Saturday, January 06, 2007

Unapproved Absence From Alcatraz

So the Director General of the Prison Service, Phil Wheatley, doesn't know how many prisoners are on the run from his open prisons. Or rather, he does know how many have walked out- 700 last year- but he doesn't know how many have returned. Or rather, he does know how many have returned in some broad corporate sense, but he can't actually access the information. And anyway, that's not his job (you can watch a 4 min interview here).

Apart from the Big Point that this once again underlines what a complete shambles our Prison Service has become, it's well worth highlighting some of details. They precisely illustrate some oh-so-familiar problems in our public services:

Lack of basic management information If you were running the Prison Service, wouldn't you think your first responsibility was to keep 24/7 tabs on everyone put into your custody? And in doing so, wouldn't you want a daily stock control report? Red-lighted meat-feast pizzas aren't (yet) in the same league as convicted murderers, but I'll bet Sir Terry Leahy can press a couple of buttons on his PDA and find out exactly how many are in Tesco's freezers, any time, day or night.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard bureaucrats grilled by the Public Accounts Committee admitting they can't answer questions because they haven't got some piece of really basic management information. Worse, they often seem taken aback that PAC members even think they should or could have it (eg see this blog).

The general approach of these senior managers is that their principal job is to get through a load of stuff- most of it laid down by muddled wishful thinking politicos- rather than single-mindedly pursuing what should be the prime objective (Just look at the Prison Service Annual Report and see the pages devoted to their diversity targets)

Distortion by target By now we're all painfully aware of the damage caused to Health, Education, Policing etc by political target manipulation. Prisons are no exception. Apart from the diversion to meet Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for diversity etc, there seems to be some serious massaging at work in the KPI for escapes. Because while Mr Wheatley admits there were 700 escapes last year from open prisons alone, according to their Annual Report, there were virtually none from the whole prisons operation. Indeed they trumpet their achievment.

And the difference? Well it seems that those 700 absconded, and "absconding" is not the same as "escaping". Even if you're two convicted killers. Presumably you're only counted as having escaped if you got out using a file hidden in a meat-feast pizza, and dressed as a washer-woman.

It turns out there is also an alternative Home Office weasel formulation of "unapproved absences". Thus HO minister Gerry Sutcliffe was able to tell the Commons last June: "Since 7 February 2006, there have been no escapes and 84 unapproved absences".

Sledgehammer fixation- Mr Wheatley reckons he can't say how many of his escapees are still at large, because his IT system hasn't been set up to allow it. But cripes, we're hardly dealing with meat-feast volumes here. 700 escapees could surely be tracked by a part-time clerk on a spreadsheet. I'm no expert, but I reckon I could knock one out after tea.

The attitude of public sector managers today seems to be that unless you can have a mega-IT project, then you can do nothing with data. Your hands are tied. No wonder we waste so much money on lunacies like the NHS Supercomputer.

Silo mentality Despite being the guy charged with keeping these people under lock and key, Wheatley unashamedly tells us that once someone has escaped... absconded... it's no longer his responsibility but the Police's.

I'm sorry mate. In my book, you're the one reponsible for these prisoners, and you can't duck that simply because you've "subcontracted" their hunting down to the police. Especially since the situation only arises because of your incompetence. True, you can't be held directly accountable for the farcical performance of Derbyshire police in failing to publish photos of those two escaped killers. But you were the one who let them escape.

Politicos Truth to tell, and despite that beard, I think Wheatley actually sounds quite a sensible guy. But he's working for a bunch of clowns who instead of giving him a straightforward job like locking up bad guys, place huge demands on him to do all sorts of other incredibly difficult but secondary stuff as well. And they give those other things just as much weight. They limit and segment his management authority, while starving the whole operation of resources. And then they blame him when things go wrong.

Why would anyone want to do that job again?

PS Those of us who still quaintly think our criminal justice system ought to make at least some attempt at deterring homicide shake our heads at the Derbyshire escapes. Well, more specifically, we scream and shout and foam at the mouth. The trusty Sun provides some background: "Both killers were given life terms in 1996. Shaven-headed Croft plunged a knife into a youth’s chest as he lay unconscious. And in a separate incident, Nixon dropped a concrete block on a teenager’s head. They were serving the final part of their sentences at Sudbury open prison near Ashbourne, Derbyshire." So that's it then. Ten years. Ten years for horrifically ending someone's life. Outside of metrolibland does anyone still have confidence in our justice system?

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