‘Ghosting’ prisoners around the system is nothing new

In October 2009 reports by Chief Inspector of Prisons Ann Owers revealed that a number of vulnerable and ‘difficult’ prisoners were transferred out of Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons just prior to inspections last summer. The revelations are remarkable only because they provoked such wide media focus on a practice that has a long established history in the management of ‘disruptive’ prisoners. John Bowden reports.

Owers revealed that the reciprocal exchange of ‘difficult’ prisoners was intended by senior prison management to subvert the inspections and influence her findings. She also found that the transfer, or ‘ghosting’, of some of these prisoners exposed them to serious risk and mistreatment. Her report describes the horrific reality of what took place:

‘Together the prisons planned to swap a small number of prisoners for the duration of their respective inspections which, in the case of Wandsworth, was to remove five prisoners perceived to be potentially difficult. The consequences at Wandsworth were particularly serious. Three prisoners from the segregation unit and two from the vulnerable prisoners’ wing were summarily told on the weekend before the inspection that they were to move to Pentonville. One was new to the prison and already identified as in need of protection. The others would miss medical appointments for serious conditions. Both were so distressed that they self-harmed. One, with a previous history of self-harm, tied a ligature around his neck, cut himself and was forcibly removed from his cell. He was taken to reception, bloody, handcuffed and dressed only in underwear. He attempted to self-harm a further three times immediately after the move to Pentonville. The other took an overdose of prescription drugs and needed to go to hospital. On his return he was nevertheless taken by taxi to Pentonville.’

Following the inspection of Wandsworth the prisoners were immediately transferred back to the prison.

The Prisons Ombudsman is separately investigating the suicide of another prisoner who was moved to Pentonville the week before the Wandsworth inspection and held there over the inspection period.

There is a conspicuous silence in Owers’ report about the role of the prisons’ doctors in the transfer of these vulnerable and self-harming prisoners, although prisoners well accustomed to medical neglect and the collaborative role of prison doctors in brutalisation would not be surprised by the compliance of prison medical staff in such a brutal practice. Neither is it surprising that Wandsworth, in particular, would resort to such inhumanly cruel methods to subvert an official inspection. Owers politely describes Wandsworth as ‘a prison which has been struggling to change a negative staff culture, and where levels of use of force by staff are still of concern’. Prisoners more accurately refer to Wandsworth as ‘The Hate Factory’, a jail where staff violence and brutality are endemic and are condoned by senior management and ignored at Prison Service headquarters level.

Owers concludes that: ‘The attempts at managerial level to subvert the inspection process at the expense of prisoners’ well-being is deplorable, not only because of the effects on prisoners, but because of the underlying mindset: that prisoners are merely pieces to be moved around the board to meet performance targets or burnish the reputation of the prison concerned.’

The real horror of what Owers uncovered (which in fact was initially exposed by the prisoners concerned themselves) can be measured by how uncharacteristic and rare it is for the current Chief Inspector of Prisons to be so critical of any prison. Owers was appointed by New Labour following the abrupt termination of David Ramsbotham’s tenure as Prisons Inspector after a series of scathing reports about the treatment of prisoners. She has dutifully fulfilled her role as government lapdog by being consistently anodyne in her reports, up until the recent revelations.

Such was the media impact of Owers’ reports that Justice Secretary Jack Straw, certainly no supporter of prisoners’ rights and in fact a zealous advocate of more oppressive prison regimes, was forced to order Prison Service head Phil Wheatley to conduct an internal investigation. There was of course not the slightest possibility of Straw allowing an independent inquiry or even appointing someone independent to chair an investigation. Indeed, the subsequent report, by Deputy Director General Michael Spurr, concluded that two managers at Wandsworth should be given formal written warnings but exonerated the governing governors of both prisons – Prison Service high-fliers Ian Mulholland and Nick Leader. Leader, who was governor of Pentonville, is now in charge of high security Whitemoor. Mulholland, who was Wandsworth’s governor, is Prison Service Area Manager for Wales. There were no sackings.

In media interviews Wheatley feigned ‘deep regret’, but emphasised that the practice of ghosting ‘unmanageable’ prisoners for convenience was unprecedented and totally at variance with official Prison Service policy. Of course he knew full well that ghosting ‘difficult’ prisoners around the system was a long established practice because he himself had employed the strategy during his long career as a prison governor. In Gartree prison during the 1980s Wheatley, then an Assistant Governor, was renowned for his use of the ‘lay-down’ system – the temporary transfer of ‘disruptive’ prisoners for a ‘cooling off’ period. But Wheatley and most other governors at that time were merely implementing official Prison Service policy in the form of Circular Instruction 10/74, which authorised prison staff to temporarily transfer ‘difficult’ prisoners ‘in the interests of good order and discipline’. The official sanctioning of such a method of control and punishment allowed authoritarian zealots to abuse their positions of power over prisoners and resulted eventually in the sort of treatment highlighted by Owers at Wandsworth and Pentonville.

An even more cruelly refined form of the ‘lay-down’ system was the ‘Continuous Assessment’ circuit or ‘ghost-train’, where prisoners who were considered especially ‘disruptive’ were transferred continuously between prison segregation units every 28 days. Many prisoners were kept on the circuit for years in a deliberate attempt to psychologically break them. None were medically or psychologically monitored during their long, brutalising punishment, and some already mentally damaged prisoners were completely destroyed by it. Irish Republican prisoners were especially targeted, as were those considered to be politically motivated in their ‘subversive activities’.

Probably even more nauseating than Wheatley’s fake concern over Owers’ revelations was the handwringing regret of middle class liberals like Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who described Mulholland and Leader as ‘good people’ and as governors ‘known to be caring and competent’, while Harry Fletcher, head of the National Association of Probation Officers, described them as ‘progressive’. Prisoners unfortunate enough to have shared a jail with Nick Leader, especially, have a radically different view, based on direct experience. As an Assistant Governor of Long Lartin and Whitemoor in the 1980s and 1990s, Leader earned a reputation for excessive use of the ‘lay-down’ system as an arbitrary punishment against prisoners he perceived challenged his authority. In 1995 he was complicit in a successful campaign of harassment against a senior medical officer at Whitemoor, who had voiced complaints about the treatment of prisoners in the segregation unit. She eventually resigned.

It is inconceivable that prior to her inspection of Wandsworth and Pentonville, Owers knew nothing of the practice of ghosting ‘difficult’ prisoners for disciplinary reasons, and her outrage was obviously because she considered it a blatant attempt to undermine her own authority.

John Bowden is at HMP Glenochil

FRFI 212 December 2009 / January 2010


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