Posted in Master's blog

I’ve let the blogs slip… why? Well, I was away on leave for three months and allowed myself to get immersed in my research world. So the blog was not a priority – was I wrong? I haven’t let everything slip. I think the answer is that I am not sure who I am writing the blog for, and who might be reading it. I find my monthly editorials in the Criminal Law Review much easier – the audience is obvious.

The sabbatical leave was fantastic, allowing me the space to complete the fieldwork of a research project observing the Parole Board at work, in particular observing oral hearings of the Board where they are deciding whether to direct the release of life sentence prisoners. These lifers include the thousands of prisoners, most of them well past their minimum term, still serving a sentence of ‘Imprisonment for Public Protection’, a sentence abolished in 2012. I carried out the first part of the project in July and August last year, observing 19 oral hearings conducted by video from the Parole Board’s Headquarters in the Ministry of Justice –  the panel of the Board in the Parole Board’s ‘hub’; the prisoner and his lawyer and ‘Offender Supervisor’ (a member of the prison staff) in a room in a prison; whilst the ‘Offender Manager’ (his probation officer) was often on a third video link, or on a telephone link. In January and February I was able to sit in on 17 hearings held in 11 different prisons, where the prisoner and the panel would be in the same room (but even here the Offender Manager might be only on a telephone link), and to interview a wide variety of ‘players’ in the process, including prisoners.

It was a privileged opportunity. I was often shocked: in part at the squalor of many of our prisons, but more often at what appeared to be a culture of inertia. My report for the Board concludes that there should be a much clearer commitment to avoid delays and to create a culture of urgency, both within the prison and probation system and within the Parole Board. The Board’s leadership (of the parole process) and independence within the broader penal system seemed to be missing: were they really an ‘independent court or tribunal’? Prison and probation services should be required to be more pro-active in seeking ‘progression’ for prisoners, less focused on offender ‘management’. Prisoners should have access to strong independent support and advice throughout their sentence.

It is very difficult to comment on the outcome of these hearings: for a start, there were only 36 cases in my sample. But only seven of the 36 cases resulted in the prisoner being released, so the Board is certainly cautious. Many of the prisoners were already many years post-tariff – they had served years more than the minimum term specified by the sentencing court. Probably 13 of the prisoners were satisfied with their ‘result’ as they had not all been seeking release: some were seeking a recommendation that they could be moved to an open prison. But the most depressing outcome was the fact that 15 of the 36 cases were deferred or adjourned on the day of the hearing. Expensive and cruel last-minute delays which could put the hearing back many months.

Since this fieldwork ended I have had the opportunity to visit (briefly) prisons in France, Japan and Scotland. I am left with the urge to write much more – but I am not convinced that, if there is an audience for this blog, they (you) really meant me to focus on what’s wrong with English prisons today. It’s a Fitzwilliam College blog. (If you want more on parole, let me know, or try my Understanding Recall 2011 as the system hasn’t changed – And now I’ll get on with writing about Fitz as well…

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.