Changing prisons, saving lives

Lord Toby Harris has published ‘Harris Review: Changing prisons, saving lives’, an independent review into self-inflicted deaths of 18-24 years olds in National Offender Management (NOMS) prison custody.

Lord Harris dedicates two pages to Independent Monitoring Boards, providing the following findings and recommendations

[The following is copied and pasted verbatim from pages 178 & 179]

8.9. Under the Prisons Act 1952, every prison is required to be monitored by an independent board, whose members are appointed from the local community where the establishment is situated. The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) is specifically required to undertake the following functions:

  • Satisfy itself as to the humane and just treatment of those held in custody within its prison and the range and adequacy of the programmes preparing them for release;
  • Inform the Secretary of State promptly of any concern it has, and
  • Report annually to the Secretary of State on how well the prison has met the standards and requirements placed on it and what impact these have on those in its custody.

8.10. The local IMB is provided with a right of access to every prisoner and every part of the prison, together with access to the prison’s records, in order to undertake its statutory duties. Each Independent Monitoring Board produces an annual report, and the National Council of the IMB produces its own annual report. The IMBs occasionally produce focussed reports looking at common areas of concern across the custodial estate, which the MOJ formally responds to. At present, however, neither the focussed report nor Ministry response is published.

8.11. The Review recognises the role that IMBs play in holding custodial establishments to account, and their role as part of the UK NPM. Nevertheless, the Review has concerns about their independence and composition.

8.12. The Justice Committee has documented the concerns that have been raised with them about the lack of confidence prisoners had in the IMB in the context of prisoner complaints. They took evidence from a number of IMB members, who reported that several Chairs of IMBs themselves believed that the MoJ did not have sufficient regard for concerns about prison conditions which IMBs had conveyed. Dr Penzer, Chair of the IMB at Thameside told the committee, “I know of little evidence that IMB reports have a significant impact on NOMS or MoJ, or that changes are made in response to IMB judgements. Generally the responses to IMB reports go along the lines ‘ABC is
an important point and the reason things are as they are is XYZ’. Rarely is the response ‘ABC is an important point that we did not know about and we are going to do PQR to put it right.”

8.13. The Review believes that to strengthen their independent position, overall responsibility for the IMB should be transferred from the Ministry of Justice to HMIP. This would also enhance the ability of the IMBs to inform the work of the Inspectorate.

8.14. We are also concerned about the overall make-up of IMBs and in particular the lack of diversity of their members (as regards both ethnicity and social background). The Review considers that the local IMB should be reflective of its community (which includes the prisoners themselves). The Review has heard that some prisoners feel they are not able to relate to local IMB members because they do not appear to fully understand the challenges faced by prisoners (for example, because of their ethnicity, age or social background).

8.15. For example, when they gave evidence to the Review, representatives of the Zahid Mubarek Trust said that BAME young adult prisoners have low confidence in the IMB. They suggested that, for that reason, in most prisons there are very few complaints to the IMB about religious or race issues, and argued that IMB membership is not representative of the prison population.

Download the review here