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Public or private sector prisons? March 2012

Minutes of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group, held on 6 March 2012 at 5.00 pm in Committee Room 6

Speakers – from the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge Professor Alison Liebling, Director of the Prison Research Centre, and Dr Ben Crewe, Penology Director and Deputy Director, Prison Research Centre.

Download the slides from the presentation here

Lord Ramsbotham opened the meeting by recording the group’s deep sadness at the sudden death of its chairman, Lord Corbett, whose moving funeral had been held the previous Friday. There would be a memorial service for him in due course.  Robin Corbett had been an inspiring and enthusiastic chairman and Lord Ramsbotham suggested that members of the meeting should stand for a moment’s silence to remember him.

Lord Ramsbotham then outlined proposals for interim arrangements until the group’s AGM in July. The meeting was content that two Vice Chairs, himself and Paul Goggins MP, should share the chairing role until then.

Lord Ramsbotham introduced the speakers for the evening. Professor Alison Liebling was one of the first people he had met when he became Chief Inspector of Prisons. She was then doing some remarkable work studying the relations between staff and prisoners in Whitemoor, and had continued working on these and similar themes at Cambridge ever since. There could be no-one better suited to guide members through the difficult subject of private and public sector prisons.  He had remembered entertaining doubts about the private prison sector when he took up his post.  However he had been pleasantly surprised by his first inspection of Doncaster, where he found both conditions, and staff treatment of prisoners, exceeded his expectations. The prison’s director had told him that, as an ex-governor in a public sector prison, he was now free to do all those things his previous post had rendered impossible.

So we would hear first from Alison Liebling and then from her colleague, Ben Crewe.

Alison Liebling began by thanking the meeting for its kind invitation to talk about this complex topic. She said she would make a 25 minute introduction, inviting Ben to chip in as he wished, as they were still working together on the material. She continued:  ‘We change our minds sometimes about the stance we want to take but we think the findings are very clear. We are going to talk about the specific study which we finished last year. We have encountered private sector prisons in lots of our research topics, and we couldn’t help noticing that there were some significant differences.  There hadn’t been, until that point, any systematic or independently funded evaluation or comparison of public and private sector prisons (with the exception of a study she had been involved in at Wolds, with colleagues from Hull), despite the fact that it said in the legislation that private sector prisons were being introduced as an experiment. We had to apply to the ESRC for funding and tried to do the research in as systematic a way as possible, using carefully developed methods that would ensure there was some kind of objectivity. We tried to stand outside the various ideological debates about public versus private prisons, and apply our interest about what goes on in prison to these institutions.  There’s a hand-out (see attachment) and I’m going to talk my way as briefly as possible through it.  We are very happy to make the handout available to anyone who wishes to see it.

I’ll just say a brief word about what we did. It was an independently funded thirty month study. We knew this was a sensitive topic, both politically and operationally, so we decided to try to veer towards the high performance end in both sectors. We wanted to try to choose establishments that we could match. We stuck to the adult male establishments because it was too complicated to do anything else, and we decided to pick a local and a training prison in each sector. So what you see on the first slide is the four original establishments in the study: Forest Bank, which we matched with Bullingdon, both local prisons, one private and one public, and Dovegate and Garth, both Category B training prisons, one private and one public. We took a lot of advice on which establishments to choose, how comparable they were, etcetera. They were all reasonably modern buildings, because we thought that if we were going to compare the quality of public and private sector delivery, there was no point in comparing say Wandsworth or Wormwood Scrubs with a new building.

As soon as we got into the field we found out that our two private prisons were not as good as we were expecting, or had been informed. So although we had ruled out Altcourse because it was famously the most expensive contract – we didn’t think it would be representative of the private sector – the prisoners talked about Altcourse and Lowdham Grange so positively that we couldn’t resist adding them in to our study.  Prisoners kept saying ‘They are really good. You should go and have a look at what’s going on there.’ So we did.

Rye Hill was added in because it was going through a rectification process.  It was officially ‘in trouble’, so we were requested by the OCP to include Rye Hill in the study to evaluate its quality as it came towards the end of that process. So in the end we have a slightly unbalanced study with two public sector prisons, two matched private sector prisons, and then three additional private sector prisons.  We did what we normally do in prisons. We have spent our professional lives trying to learn how to measure the quality of prison life. This has been a very developmental project, very much with the help of staff and prisoners, and using a method that is a slightly unusual appreciative method, to try and identify the sorts of things that should be measured.

On the next slide you have our revised latest fairly comprehensive set of dimensions. We are quite confident that they capture most of the really important things about measuring the quality of prison life as experienced by prisoners – that they represent something of an approximate test of the quality and legitimacy of the inner life of a prison. We have clustered the categories. We have got what we call ‘harmony’ dimensions which are the mainly relational dimensions of prison life; then ‘security’ dimensions; and a set we call ‘professionalism’ which are very important – they sort of bind the relational and security dimensions together; ‘conditions and family contact’; and then ‘wellbeing and development’. We know all of these things matter quite a lot. We’re just showing the gist of it – the headlines - here.

On the next slide we show the dimensions which have the most significant variation between prisons. We are trying not to throw too many numbers at you but if you just look at the list - ‘staff professionalism’; ‘organisation and consistency’; ‘staff-prisoner relationships’; ‘fairness’ and so on - what the numbers tell us is that these things differ very significantly between prisons. There’s a five point scale. Anything above three is a positive evaluation by the prisoners, but the higher above three the better. Anything below three is negative. What you’ll see is that there are very significant variations between prisons. You’ll also see that some of the scores are very low, so these are the things that prisons don’t find it easy to deliver. I’m telling you all that to help you to interpret the overall results.

The first headline is that the differences within the private sector are so great that we almost abandoned our attempt to compare public with private. What we have done instead is divide the prisons into four quality quadrants, from poor to very good. What you’ll notice is that the private prisons are both at the bottom and at the top end of that quality spectrum.  This has been found before, it’s what the National Audit Office found when they did their review of performance, that when private sector prisons are good, they are very good, and when they are bad they are very poor. So Dovegate and Rye Hill are the ‘poor’ private sector prisons. The next quadrant is ‘average’. We called Forest Bank average because, at the time we measured it, it looked like most prisons look, on our view – a typical prison. Bullingdon and Garth we’ve categorised as ‘good’: they were good public sector prisons. Lowdham Grange and Altcourse, two of the new private sector prisons we added in, were in the top quadrant:  ‘very good’. Prisoners were right: they were outstanding in all sorts of ways.

All you have to note, really, is the shape of this figure. What it tells you is that very few of the dimensions that matter make it over the threshold.  Only the dimensions as evaluated by our randomly selected prisoners that make it over that ‘3’ threshold appear in the figure.  So we have only included things that are positively scored.  If we move from ‘poor’ to ‘very good’, what you’ll see in the two poor private sector prisons is that very little is there. That means that these prisons were not delivering the things that really matter, when we are talking about prison quality. So ‘respect/courtesy’ is there but at a very low level. 3.01 is really a neutral score, not a positive score, and prisoners were really talking about staff being polite. So in these slightly chaotic, inexperienced private prisons, staff were quite nice, quite benign, but they weren’t delivering much else.  There’s a low score for ‘prisoner safety’. In Rye Hill you’ll see ‘care for the vulnerable’, which is about looking after prisoners at risk of bullying or suicide, but again at 3.01. So it barely deserves to be in our figure. Everything is scored positively, so where we have put ‘drugs and exploitation’ that doesn’t mean there are lots of drugs and exploitation – it means the opposite. Prisoners are saying ‘Staff are in control here. They are doing everything they can to stop drugs coming in. Prisoners are prevented from exploiting each other.’  But basically that’s all there is of all of our 21 or so dimensions that matter.

When we move into the next quadrant, Forest Bank, ‘staff prisoner relationships’ appears, and ‘staff professionalism’ for the first time.  This is about staff confidence and competence in the use of authority. This includes items like: ‘staff in this prison have enough experience and expertise to do things that I need them to do.’ So it’s about staff being competent and engaging with prisoners in a way that exerts a certain amount of authority in the prison. And you’ll see that the score on ‘prisoner safety’ is higher at Forest Bank.   What you’ll notice is that there is a cumulative effect here. Once a prison has accomplished ‘respect’ and ‘prisoner safety’ and ‘care for the vulnerable’, they appear in the next quality column, usually at a higher level, and other things build on those basic foundations.

Where this all becomes really interesting is that if we go to Bullingdon and Garth, the two good public sector prisons, here we are getting slightly higher scores on ‘staff professionalism’ and we are getting a dimension called ‘policing and security’. What this means is that prisoners are saying ‘staff are policing the wings. This is a reasonably secure prison. Authority is flowing from the right place.’ And for the first time in Garth we see ‘personal development’ which is a really important dimension.

It’s not until we get to the two outstanding and unusual private sector prisons where we get, not everything, but a lot more.  ‘Staff professionalism’ – the scores are going up – ‘prisoner safety’, ‘policing and security’, ‘personal development’ and for the first time ‘wellbeing’.  Wellbeing is significant because it is the opposite of distress. We have shown in previous research using these measures that the higher the levels of distress among prisoners, the more likely those prisons are to have suicides.  Prisons with lower levels of distress, or higher levels of wellbeing, tend to be prisons where prisoners are engaged in offending behaviour programmes, personal development projects and so on. So our interpretation of this figure, apart from noticing that the private sector is very varied – at their best they are able to deliver something that seems hard to deliver in the public sector – is that it raises questions about the ’rehabilitation revolution’,  if it is only in three out of seven prisons that prisoners are describing the experience of imprisonment as an experience that involves them being able to plan for their future, think about their personal development, engage in offending behaviour courses and so on. So this is quite important. That’s headline one.

Moving on to the next slide, the dimension of personal development has become of real interest to us in this study.  We describe ‘personal development’, based on what the prisoners have said, as ‘an environment that helps prisoners with offending behaviour, preparation for release, and the development of their potential’.  And where the prison is scoring reasonably high on personal development, it means the prisoners are agreeing, or strongly agreeing, with these sorts of items: ‘My needs are being addressed in this prison’; ‘I am encouraged to work towards goals and targets’; ‘I am being helped to lead a law-abiding life on release’; ‘every effort is being made by this prison to stop offenders committing offences on release’. Our hypothesis, and we have got good evidence to support this, is that this dimension works in the same way as the distress dimension did in the suicide prevention study, that if prisoners are saying yes to all of these items they really do stand more chance of doing better when they are released. We are getting increasingly interested in the concept of personal development as described by the prisoners. And one of the things they are saying is that in chaotic prisons, like Rye Hill and Dovegate, they are in survival mode, and so preoccupied with getting through the day, staying safe, and manoeuvring their way  to getting their basic entitlements, that they are not thinking about their futures. They are just getting through the day.

So if we go back to the figure, it is quite important to understand why personal development is the last thing to emerge. Basically a prison has to be respectful, safe, and caring for the vulnerable. Staff have to be professional, delivering help and assistance to vulnerable individuals, doing policing and security well, and there has to be organisation and consistency (some people call these the hygiene dimensions). These are the things that only appear in the very best prisons. It’s only in those circumstances that prisoners are experiencing personal development. That’s headline two.

What we have done with this data, because it’s all standardised, we’ve put personal development into a regression analysis, and then looked at which of the dimensions in our overall study are explaining its emergence. Basically this is saying: what are the most important dimensions of prison life if you are interested in maximising personal development?  And what we found is that five key dimensions explain most of the variation in levels of personal development. These are: Humanity, that means an environment characterised by kind regard and concern for the person; Staff Professionalism, staff confidence and competence in the use of authority; Help and Assistance, which is support and encouragement with problems, including drugs, healthcare and progression; Organisation and Consistency, which is the clarity, predictability and reliability of the prison; and finally a dimension we have called Bureaucratic Legitimacy, which is the transparency and responsivity of the prison system. What this means is that prisoners understand their sentence and they know how to work their way through it; they understand the decision making, how to get on the right courses, and staff are able to translate some of that into meaningful conversation.

So we think we know from this analysis what a reasonably good prison looks like, and when we compare prisons we find that they are very varied in their performance and on a very wide spectrum, with quite serious implications for outcomes for prisoners.

Headline two is that even in the very best private prisons we have seen a consistent area of weakness, which is to do with the use of authority. So in Lowdham Grange  and Altcourse, the one area where these prisons did not outperform the good public sector prisons was in policing and security, drugs and exploitation, and the use of authority. So what we are seeing in the private sector – to talk in shorthand -  is a slightly lax or permissive model of order, a bit reminiscent of old style dispersal prisons. Some of you will know exactly what I am saying. Power is not always in the right places. Because staff in private sector prisons are inexperienced, few in number, and professionally not that powerful, they can disproportionately tend to work to a slightly naïve and permissive model of order (this is not unseen in some public sector prisons, but here we are talking from the findings of this study in particular). There are a few quotes from prisoners here, illustrating that point. Prisoners complain that staff don’t use their authority properly, they are a bit permissive, they don’t know where the boundaries are, and so on. So one of our emerging conclusions is that there is a hidden strength in the public sector which is not acknowledged in the debate about public versus private sector prisons, and this is that when staff in the public sector get it right, which they don’t always, they can use their authority in a very professional and competent way, and prisoners appreciate that.  It sometimes means prisoners have better and more constructive experiences in traditional professional public sector prisons than they do in slightly permissive private sector prisons.

I know I am talking about a lot of complex material in a very shorthand way, but that’s the gist of it so far. Our next slide illustrates this: it’s all there in the figures. Altcourse was significantly better than Lowdham Grange as a prison. It stands out a mile, and we think we have learned a lot about why this is. We think it was about leadership and the way Altcourse opened, not just about finances.  But when we look at the policing and security dimensions, and it matters as much to the prisoner to be in a prison that is secure and safe as it does to be treated with respect, it’s the public sector prison, Bullingdon, that comes first, out-performing the private sector. So in the briefest way possible, what we are arguing is that there are some simplistic arguments being heard in this debate, there is an assumption sometimes that private is better. We think prisons are more complicated than that, and it is quite important not to overlook this professional authority work that traditional public sector prison officers can do at their best. They often get it wrong too, and veer towards the heavy and oppressive use of authority, but it is the case in almost all aspects of prison work that the ‘right place to be’ is often quite close to the ‘wrong place’. We have spent the day in Wormwood Scrubs and this has influenced our mood. We have come back feeling a bit miserable because we have spent the day in focus groups with somewhat disaffected prison officers and it was not the kind of conversation we wished it had been.

We have tried on our last slide to conceptualise all this. We said to ourselves, if we were dropped into a private sector prison blindfold, and someone took the blindfold off, we’d know we were in a private prison in a second, whether it was high or low performing, because private sector prisons have a very distinctive lightness about them. When you go into a public sector prison there’s a heaviness. We have tried to conceive this along an axis, heavy to light. Then we have got ‘absent/present’, by which we mean whether or not staff are engaging with prisoners. We have tried to put all the prisons we’ve been doing research in recently in this model, to try and articulate some of the features of public versus private prisons that we think we have found. What we think we are arguing is that private sector prisons tend towards the naïve-permissive, light/absent, ie staff tend to stay a little bit back from the prisoners, they slightly under-enforce the rules, they are more powerless in lots of ways, so that there is a slightly naïve-permissive, or at best powerless-professional culture or atmosphere in private sector prisons. The public sector prisons on the other hand tend towards the heavy/oppressive end of a use of authority spectrum. The right place to be, the ideal model, would be in the empty quadrant, what we are calling present-light, and we have seen staff do this in some places at some times, where staff are just unobtrusively, but in a very confident way, making sure that they are the ones in charge. They have relationships with prisoners, but they are relationships with power flowing through them. We think that the public sector can do that, and are more likely to do that, than some private sector establishments. But that is not to say that you can’t hold Altcourse up and say that is probably the closest we have seen in the private sector to that sort of traditional-professional model.’

Ben Crewe added: ‘One of the other things that we are saying is that there are some risks in re-modelling the public sector prisons to look like private sector prisons, because what might be lost are precisely those strengths that are fairly unrecognised at the moment: things to do with having experienced staff who use their authority carefully, judiciously, and wear it fairly lightly. That’s something that’s at risk of disappearing.’

Alison Liebling continued: ‘Having gone to Wormwood Scrubs today there is a frustration in talking to prison officers who don’t work to the traditional professional model. The private sector staff are inexperienced but they are also much more enthusiastic about notions of rehabilitation. They believe in prisoner change, and they are not cynical. They are a breath of fresh air at one level. But they are not so good at the professionalism/authority aspects of their job.

What we have studied has been what we’ve called phase two privatisation, which has been about new private prisons. We are now in phase three, which is existing public sector prisons going over to the private sector. We are obviously watching this with real interest. Some of the staff at Birmingham, who have been present at presentations on this research, have bought the argument that they could combine the strengths of the public and private sectors. They have got the experience and they have now got a private sector company managing them. It’s possible that they could try and bring off the strengths of both sectors. But they could also combine the worst aspects of both sectors. So we are watching developments with interest.’