An open letter to John Thornhill

Earlier this year, AMIMB wrote an open letter to John Thornhill, President of the National Council.

Dear John,

United Kingdom - Surrey -HMP SendThe AMIMB executive committee respectfully request, on behalf of all IMB members, that the National Council publish to the membership its Development Plan and any other strategically-significant documents that you are working on that respond to the observations made in the Karen Page Associates review, and/or prepare for the threats implicit in the triennial review, without delay, in whatever form they currently take.  The membership need to see these documents in draft in order to be able to comment upon them, and thereby ‘own’ them.

We further ask that you use your best endeavours to involve the boards and the entire membership fully in very aspect of preparation for (and to the extent possible, conduct of) the triennial review, so that the outcome is a product of the community and not just of an executive with an as-yet uncertain mandate.  We are confident that the necessary specialist and integrating skills and experience exist within the community as a whole.

Addressing the threat

AMIMB believes that IMBs are under serious threat, and is not impressed.  It feels that the National Council lacks both urgency and the readiness to make preparations of an appropriate kind.  Something substantially more is needed than a development plan and a monitoring framework, neither of which is remotely strategic, but which would both find a niche as appendices to the implementation part of a strategy document.  So we set out in this article a challenge to the NC to dig deep into its reserves and its vision for the organisation’s future by writing a strategy. Furthermore we urge the NC to do this fully collaboratively with the membership, something the council seems to find difficult to do.

AMIMB has no doubt but that those in detention are better off with IMBs than without.  But that is not to maintain that IMBs do systematically and reliably all those things that should be done, qua monitors.  Never mind that we are all just volunteers, IMBs and the NC squander opportunities to achieve real impact.  Finally, therefore, we try in this article to pinpoint areas that need development  and that accordingly need to be explored and bottomed out in a strategic analysis.

IMB strategy – the state we’re in

Twenty years ago Will Hutton wrote a powerful book, The State We’re In, where he deconstructed aspects of Britain that needed urgent attention.  Such an analysis is an essential starting point for the elaboration of a strategy for any entity, whether a nation or an organisation for monitoring places of detention.  Hutton felt that Britain paid insufficient attention to strategy.

A strategy is an account of a thinking and consultation process that asks and answers three questions: where are we now, where do we want to get to, and how do we get there?  Not to have a strategy is to be operating blind, directionless, without vision. Assuming that IMB members care about their responsibilities as monitors, how many would answer that they are familiar with the strategy of the IMB system, and that it meets the need?  At the risk of appearing unduly critical, the evidence, deriving from many conversations, suggests a resounding no.  Members seem to say that no strategy has been communicated.  If there is no strategy, does that mean that the NC has been operating essentially without direction, without vision or purpose, unsighted?  Surely not!  If true, even in part, then the worries about the system’s fitness for purpose are surely well grounded.  Whatever the truth, a strategy needs to be at the heart of the IMB system’s submission to the triennial review.

If the IMB system has no agreed, acknowledged, published and disseminated strategy, then there has to be considerable doubt as to whether the necessary skills and experience are reliably to be found in the central apparatus of the IMB system, which itself raises questions about the fitness for purpose of the election system to the NC, and the role description and appointments systems for the Secretariat.  For the immediate we urge the President to assess and leverage the skills and experience of the whole membership, as if there were no tomorrow!

The aim of this article is to flush the IMB strategy discussion out into the open, where it should be.  This article (there may be others, later) concentrates on the first question (where are we now?).  It distils the content of increasingly worried discussion at AMIMB’s executive committee meetings over the last few years.

AMIMB believes that these matters should have been being much more openly discussed and shared with the membership, with more urgency, and long ago.  Are members likely to become dangerously unsettled if confronted with such uncertainty?

What is important in strategy formation?

AMIMB sets out a starter-list here, which should be read in parallel with the KPA review recommendations, which major on governance, authority and accountability.

Every board is an island:

* boards do not operate together or even communicate very much about the content of their monitoring, either board to board or with the National Council; nor do they have any comprehensively shared understanding of the purposes and criteria behind monitoring the establishments they are assigned to; there are no regular mechanisms for detecting and acting upon general patterns

* boards exhibit variable practice in their investigation and inspection methodology generally, and they tend to be particularly insecure about how to frame hypotheses and how to select indicators and collect robust information (especially statistical information) to support or disprove those hypotheses

* boards seem to have an uncertain command of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘critical writing’.


* are often unsure of their role and feel unsupported – what kind of questions is it appropriate to address and to speak out about; and answers to which questions in particular could have a genuine impact?  There is wide variation in such matters.

The system as a whole:

* is risk-averse and under-confident.  For example it has never undertaken any form of member satisfaction survey, which could reveal some more important priorities than the ones it chooses to privilege

* is to all appearances more interested in its own parochial (usually procedural and administrative) problems than in the problems besetting British society as they emerge through social, cultural and emotional deprivation, and asocial behaviour; the criminal justice system which fails to triage and divert; the courts that fail society by imprisoning so many; the prisons that fail society by squandering the opportunity they have to rectify some of the developmental deficits of their clients; and the tragic gyre of the parole/probation and associated systems

* makes few systematic attempts to discern trends, frame questions to boards, collect and analyse information and broadcast conclusions, provide any observatory function, or keep members informed about germane developments nationally or abroad.  It rarely elects to focus on such things

* has not systematically sought out the best-in-class in monitoring theory and practice from around the world and found ways of interpreting those systems to the British context

* has no public voice whatever, and consequently achieves very little authority, public recognition or impact on penal policy. If it lobbies for better evidence-based rehabilitation-oriented policies, for example, then it happens without members’ knowledge

* is fairly good at the training of new members in their first year, but fails to provide adequate professional development opportunities for more experienced members.  It holds largely procedural training events but nothing with much intellectual, research or policy content, and it turns its back on AMIMB when it runs such events

* shows little interest in establishing what could be useful co-working with other groups of inspectors or monitors within the criminal justice system; or in bringing for consideration other models (whether of prisons policy and practice, or of monitoring) from other jurisdictions

* rarely celebrates its members’ achievements or exploits their skills.

The National Council by implication:

* gives only weak leadership, control and support to boards

* does not offer (and thus cannot monitor) standards

* seems to privilege attention to internal, often procedural and administrative matters, over strategy or focusing its considerable intelligence outwards

* seems unable to command the Secretariat, which attracts much (if mostly sotto voce) adverse commentary from boards and members about quality and style.

In summary, and to return to the theme of this article, there is little evidence that anyone is thinking about what the system should look like in 10 or 20 years’ time and how to get there, except perhaps in the area of governance.


We are aware that the central apparatus of the IMB system is not accustomed to this kind of public critique, and that it may come as a disappointment and a surprise.  We are aware that the President and National Council contribute their time voluntarily, with the best of intentions, selflessly, and sometimes in stressful conditions.  But …. three things.  First, if the outcomes are not right, then the principle of accountability requires that those in positions of authority must face up to the facts.  Second, we are confident that, as NC members are all individuals recruited to deliver exactly this kind of independent critique to the prison system, they will welcome AMIMB’s expression of solidarity and concern, for that is what it is.  And finally, why, they might ask, do AMIMB publish in this way?  Why not engage with us in the normal way?  Well …. deep breath, we have tried to engage constructively for years and been systematically spurned.  Here is an issue of such importance that we intend to be heard.

This article is published under my name, as the current chair of AMIMB’s executive committee.  The use of the first person plural pronoun, however, emphasises that the views expressed are shared by the whole membership of that committee, and to judge by the responses from several recent consultations, by the majority of the AMIMB membership too.

Later ‘speaking out’ articles will doubtless include responses to this one; they may further develop the strategy line, filling in more of what we might hope an IMB strategy would look like; and they will turn from self-absorption to matters concerning prisoners and criminal justice policy and practice, which are our raison d’être, as members of IMBs.  The Editor and I would welcome contacts from would-be contributors.

Some telling excerpts from the KPA review

To improve the efficiency and effectiveness of governance arrangements there should be an urgent root and branch review and reform of sponsorship, governance and leadership.  This is the key recommendation.  The outcome should be a system that protects the independence of boards within unambiguous, transparent, effective governance and leadership arrangements, clear lines of responsibility and accountability and efficient, binding decision making processes.

IMBs should collaboratively ensure there are robust systems:

  • that ensure the most competent people are selected, that optimum training and development (support, mentoring, appraisal) arrangements are in place, and that people unsuited to the role of IMB members are quickly identified
  • to commission, publish and promote timely reports that persuasively set out IMBs’ findings and recommendations, and that support timely, outcome-focussed and collaborative attention by IMBs and government working together on key issues identified by IMBs
  • that enhance support to boards… there should be a single source of information (eg on a website) for boards about internal policies, standards and processes.

Detailed comments included:

  • “widespread dissatisfaction with current arrangements beyond local level”
  • “frustration about what were seen as dysfunctional systemic relationships between, variously, boards, chairs, President, National Council, Secretariat and AMIMB”
  • “the IMB system was regarded by many as endemically flawed and a drag on IMBs being able to create and sustain the reputation and authority to effectively champion the proper treatment of prisoners and detainees”
  • “internal systemic problems could become a substitute for focusing on the welfare of people in custody or detention”
  • “waste of talent within the IMB system as committed and able members and Secretariat staff laboured to make awkward arrangements work”
  • “the IMB system was struggling to be fit for purpose and that this created significant obstacles for members, boards and Secretariat”
  • “the Secretariat’s culture as a government unit trained to apply rules unquestioningly versus IMBs’ ethos as independent and challenging seemed to be factors in this, at times, unsatisfactory relationship.”