Alex Chalk reverses Dominic Raab’s damaging changes to open conditions transfers
The Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has withdrawn controversial changes made by his predecessor Dominic Raab to the criteria for transferring indeterminate prisoners from closed to open prison conditions.
The reversal follows months of campaigning by criminal justice organisations including the Prison Reform Trust, highlighting the damaging impact of the changes and the impact they were having on the rehabilitation and resettlement of long-term prisoners.
The changes were introduced in June 2022 and resulted in a dramatic decrease in the numbers of prisoners being transferred to open conditions. In the first quarter of 2022, 91% of Parole Board recommendations for a transfer to open conditions were accepted by the Ministry of Justice. In the first quarter of 2023, just 16% of Parole Board recommendations were accepted.
Since the introduction of the change, the Prison Reform Trust and others have raised concerns that the changes were having a chilling effect on the sentence progression of indeterminate sentenced prisoners (ISPs), limiting their opportunity to experience the benefits of open conditions including release on temporary licence (ROTL).
The vast majority of ROTL is authorised from open conditions and its use enables prisoners to gain experience of work and volunteering in the community and build family ties. Its use has been shown to reduce the risk of reoffending on release.
Without the opportunity to experience open conditions and demonstrate reduced risk, more ISPs are likely to stay in prison for longer beyond the expiry of their minimum term, increasing pressures on the prison system.
Concerns were raised that the changes could also lead to more ISPs being released from closed conditions without the opportunity of being tested first in open conditions. Both the chief executive of the Parole Board and prison governors have expressed concern that this could undermine public protection.
Prior to the changes, Ministry of Justice directions to the Parole Board stated that a move to open conditions “should be based on a balanced assessment of risk and benefits”. Under these directions, the large majority of Parole Board recommendations for a transfer were accepted by the Ministry.
Under the new June 2022 criteria, the secretary of state (or an official with delegated responsibility) will accept a recommendation from the Parole Board only where: (a) the prisoner is assessed as low risk of abscond; (b) a period in open conditions is considered essential to inform future decisions about release and to prepare for possible release on licence into the community; and (c) a transfer to open conditions would not undermine public confidence in the Criminal Justice System.
Unlike with release decisions, the board’s role with respect of open conditions transfers is advisory only. Ultimately, the secretary of state is entitled to decide what prison a prisoner is allocated to.
The Parole Board is required to apply the first two criteria in its own decision-making but is not obliged to follow the third, which is determined by the secretary of state.
A Freedom of Information request made by PRT showed that nearly two in five cases (38%) where the Ministry rejected a Parole Board recommendation was on the grounds of public confidence — a criterion that is not specified in any published guidance and over which an individual prisoner has absolutely no control.
Another Freedom of Information request revealed that not a single case had been referred to the secretary of state personally and that each decision had been overseen by one unnamed official in the Ministry of Justice.
The new criteria effective from today require that the secretary of state (or an official with delegated responsibility) will accept a recommendation from the Parole Board to approve an ISP for open conditions only where (a) the prisoner has made sufficient progress during the sentence in addressing and reducing risk to a level consistent with protecting the public from harm (in circumstances where the prisoner in open conditions may be in the community, unsupervised, under licence temporary release); and (b) the prisoner is assessed as low risk of abscond; and (c) there is a wholly persuasive case for transferring the ISP from closed to open conditions.
Crucially, the new test removes the ambiguous requirement that a move to open conditions should be “considered essential”, and the requirement that a move should not undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system. These criteria resulted in the large majority of Parole Board recommendations for a transfer to open conditions being rejected by the Ministry of Justice.
Commenting, Pia Sinha, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
“We are delighted that Alex Chalk has seen sense and reversed the disastrous changes made by his predecessor. Open prisons are a vital step in the effective rehabilitation and resettlement of long-term prisoners. It made no sense to deny them the benefits of open conditions for arbitrary and unevidenced reasons. We will be watching carefully to see whether the new criteria restore fairness and proportionality to the process.”