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Government response to Harris Review on deaths in custody – an opportunity missed

Posted on 28th January 2016

The Government’s response to Lord Harris’s review into the self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18- to 24-year-olds has rejected more than 30 of his recommendations, leading to concerns that an opportunity for meaningful reform has been missed and that prisoner safety will continue to be compromised whilst the authorities fail to learn lessons from the deaths of young people in their care. This comes at a time whenfigures from the Ministry of Justice show a sharp rise in deaths in custody and self-harm in prison.

On 17th December 2015, the day the Mirror Newspaper declared ‘Happy Bury Bad News Day’, the Government published its response to Lord Harris’ Review into the self-inflicted deaths in custody of young people.

The response to Changing Prisons, Saving Lives – Report of the Independent Review into Self-Inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18-24 year olds was one of the 36 ministerial statements and 424 announcements the government issued the same day, on their last working day before Christmas. Other items published that day included a damning report on the bedroom tax, the spiralling bill for special advisers, the Prime Minister’s travel bill, the increases in court charges and proposals to remove from the House of Lords the power to veto new regulations.

Such timing did not bode well and nor did Lord Harris’ tweet the day before: ‘Tomorrow the secretive/ defensive @MoJGovUK sneaks out #HarrisReview response on prison deaths without usual courtesy of sharing it with author’.

The Harris Review, published last summer, was described by its author as the most comprehensive independent examination of penal policy for a generation. Amongst other things it raised major concerns that prisoner safety was being compromised whilst time and again the authorities failed to learn lessons from preventable deaths in custody. This included a failure to respond sufficiently to recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) following deaths in custody as well as concerns raised by coroners in Prevention of Future Death (PFD) Reports.

The Harris Review ultimately concluded that there was insufficient rigour, accountability or transparency in the follow-up procedures following a death in custody. Many of its findings echoed criticisms and recommendations that have been made consistently and repeatedly over the last 15 years or so.

Given the previous Justice Secretary’s stance on prisons, Michael Gove’s foreword to the response was surprisingly refreshing. He described how offenders are ‘sent to prison as a punishment, not for further punishment’ and how it is the state’s duty to ensure everyone deprived of their liberty is ‘held in humane and decent conditions’, acknowledging that more must be done to reverse the increase in self-inflicted deaths across all age groups in prison. He described ‘reducing the rates of violence, self-harm and deaths in all forms of custody’ as ‘a ministerial priority’.

Despite these encouraging words, the response has disappointed those who campaign to reduce deaths in custody and those of us who represent bereaved families.

Of the Harris Review’s 108 recommendations the Government’s response agreed with 45, agreed in principle with 7, agreed in part with 10, rejected 33 and stated it would deal with a further 12 as part of broader reforms. A number were not addressed as the Government believed them to be directed at other bodies.

Lord Harris describes some of the responses as being ‘mealy-mouthed and defensive’. Certainly of those recommendations rejected, there is little analysis as to why.

Virtually all of the recommendations designed to strengthen transparency and accountability were rejected. This includes the rejection of the creation of a duty of candour upon the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) on the basis that it is unnecessary because NOMS staff are already required to behave in accordance with the Professional Standards Statement (PSI 06/2010 Conduct and Discipline).

In our experience, the necessary cooperation and transparency is not happening. Legal representatives for state bodies can actually make an inquest a much more difficult experience for bereaved families by adopting a defensive attitude and seeking, as far as possible, to avoid any criticism of their client. This is certainly not conducive to learning lessons. Furthermore, at one inquest where we represented the family of the deceased a prisoner had told the investigator that prison staff had told him his place in an open prison might need to be reviewed depending on what he told the investigation. This gave the impression that the prison was attempting to prevent the true circumstances surrounding the death being disclosed.

Another recommendation rejected by the Government relates to staffing levels. Having concluded that the current operational staffing levels in prisons are not adequate, Harris recommends benchmarking levels should be reviewed immediately. This was rejected on the basis that benchmarking levels have already been designed to be safe, decent and secure, and there is facility for Governors to request a change in benchmarking levels through Benchmark Adjustment Notice process.

Many of the recommendations which were accepted, were accepted on the basis that the Government believed the measure was already in place. It may well be that something is existing policy but is it actually happening? If that policy is already working and being properly implemented, then surely the recommendation would not have been made? That meetings should be convened to provide support to prisoners and staff following a self-inflicted death may well be current policy but interviews with prison staff undertaken as part of the Harris Review and our own inquest experience suggests that such support is not always being given in practice.

Lord Harris also recommended that NOMS should consider each PPO recommendation, any coroner’s jury finding and PFD reports to decide whether the conclusions apply just to the establishment where a death occurred or more widely across the estate. He said they should then put in place an appropriate action plan in response to that recommendation (which may involve other establishments). The response states that PPO recommendations and PFD reports are currently handled and published in this way. Again this does not reflect our experience and is contrary to both the Harris Review and HMIP’s concern about lessons not being learnt. Time and again we see the same PPO recommendations made repeatedly across different establishments and even in the same establishments. For example, recommendations around checking on prisoners are made on a regular basis – prison officers are asked to ensure that when a cell is unlocked a response is obtained from a prisoner to check they are alive. Despite this coming up frequently, it does not routinely happen, leading to many deaths where the deceased is found by another prisoner rather than a prison officer who should have found them earlier.

In some areas the Government’s response is far too vague in terms of what will actually be implemented. For example noting that there is ‘extensive work underway to strengthen the support prisons provide to vulnerable offenders’ and that the government are ‘committed to reducing violence in prisons and a major programme of work is underway over 2015 – 2017’. Many responses to the Review’s concerns have been postponed for future reviews, such as a recently conducted review of the use of ACCTs to be made available in the summer, the Youth Justice Review also due to report in the summer and a review of education.

Overall the response has left campaigners disappointed that an opportunity for major change has been missed at a time when prison suicides continue to rise. INQUEST, a charity that campaigns to reduce deaths in custody and supports bereaved families, stated that ‘It fails to respond to the grim reality of prison life for young prisoners and the systemic disconnect between policy and practice which is a feature of so many deaths in custody’.

It is clear from our experience that the system is not working and that vulnerable young people, often with mental health issues, are being let down. In many cases the policies are in place to prevent self-inflicted deaths but the reality is that they are not working in practice. It is shocking that after yet another thorough review into the penal system we see so many recommendations made to prevent future deaths disregarded. We must ensure that action is taken to compel our prisons and detention centres to respond to the findings of inspections, inquiries and inquests and to make the changes that are needed to improve prison safety and ultimately save lives.

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