PCC Blog 129

‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…’

W.B.Yeats’s words, from his poem The Second Coming, have been playing in my head all week. Everywhere we look there seems to be crisis and chaos, abroad and here: wait times in the NHS; a shortage of doctors, nurses and care home staff; strikes on road and rail; inflation and the cost of living … we could go on. Now we hear of serious overcrowding in prisons. This latter is going to impact on the police.

On Friday, the prisons and probation minister, Damian Hinds, wrote to the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners to say that there was ‘an acute short-term surge’ in the requirement for places in prisons and he would be making an announcement in parliament invoking Operation Safeguard. This is an agreement with the police service whereby, in emergencies, the police make available for the prison service up to 400 additional cells in custody suites.

He said the surge in numbers was due to clearing the backlog in court cases that had built up during the period of Covid restrictions, exacerbated by the strike by criminal barristers over the summer. As a result, there were many more prisoners held on remand than usual.

I won’t comment on this save to say that prison overcrowding has been an issue for many years now, long before Covid and the dispute with the criminal bar. Despite that, ministers have continued to insist publicly that more people should go to prison and prison sentences should be longer.

Both of these policies result in demand for prison places to grow at a time when gaols are already full. And the commitment to increase police numbers will also add to the pressures. More police mean more criminals will be caught and receive custodial sentences. More prisons are planned, but that takes time. In the meantime, the shortage of prison places may mean prison governors have to ask for police cells to be requisitioned.

Putting prisoners in custody suites is a disaster. It is bad for the custody suites. If you have ever been in one you will know that they are busy places where everyone has quite enough to do to process all those who are brought there every day. They too face challenges when they are reaching capacity. But it is certainly not a good idea to have offenders locked up in custody cells 24 hours a day where there is little or no capacity for association, education or recreation. They also have to be fed – and with something a little more substantial than the simple meals – pizzas, for example – kept in a custody suite. And we need to think about the well-being and safety of custody suite staff, not all of whom are police officers. Managing prisoners, as well as those who are being processed, is just one more complication.

Custody suites do occasionally accommodate prisoners overnight, if, for instance, a court sits late and offenders cannot be taken to prison that night. But holding men for days on end in a custody suite which is not designed to accept long-term prisoners is asking for trouble all round.

So many of our public services seem at the moment to be limping along and hoping for the best. We seem to have lost the capacity to plan ahead competently. As Yeats went on to say in that same poem – in the aftermath of the First World War – it seems as if ‘mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.

But the good news is…..

Some blogs ago I wrote about the absurdity of releasing an offender from prison on a Friday afternoon, simply because that was the date when his sentence ended. It was setting someone up to fail. Unless they acted with great speed and were settling somewhere near the prison, it would be quite impossible for many if not all the ex-offenders to sort out everything that needed to be done on release: making contact with a probation officer, getting a bank account, securing benefits, finding accommodation, and so on. Yet one third of all releases fall on a Friday and in 2022, two out of three ex-prisoners had not secured accommodation when they left. In the blog I suggested that the judge should be able to say that the prisoner should be released on whichever weekday other than a Friday was nearest to the end of the sentence.

Something like this should now happen if a bill currently before the House of Commons is passed. It had its second reading on Friday.

Briefly, the Offenders (Day of Release from Detention) Bill will allow prison governors to bring forward the day of release by up to 2 discretionary days if it would otherwise fall on a Friday or before a bank holiday.

The bill is a Private Member’s Bill and we should congratulate Simon Fell, the Conservative member of parliament for Barrow-in-Furness, for sponsoring it. At one time I was an occasional visitor to his local prison, Haverigg, an open prison for men near Millom in Cumbria. We took toys for the visiting children of prisoners.

This is a ground-breaking reform that costs little or nothing, but could have far reaching consequences.

The puzzle of ASB

When I look at the statistics for anti-social behaviour, I find something strange.

I have noticed it each time I have received a quarterly report from one of the four police commanders in South Yorkshire (SY) – Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and Sheffield districts. I also notice that the trends they speak about in our county are replicated across the country. And there is a seeming paradox.

On the one hand, reported anti-social behaviour figures have been falling now for several years. The trend is steadily downwards. On the other, people’s perception of ASB is that it is getting worse. The trend is up. Can they both be true? How can they be reconciled?

There are various explanations, all of which have something in them. So:

– There may be the same amount of ASB happening, or even more, but the police may be choosing to record some of the more serious ASB as crime. That would reduce the ASB figures but increase whatever crime they were being recorded as. As far as public perception was concerned, more incidents might be occurring but they would not know they were being recorded differently. However, if they were told there was a downward trend in ASB, they would be disbelieving and annoyed.

– There may be less reporting of ASB happening. People do say to me in community meetings from time to time that reporting ASB is ‘a waste of time’ because ‘nothing ever gets done about it’. This becomes a vicious circle – under-reporting inevitably leads to less being ‘done about it’. Once that grips people’s minds then lack of reporting follows and everyone gets frustrated.

– Not all ASB is a matter for the police, so we need to report to the appropriate authority if we want action. So, for example, fly-tipping – which I often have complaints about – is a local authority rather than a police matter.

There are three main types of ASB: environmental, nuisance and personal. The bodies reporting it were mainly: the police (29%), local authorities (16%) and housing associations (6%).

I recently attended a symposium organised by SY police for the various authorities – such as Fire and Rescue, the local authority, housing associations, public health, the police and so on. There was a general recognition that all have a role to play if we are to get on top of ASB. Those who came discussed the different tools at their disposal to deal with it – from police enforcement to action by landlords.

I was pleased to know about the symposium because if I have learnt anything over the years as Police and Crime Commissioner it would be that ASB is as concerning to people as crime. One can see why. A one-off crime, such as a burglary or car theft, is disturbing. But ASB – noise nuisance, verbal abuse, intimidation or harassment – is not one-off but relentless and it is the relentless nature that makes ASB so deeply distressing and utterly depressing.