22 March 2015
This is a remarkable letter:
It is also a shocking and discrediting letter; and it is not surprising that Frances Crook’s simple tweet on Friday afternoon about receiving it has now been re-tweeted some 2,000 times.
And, for once, it appears G4S cannot be blamed – on Friday they were quick to tweet that they were happy for their prisons to be visited:
.@francescrook – we are proud of our work at Oakwood and Birmingham and we are happy to provide access subject to the approval of NOMS
— G4S (@G4S) March 20, 2015
That is was G4S’ own invitation has been confirmed by Frances Crook in a post at Politics.Co.UK:
I met a senior staffer from G4S in the studio of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme a few weeks ago when we were putting forward different views on privatisation and he invited me to visit Oakwood and Birmingham to see for myself. I was due to visit next week and had bought my train tickets.
It was therefore a bit of a shock to get the letter from Noms saying they were banning me.
So unless that invitation was insincere (and that G4S banked on it being over-ruled by the Ministry of Justice), the dis-invitation is entirely the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice.
And taking the Ministry of Justice letter at face value, there would seem no operational or other objectively sound reason why Frances Crook could not visit the prison. The excuse given is simply that she had expressed views (“made comments”) about private prisons.
The whole point about organizations such as The Howard League is that they “make comments” about prisons, whether they be in the public or private sector.
And if Frances Crook and The Howard League are wrong about private prisons, then what better way of showing this is there other than allowing visits to those prisons?
In respect of the prisons in question, there was good reason for The Howard League to take an interest. As Frances Crook has explained:
The Howard League has opposed the principle of privatising prisons since it was first mooted in 1992. The concern is ethical, based on the distaste of making a profit from punishment. The most dreadful thing we can do to a person is take away their freedom and that responsibility must rest with the state.
In many cases our worries have been justified as private prisons have had the same, and in some cases, worse problems than public sector establishments. The suicide rate is the same, the levels of violence and assaults is the same. The innovation has tended to be technological and introduced in order to save staff time, the best example being telephones in cell and automatic visit booking systems.
When G4S-run Oakwood opened it suffered horrendous problems. The chief inspector famously said it was easier to get drugs than soap. Birmingham prison was the first Victorian prison to be taken over by the private sector.
This dis-invitation is not only a dreadful circumstance on its own terms; it also is part of worrying trend. Journalists and researchers are not allowed to visit prisons in England and Wales. And the current independently minded chief prisons’ inspector has been effectively sacked.
Authoritarian politicians are fond of stating that if someone has nothing to hide they have nothing to fear. If that is so, then what do those same politicians have to fear from opening up the prisons to proper inspection and investigation?
This letter to Frances Crook is a disgrace. But the wider refusal to allow the prisons of England and Wales to receive any independent scrutiny is a scandal.