In terms of tackling new psychoactive substances the Government’s response to dealing with this issue was continuing work with offenders to ensure they know the consequences of taking these substances. On 10 November 2015 a new criminal offence was brought in to force of throwing or otherwise projecting any item into a prison. The response does not consider any practical solutions or investments in methods to enable those working in the establishment the tools to detect such substances.

We have found during conclusions of inquests that we are involved in that there is a pattern regarding criticisms of the inadequacy of information sharing arrangements between staff working within prison establishments. A recent inquest where this issue arose involved the death of 21 year old Thomas Watson-McGovernIt came out in evidence that discipline staff had very little knowledge of the deceased’s vulnerabilities and therefore failed to manage him as a prisoner with mental health issues. The jury returned a strong narrative conclusion stating that the “Communication between the wing staff, health staff and mental health staff was insufficient, lacking, inadequate and totally failed to provide Thomas with an adequate level of care and support at Everthorpe.” Had the quality of information sharing been as it should have this may have changed the way in which Thomas’ issues were addressed and may well have prevented his death.

The response says that guidance will be given to healthcare staff ensuring they make attempts to seek a young persons consent to share their details with other professionals within the prison which could potentially aid in ensuring those dealing with the young person in custody have a fuller picture of that person’s needs. The issue with this is that it all boils down to the issue of consent. If the young person lacks trust in discipline staff then it is difficult to imagine that they will give consent for their medical history to be disclosed.

In response to the regime and time out of cell, it is agreed that it is beneficial for prisoners to have time out of their cells. Michael Gove stated the benchmark for young offender institutions and the closed adult estate provides over 10 hours out of cell each day, including over 6 hours of purposeful activity. The response then says that in prisons where there are ongoing staff shortages restricted regimes will operate temporarily. In reality it is known that the number of hours prisoners have out of their cells is minimal which has a detrimental affect on their health and wellbeing. The response rejects the recommendation of collating data to analyse the benefits of the above and has failed to acknowledge the impact staff shortages has had on the daily prison regime by describing shortages in time out of cell as “temporary”.

The report agrees that family, friend and peer support is important for a prisoner and can be a protective factor. There is no comment upon ensuring prisoners are located close to their families to ensure visits can take place.  This issue was touched upon in inquests such as the “Inquest into the Death of Davy Larcombe,” where it was found that maintaining a close relationship with family was an important factor in offering some comfort to prisoners.

To address the complexities prison officers have to face in their role and the challenges of the current custodial population, all new prison officers will receive entry level training from January 2016 onwards which will last 10 weeks. As part of this, all new recruits will receive basic life support training and a revised course will be provided to expand the contents in relation to safer custody and mental health issues. There will be more emphasis on building stronger staff prisoner relationships.

When commenting upon the use of safer cells the response accepted that the current date on safer cells was incomplete. Furthermore, Michael Gove stated that when considering the use of designated safer cells it has to be borne in mind that these cells cannot deal with the underlying behaviours causing self harming and suicidal behaviours. “Safer cells can only complement and not replace a regime providing individualised and multidisciplinary care for at risk prisoners”. We all agree that one cannot rest assured that a prisoner will not self harm in a safer cell but it is shocking that the response has rejected the Harris Reviews recommendation of ensuring all light fittings within cells should as standard be tested to ensure they are not able to bear the weight of a young adult before any cell can be signed off as being fit for it’s purpose of being a safer cell.

The response also highlights how offenders are a very high risk group who have complex backgrounds. The prison environment can increase risk to prisoners as it can be socially isolating and difficult to handle psychologically. The response highlighted its awareness that higher levels of self harm was within the female prison population. When it comes to young adult women, the Government is driving forward a range of work including the development of therapeutic environments in women’s prisons and staff training in all women’s prisons on being trauma informed, both of which the Government believes will help to reduce self-harm.

Referencing the ACCT process, the response was that a recent review of the use of the ACCT had been conducted, which recognised the concerns highlighted by the Harris Review on issues of compliance with the policy and the quality of delivery of care and support through the process. The findings of this review are currently being considered which are to be made available in summer 2016. A number of improvements to the process, including tools to assist staff in fulfilling their roles in the process and a revised policy document will be put in place during 2016. The recommendation is that improvements should be made to the Offender Management Model and not by creating new roles.  A number of inquests Lester Morrill have dealt with have raised issues with the quality of ACCT records and the quality of case management which is vital in ensuring all staff have up to date information about the prisoner. In one inquest concerning the death of 18 year old Greg Revell the ACCT process was poorly managed and therefore the prison failed to protect Greg from the risk of self harm he posed.

The response disagrees with the suggestion that an additional specialist caseworker role for young adults would benefit. Michael Gove believes that it was more important that training and effort should be focused on equipping existing staff who know the offender best, to spot changes in behaviour that might indicate an increase in suicide risk, rather than diverting effort and resources to create a new additional role.  Furthermore, it is recommended that a greater emphasis will be placed on staff having dedicated time to engage with prisoners, in order to develop positive, supportive relationships and to be alert to welfare needs. The response says it is more important to assess once and to do it well rather than there being a new risk assessment or plan.

In respect of transsexual and transgender prisoners, on 8 December it was announced that the Government will be conducting a review of the care and management of transgender offenders to identify where improvements can be made. However, this was only following the deaths of two transgender prisoners within the space of weeks at HMP Leeds and HMP Woodhill.

In summary, out of the 108 recommendations the Government has only accepted 29 of those. 33 recommendations have been rejected and the remainder answered with ‘agree in part’, ‘agree in principle’, or ‘subject to wider reforms’. The response simply fails to go into any real depth in comparison with the Harris Review. There seems to be a lack of emphasis on positively and practically responding to reducing the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody. Instead the focus seems to be investing resources on diverting young people away from the criminal justice system. The aspect of the response which deals with addressing mental health problems, is more community focused rather than giving any solution to those who are already in custody requiring the support and intervention. The response rejects the provision of non-means tested public funding for families to be legally represented at an inquest after a death in custody which is  disappointing bearing in mind the bone a fide involvement from families in the completion of the Harris Review.

The contents of the report casts highly a doubt on whether future deaths in custody will be prevented. The Government has failed to respond to the reality of prison life for those young adults who reside within it. According to the response the solution is the creation and implementation of  idealistic policy, the effectiveness of those which can be questioned, rather than the creation and enforcement of well grounded practice which is what bereaved families and those working with them believe is needed to bring a positive change to the number of the many deaths in custody.

The author of this article is Komal Hussain, who is part of the civil liberties team at Leeds based solicitors Lester Morrill. Gemma Vine and Rebecca Treece are Inquest Specialists and have developed a national reputation for representing bereaved families at Inquests, they are supported by paralegal Komal Hussain and Trainee Solicitor Charles Myers.

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