Former IMB Chair Faith Spear shares concerns which got her sacked

Below is an interview with former Chair of the Independent Prison Monitoring Board (IMB), Faith Spear. Read her original complaint and her insightful criminal justice blog here.

Can you tell me what your role was in the Prison Service?

I was the Chairman of the Independent Monitoring Board for HMP/YOI Hollesley Bay, managing a board of 10 members. My role was to ensure that the prisoners were treated fairly and decently following the Monitoring framework. This included visiting all areas of the prison, talking to prisoners, staff and Governors and sitting in on adjudications, meetings and induction. I also organised the monthly Board meeting where the Governor joined us discussing his monthly report to us and our weekly reports.

 

The prisons minister, Sam Gyimah, sacked you from the Independent Monitoring Board for speaking out about prisons. What were your concerns?

I had many concerns: not just local issues but national issues and with the Independent Monitoring Board itself.

Making prison aware of issues, I am made to feel like I’m an irritation. Some staff want to manage the IMB members, which is not their role.

Prisons are starved of resources.

OMU depart is essential within an open Cat D prison, yet often staff are off sick, on holiday, no one able to cover or are new to the job. Prisoners are constantly frustrated with their lack of communication with them. We then get the brunt end of their dissatisfaction.

IMBs have been subtly conditioned to behave in certain ways, not speaking out or using their voice. Night visits are frowned upon, they cannot be done independently: a member of staff would have to accompany members.

Speaking to the media is frowned upon, in my experience it is used against you.

IMB is silent when there are suicides within prison, nothing is mentioned in the press by members. Prisoners often see Cat D as ‘the promised land’ but are disappointed on arrival.

There’s not enough work available for those who want to use either existing skills or skills acquired within the prison estate. I saw many wasted lives.

There’s not enough contact with companies in the area to provide work experience and possibility of a job on release. There’s not enough contact with local college and University. Prisoners are bored with little purposeful activity.

IMB members are usually white, middle class and not a true representation of either the locality or the prison population. The recruitment process is a joke: a tick box exercise and no references are taken on potential candidates. Prisoners cannot relate to the majority of IMB members. Prisoners do not trust majority of IMB members.

The IMB is part of the MoJ, it is not independent. The IMB does not have a voice. IMB members do not have any real support from the IMB secretariat, National Council, or President.

The care team has been disbanded.

 

Your concerns were articulated through a pseudonym. Why did you feel the need for this method of communicating them?

I wanted to raise the issues and not raise my profile. Also I feared that my openness and speaking the truth would be the end of my role within the IMB.

 “The IMB is not independent”

It seems strange that the prisons minister can sack a chair of an Independent Monitoring Board. What does that tell us about how independent the monitoring boards are?

The Independent Monitoring Board is based at the Ministry of Justice, Petty France. It is not independent as it is part of the Ministry of Justice. How do I know this? The Ministry of Justice told me so in an email.

 

It seems that every day there is a new story about the poor state of prisons – how widespread do you think your concerns are among those working within the service?

It is very widespread, but many are concerned about their jobs to speak out. This means that so much is hidden. Culture of fear, fear of reprisals.

 

You told me in the interview for Injustice about your concerns for prisoners. Yet public opinion still seems to demand ever harsher punishment– what would you say to people who call for more severe punishment?

I’m sure if it concerned someone they knew, their attitude would change. Also loss of liberty should be the punishment, yet those that have been in prison continue to be punished inside and also on release through the stigma of having a criminal record.

I believe public opinion can be based on just what is in the media, that is not always accurate. Public need to be educated.

 

Those who do call for harsher punishment and worse conditions for prisoners seem not to consider the impact on people working within prisons. What are the conditions like for prison workers and what impact might harsher punishment and worse conditions have on them?

Staff are often overworked, working in an unpleasant environment with frustrated and often dangerous prisoners. Prisons are understaffed therefore their security can be in the balance.

 

If you could change three things in the justice system, what would they be?

I will answer this with a quote:

“In order that punishment should not be an act of violence perpetrated by one or many upon a private citizen, it is essential that it should be public, speedy, necessary, the minimum possible in the given circumstances, proportionate to the crime, and determined by the law.”

On crimes and punishments, Beccaria, 1764

 

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