The Government's Approach to Crime Prevention - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 189-214)


19 JANUARY 2010

  Q189  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming to give evidence. From what you have heard so far I am sure you know why we are conducting this inquiry. Thirteen years ago the government said it wanted to be tough on crime and on the causes of it. You at Reading deal with a number of those who have committed crimes and ended up in the young offender centre. You know Mr Salter who doubt will declare his interest, not as an inmate at Reading but a visitor to it. A number of your prisoners have taken part in the National Grid young offender programme. What is their re-offending rate and how successful do you believe that programme has been?

  Mr Barber: It is quite difficult to quantify in the sense that when they leave the establishment sometimes we lose sight of them because they then go into the Probation Service. What I can say to you is that since the programme started 66 prisoners from Reading have been through it and I am aware of only four who have come back in. That does not mean to say they have not gone into other establishments; they may have gone over our age threshold and gone into an adult establishment. I know that National Grid did an evaluation at one stage and said that its re-offending rate was about 7% of prisoners from all the establishments who had gone through its programme.

  Q190  Chairman: The witnesses have between them years and years of experience of the criminal justice system. Ms Bryant, how many years have you spent in the system?

  Ms Bryant: I have spent 23 years in the system starting at Holloway. The past six years have been spent at Reading. Before that I was at Aylesbury which is a young offender institution but is concerned with longer-term offenders.

  Mr Barber: I have spent 35 years in the system starting with long-term dispersal prisons.

  Q191  Chairman: Combined you have over half a century's experience. What do you believe are the causes of crime?

  Ms Bryant: Speaking for the lads we have at Reading, they have a very low educational attainment. Entry level three which is about ages nine to 11 is the general consensus. A lot of them come from areas where they have been excluded from school and have problems within the family. They are not so much prolific drug-users because we have huge alcohol problems among some of our young offenders. That is their background.

  Q192  David Davies: What proportion of inmates would be eligible for release under the programme?

  Mr Barber: We are a young offender establishment and we have a mixed population inasmuch as probably two-thirds of the population are remand prisoners and about a third have been sentenced. As for release under temporary licence, which I think is the question you ask, only those prisoners who are sentenced are eligible. There are certain other criteria. For example, if they are high risk or have a further charge down the line they are ineligible for it.

  Ms Bryant: To quantify that, Kennet unit holds about 20 prisoners. We accept up to 24 year-olds and we struggle to fill it with prisoners who are of a risk low enough to release them on temporary licence.

  Q193  David Davies: Yesterday there was an article in the papers about an individual who had helped to murder a young woman. Within three years he was out on an early licence scheme and supposedly doing work placement, but it seems that he was night-clubbing and had found another girlfriend in the interim. Many law-abiding people would be horrified by stories like that. Can you assure us that that is not happening in Reading?

  Ms Bryant: Absolutely. They are not eligible and obviously we do not even consider them. They have to be eligible to go out in the first instance and with those sorts of numbers we consider very carefully beforehand the risk to the public and any victim issues. Usually, they have gone out on a placement first, perhaps to something like a charity shop, before they go on to work. We have a very high success rate with any prisoners who have gone out.

  Mr Barber: All of our prisoners who are released in the morning come back in the evening after they have finished their job or training.

  Q194  Gwyn Prosser: What about those inmates who do not meet the criteria? They are not left to wither on the vine. What do you do to help them with training?

  Mr Barber: When they first come into the prison they have all sorts of issues. We have to get them through de-tox; some have quite prolific self-harming as an issue. In a sense coming into prison is another problem they have to face. Initially, sometimes it is about stabilising those individuals and dealing with them through our safe custody team in terms of self-harm monitoring and also in terms of drug-related issues, putting them through de-tox, getting them to engage initially with our drug counsellors at work within the prison and from that induction there is a series of assessments for education. We also give them information about what we do in the prison and how they can access that. They are seen by people with various functions working within the prison to assess them. From that they are signposted. If they have literacy or numeracy deficits obviously there is education. It may be a drug programme or a cognitive thinking skills programme that we operate at Reading. If they have a very short-term sentence—we have some for only a couple of weeks—and they have accommodation it may be as simple as ensuring that the landlord is aware of where they are and trying to make sure they do not lose it. If they do not have accommodation it is a matter of trying to find them somewhere to go on release. There is a whole raft of issues. It is very much tailored to the individual and his circumstances.

  Q195  Gwyn Prosser: In general what is their attitude to education and training? Do they look upon it as just another chore and soldier on or do they welcome it?

  Mr Barber: Having worked with National Grid and other employers, prisoners are aware of the Kennet unit in the prison and it is something to which they aspire. If they want to change but cannot read or write clearly that will limit them in getting a job or even doing things like going to some of our workshops, the gymnasium or reading some of the safety notices. Within the prison what we do is not purely education. We map it across to other things we do in the prison that is more on the vocational side. They may attend a Duke of Edinburgh course. We will map communication across to that as well so that at the end of it they are doing a presentation to parents or visitors who come in. There is a whole raft of ways to get round it. Let us take the example of numeracy. If you have weights on the end of a bar you need to be able to count them. It is a question of mapping it across not just purely in terms of education.

  Q196  Martin Salter: If the witnesses have found it inconvenient to come here it is my fault but also their fault for inspiring me in the work they do and some of the things they have told me. I wanted you to be able to share that with the Committee, for which we are grateful. Are you still using the musical instruments provided through the Jail Guitar Doors programme and is that still working?

  Ms Bryant: Yes, with a caveat: we have had to silence them so they do not disturb everybody else. We choose a time when they can make a noise with other noisy classes rather than disrupt anyone who is trying to learn how to speak English, for example. There are some limitations to the rather noisy musical instruments we received via yourself.

  Q197  Martin Salter: I want to explore one matter we talked about previously both at Reading and in discussion with the other witnesses: the appalling literacy rates. The figures we have show that the average reading skill is that of an 11 year-old child. Ms Bryant, I think your experience is that it is as low as nine. For example, in order to put together an effective literacy programme in an institution like yours how long a period of time do you need? How often do you find yourself with young offenders who are moved around the prison estate so even though you may want to put them on a three-month programme you have them for only a few weeks?

  Ms Bryant: We have tried some innovative ways to engage people in key skills. We have a multi-skill workshop which is one of the things we tailor for remands. We used to call it the Planner Kitchen. When prisoners came in we made sure we engaged them in education that could interest them and throw in with it key skills. For example, we would get them to measure up an area of a kitchen. They would make the kitchen and cost it; they would build the kitchen and do simple plumbing and electrical work. It was a four-week course. At the end their families would come in. It would give them experience of work and practical skills to move them on. Once we have convicted prisoners we tend to move them on. Our two main places are Onley and Portland because we do not have the facilities. We have to service the courts at Reading. A very small group goes to the Kennet unit and also works outside, so there are issues about being able to keep people for that specific length of time. We worked out that the average stay for prisoners was about 12 weeks which is clearly not long enough. If you are to engage in any sort of programme with prisoners you need to have more time. Our four-week courses are taster courses form which move on to something else. We have tried to dovetail our courses to things that are going on in Portland and Onley afterwards so that whatever they start with us they can pick up at other prisons and have continuity. As long as people have sentences of perhaps over 12 months—in other words, they are serving at least six months—you can do some serious intervention work to make a difference, but you must have them for six months; you have to give them the sense that they want to do something, and all of that takes a little bit of time.

  Q198  Martin Salter: This is important to us and may be reflected in our recommendations. To be absolutely clear, are you telling us it is difficult for the prison estate to do anything meaningful in terms of training for sentences of less than six months, and even if you are required to move them on there needs to be joining up between the young offender institution and the host prison?

  Ms Bryant: Yes.

  Q199  Martin Salter: We talked previously about perverse performance indicators. Such indicators apply across a whole range of public services, but clearly they can have perverse and unintended consequences. Can you give us some examples of where you have performance indicators that might prevent you from delivering other objectives, particularly in terms of trying to reduce re-offending?

  Ms Bryant: I am struggling at this particular juncture.

  Q200  Martin Salter: Are you required to do one thing which then inhibits your ability to do something else? You can always write to us later.

  Ms Bryant: We have an operational capacity which suggests that we should have a certain number of prisoners in there. We are unable to meet that because of the risks posed by some of our prisoners. We are constantly unable to meet targets in that sort of fashion. Some of the other ones are related to employment, training and education. While we can probably attain some of the employment targets, and have done successfully, we are not attaining all of the training targets because we have not got people there long enough or they are being released from Reading. Some of them need to be tailor-made to the prisoners, but I am not quite sure about the other targets. Did you have anything in particular in mind?

  Q201  Martin Salter: I recall a conversation that you and I had a few months ago.

  Ms Bryant: That is probably where we are.

  Q202  Martin Salter: Perhaps you can follow that up with a letter to us.

  Ms Bryant: Yes.

  Q203  Bob Russell: Ms Bryant, in response to Mr Salter's questions about prisoners moving on with their rehabilitation and education programme to the next place you said "We have tried that". I got the impression that that was not necessarily a roaring success.

  Ms Bryant: We have a head of learning and skills. We have gone out to Portland and Onley and tailored some of the courses we offer so people can continue with our taster course at the next prison. It may be plumbing or something else in that vein. It is a growing area. It was recognised by Ofsted last June when it visited us that we were doing a lot of work at an embryonic stage to address the needs of young offenders.

  Q204  Bob Russell: I apologise. When you said "We have tried that" it was a positive response. I interpreted it as something you had tried but nothing had come of it.

  Ms Bryant: We continue to try it.

  Q205  Bob Russell: It may be that in due course there will be feedback as to how successful it has been at other establishments?

  Ms Bryant: Yes.

  Q206  Bob Russell: When young people arrive at Reading do their health records indicate whether any of them have experienced acquired brain injury at some point in their lives?

  Ms Bryant: I was intrigued by that. I have not come across it.

  Mr Barber: We have a mental health team within the prison which sees all the new people coming in and do an assessment. It is not something of which I am aware.

  Q207  Bob Russell: The Committee may need to revisit that at a subsequent separate inquiry. When youngsters come in with appalling levels of literacy and social deprivation, which is a damning indictment on society generally, are any of them ever asked whether they have been members of a recognised youth organisation at any time in their lives?

  Ms Bryant: I do not think they are asked that specific question but they usually come with some antecedents and information. We have quite large numbers who are affiliated to gangs but not other youth services. We are usually aware of quite a good deal of their background via the police liaison officer.

  Q208  Bob Russell: They are not asked the specific question, "Have you ever been a member of a recognised youth organisation?"

  Ms Bryant: No.

  Q209  Bob Russell: When is the critical intervention point for offender rehabilitation, if there is one?

  Mr Barber: We have a number of interventions. It is probably the point at which we make a very thorough assessment when they first come in so we can signpost them to some of the facilities and programmes in the institution. In terms of critical intervention I think one of the earlier witnesses said that it could be any of a number of things that we do.

  Q210  Tom Brake: Is there anything in the current sentencing process that you would change to maximise rehabilitation? You have heard from some of the earlier questioning that perhaps there is a push from the right to ensure people spend a much longer time in prison to maximise the rehabilitation potential. Perhaps at the other end of the spectrum there is a demand for tougher or more heavily supervised community sentences. What would you change if you had a free hand?

  Ms Bryant: I believe we have a very good relationship with the Thames Valley Probation Service. We get an increasingly better service in terms of offender management from outside. All young offenders get at least three months' supervision when they come out of prison, so they are addressing the needs of young offenders probably better than they do adults who can just fall out of the system and then move on. Certainly, community sentences are increasingly more acceptable because people have long since recognised that very short sentences in prison just do not do any good. If anything, as long as the Probation Service is able to address the needs of the offender and convince the courts that interventions can take place outside that is the way forward.

  Q211  Tom Brake: Obviously, it is not your area of responsibility but in terms of community sentences are you happy that as far as you can tell they are being properly supervised?

  Ms Bryant: I am content that they are quite well supervised. In addition, quite a lot of work can be done in the area. We are next to Forbury Gardens where some people work. Some of our young prisoners have gone out into the community and done community service projects that have been tremendously successful. There has been some talk that perhaps some of our prisoners can go with other community service offenders to help them along and convince them that they really do not want to go into prison, but I am not too sure; it could also cause problems and would depend on the supervision. We can do a few things. Community service orders for short sentences would be far better.

  Q212  Chairman: A few months ago Members of the Committee visited Feltham and spoke to some young offenders. There was a view that though some had come in as a result of having committed serious crimes they left with additional skills to commit more crimes; in other words, for some these young offender institutions was an education process. What are you doing to ensure that they do not pick up new skills they did not have before and commit further crimes when they come out?

  Ms Bryant: We have a comprehensive violence reduction strategy. We have had some problems with an existing gang culture. Southampton has a particularly active gang culture which quite surprised me. We have had quite a few problems with other gangs that have come from overcrowding drafts from the London area. The sorts of things with which we have most problems are bullying, people being coerced by others to pass canteens and the sort of behaviour they display. We address those with a work book and we work quite effectively with prisoners who show those sorts of tendencies. That is our biggest problem. Are you referring to things like stealing from other people while they are inside?

  Q213  Chairman: Maybe they come in for burglary but go out knowing how to commit fraud; it is the kind of place where they graduate with more criminal skills. Are we conscious of this and are we doing our best to deal with it?

  Ms Bryant: I would not be confident that those are the sorts of problems we have particularly at Reading.

  Q214  Chairman: The lesson of Feltham is that you have to be extremely careful where you place young people in terms of their accommodation. Presumably, we have learnt all the lessons about that.

  Mr Barber: Yes. We make the same risk assessments that Feltham conduct and those have been adopted nationally in the Prison Service.

  Chairman: Thank you for coming to give evidence today; it has been very helpful. If there are any other issues that you think the Committee should look at in this inquiry please let us know. If Members have the opportunity to pay a visit to Reading they or Mr Salter will contact you.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 29 March 2010