Clarity needed on changes to eligibility for open conditions
Prisoners and families are confused and deeply apprehensive about the implications of new “much stricter criteria”, announced by the Ministry of Justice earlier this month, for people seeking to progress their sentence by transferring to open prison.
Prison Reform Trust Director Peter Dawson has written to the prisons minister Victoria Atkins seeking further clarity, in the apparent absence of any policy or operating documents to accompany these significant changes.
The changes have the potential to dramatically lengthen time that people who have served the requirements of punishment still remain in custody.
Read Peter’s full post below.
On 5 June, by way of press release, the government announced a profound change in the way indeterminate sentence prisoners will be given the opportunity to show that they can safely be released. Ministers have always been able to veto Parole Board recommendations that a prisoner should be moved to an open prison as part of their progression towards eventual release on licence. But the criteria by which ministers will now exercise that veto — and which will therefore govern the Parole Board’s recommendations — have been dramatically changed. The clear intention and expectation is that significantly fewer indeterminate sentence prisoners will be allowed to go to open prisons, making it much harder to show that they can safely be released.
This reactionary and irrational change has been introduced without even a statement to parliament, much less any debate on its merits. It is clearly designed to achieve in practice what the government has said it eventually wants to do by legislation, which is to make release harder and to give ministers a personal veto in cases which they consider notorious.
There is no detailed policy or operational guidance to go with the broad announcement. So everyone in the system from prisoners through to parole board members, officials, probation and prison staff, is having to do their best to interpret what the new tests actually mean in practice. I have therefore written to the prisons minister, Victoria Atkins, asking a series of practical questions about the evidence to support this change, and how it will actually operate. The fact that someone has to write asking those questions shows what a half-baked policy this is, but also the lack of concern for the people who will be most affected by it.
We know that there are likely to be legal challenges to the policy, and we can only hope that in due course the courts may agree that it is both procedurally unfair and actually more likely to harm public protection than to promote it. But in the meantime, we will do all that we can to clarify its immediate implications and reduce the chaos which the manner of its implementation has created.