Improving outcomes for young Black and Muslim Offenders: in conversation with Mark Blake

food thought sesssion 1

Justice Studio’s Shirley Ahura reflects on our first Food + Thought Studio Session

Last Wednesday Justice Studio held its inaugural Food + Thought Studio Session. In conversation with us on the day were Mark Blake of the Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG) and Anton Shelupanov of Justice Studio, broaching the subject of ethnicity and procedural justice in tandem with the disproportionate treatment of young Black and Muslim offenders by the criminal justice system. An excellent and lively discussion ensued following their talks.

Mark Blake began by asking what does the context of post-Brexit Britain and the consequent discourse surrounding national identity mean for our understanding of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) disproportionality?

Is it a matter solely for identity politics? Mark disagrees. He cites the review carried out by Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey on improving the outcomes for young Black and Muslim offenders on which he worked, and another by David Lammy MP on the treatment of these individuals in the criminal justice system (CJS). Both found substantial evidence of the systematic over representation of young BAME men in different parts of the CJS, to which Mark informatively refers throughout the session, further legitimising the need to revisit and revise the discussion.

Mark observed that we are operating within a fundamentally unjust justice system. A major part of this stems from a system that, whether unwittingly or not, continues to practice racialising processes that target, disadvantage and ultimately criminalise, those members of society from African, Caribbean and Asian backgrounds. What is equally significant however, is the culture of policing in the UK, where the belief is that justice should be adversarial. Britain as a nation has an almost overwhelming propensity for, and impulse towards, punishment, enforcement and reprimand. The process of rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders back into society is highly flawed compared to some other European countries and jurisdictions. “A short prison sentence can start to feel like a lifetime sentence once an offender is released into society, especially in respect to things like criminal checks for employment” Mark comments.

Anton Shelupanov responded to Mark within the context of procedural justice, an important concept initially identified by American psychology professor Tom Tyler. Procedural Justice means that people engaging with a system feel they understand what’s going on and feel that they are being treated fairly. In the context of the discussion, given that the conversation was taking place in Tottenham, one example of procedural injustice was as a contributing factor to the 2011 riots in Tottenham which followed the shooting of Mark Duggan. For the communities and families of young people in contact with the criminal justice system, as well as for the young people themselves, assurance of their voice, agency and respect is paramount when interacting with the state. Good practice suggests the system inviting active participation by defendants and victims in its processes, which ultimately lends the system itself legitimacy.

So what are the solutions to BAME over representation in the justice system and procedural injustice? Is the former ‘just a case of a racist justice system’ as one participant put it, or is the issue more nuanced? How can we prevent young people coming into contact with the police from becoming a criminogenic factor in itself?

Mark Blake suggested that zero interaction should be had between the police and young people in schools and that their role may be better performed by social workers and education professionals. This sparked a debate on police and community engagement. “I respectfully disagree” one academic said. “I argue not for less separation, but more interaction. Young people need to be made aware of the protective role of the police force, which itself was originally created as a preventative measure”. From this, it would seem that an increase of locally deployed police in schools would be the answer. The problem with this perspective however, lies in the implicit assumption that inherent racial stereotyping is a mere product of perception. What happens if the young person in question, who experiences generally positive interactions with uniformed officers locally deployed in his/her school, should err outside of these very safe spaces “only to be stopped by the TSG outside? [Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group unit] What then?” Experiencing this form of police engagement is doubly noxious: not only has the young person undergone a negative interaction with police, but they do so after having been lulled into a false sense of security with them. Not to mention the perspective expressed is premised on the idea that racialising processes are a result of a few ‘poorly trained’ individuals.

The most salient forms of discrimination are not necessarily those enacted by individuals, but those that are more systemic. “There are children as young as 10 getting stopped and searched” Mark added. “To me, that’s not right. I was at a focus group with young care leavers, and the vitriol against the police, was just astonishing…with social workers very closely in line after”. What this demonstrates are some very serious underlying problems with the institution that upholds authority, and vice versa. “The whole police force must be redeemed [in their eyes] before any of that can happen. There must be a shift in culture on that side, the side that focuses on changing the nature of the police, before community engagement can even be on the cards” said a Tottenham faith leader.

This rings true on many accounts. As a friend of someone who had his dreams of playing professional football cruelly snatched away from him as the body weight of a police officer bore down on his knee during a particularly heavy handed Stop and Search, it is clear that the current system is not succeeding. Conversation is, however, always the first step. This is why we look forward to more discussions to come at Justice Studio’s next Food + Thought Studio Session, and we hope to see our colleagues and friends there!




Stop experimenting and start caring: Children and prison in England & Wales



It seems that the UK government still has no idea what to do about children they want to put in prison. A few days ago, on 24th February 2017, the Youth Custody Improvement Board (YCIB) made some recommendations as to how the youth secure estate can be improved stating that there has been no national vision for the youth secure estate.  The government, on the same day,  announced the creation of a new body, the Youth Custody Service, a department which will be subsumed within the new HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). Responsibility for youth custody will pass from the Youth Justice Board (YJB) to this new unit, slicing off another portion of the YJB and meaning that decisions regarding youth custody are put to the bottom of the pile and where the specific needs of children will be overlooked.

In their report the YCIB state, rightly, that there has been no national vision for the youth secure estate. The trouble is, there never has been. Since the very first penal institution for young people, Parkhurst, was set up in 1838, the youth secure estate has comprised a series of haphazard experiments, with parallel unconnected and unsuccessful provision for the children and young people it is meant to be keeping safe and rehabilitating. We currently have three types of youth custody in the UK: Secure Children’s Homes, Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions. They all have different motivations, provision and regimes which come more from how they have emerged historically rather than a clear strategy or vision.

Our modern youth justice estate was formed in the Victorian era and has always been an uneasy meeting in the middle of child protection campaigners trying to help children born with the worst start in life, and a pro prison lobby that see such children as inherently incorrigible and needing punishment. In 1854 Reformatory Schools (and in 1857 Industrial Schools) were provided as the first institutional alternative to prison for young people. Their name suggests their aim: to reform and provide industry to children who might otherwise be ‘vagrant, destitute, and disorderly’. These schools were merged in 1933 to become Approved Schools where children could stay until their 19th birthday. In the 1950s, absconding from these schools led to the creation of closed secure units within them. By 1969 Approved Schools were renamed ‘Community Homes’ with education, and those with secure units are what we call Secure Children’s Homes today.

The other strand of youth custody grew in a parallel series of experiments. Until 1893 children sent to a Reformatory School had to do a stint in prison as part of their sentence (indeed, being sent to adult prison was only stopped for children under the age of 14 in 1908 and for those under the age of 17 in 1948). Then, in 1902 a new experiment in Borstal in Kent, started the institutions that would take its name when they were rolled out across the country in 1908. They were to separate young people between the age of 16 (reduced to age 15 in 1961) and 21 from adults. Borstals stayed operational until the 1982 Criminal Justice Act renamed them Youth Custody Centres.

The next 40 year experiment was Detention Centres. Set up by the 1948 Act and becoming operational in 1952, they used military style drills and were intended as a ‘short, sharp shock’ for those aged between 14 and 21 but without a clear definition of purpose except to stave off criticism that youth detention was too soft. By 1982 these two main experiments – the Youth Custody Centres and Detention Centres existed side by side. Then in 1988 they were combined and renamed Young Offender Institutions under the Criminal Justice Act which is what they remain today.

The final, and most recent, strand was another reactionary experiment. Secure Training Centres for 12 to 14 year olds were proposed in 1993, opened in 1998, and were run by private for profit providers some of whom have recently been admonished for abuses. Since then, the government has proposed, and glossed over, a proposal for ‘Secure Colleges’, which sounded dubiously exactly like Young Offender Institutions by any other name, and has now approved Charlie Taylor’s recommendation to build two new Secure Schools. Mr Taylor’s (who is now to be the Chair of the YJB) thoughtful recommendation that these schools should replace Young Offenders Institutions and Secure Training Centres and be instead be just like schools, run as a collaboration between Department for Education (DfE) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), may now well be impossible to carry out given that youth custody will sit exclusively underneath the direction of the adult estate, tucked inside the MoJ, very far away from the DfE, and indeed from his new look YJB.

The situation of young people in prison has always been a deep concern for Justice Studio. Before setting up Justice Studio I led three evaluations of the youth secure estate. We have also undertaken a review of the Secure Children’s Homes. Politicians’ continuing failure to strategise and learn from a rich history of past mistakes is something that saddens us greatly. In the end the failure to properly conceive and run a youth secure estate damages the young people within it and ultimately makes our communities less safe.

Justice Studio urges the government to stop flitting backwards and forwards in a series of misguided and uninformed experiments as it has done for over a hundred years. Instead it must make a considered and strategic approach to youth custody, based on plentiful evidence of good practice and sensible policy approaches. Young people in the criminal justice need to be helped not experimented on.





Goodbye NOMS, hello HMPPS


Last week in England & Wales the Justice Secretary Liz Truss announced the abolition of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). It shall be replaced with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, which ministers say will have more clarity of purpose.

The reforms include a stronger focus on frontline prison staff: a pay rise for many, along with more investment in training and professional development. This is a significant recognition of the importance of staff in any organisation: here it seems that the lessons of some of the more progressive enterprises are slowly being learned. Well trained employees with decent pay and conditions and better morale surely mean that their work with prisoners can improve too. Proposed reforms also include a stronger focus on women in the justice system. Campaigners have welcomed this but what it will mean in reality is yet to be seen.

Probation, in the meantime, remains in a Transforming Rehabilitation limbo. Privatised Community Rehabilitation Companies continue to face all sorts of challenges. Meanwhile  what was the NOMS administered National Probation Service shall remain attached to the prison arm of the administration, meaning that the kind of triangular structure which came into being with NOMS will continue.

Some historical background: NOMS was originally established in the early 2000s to provide “end to end offender management”, with the idea that it would employ staff who would follow a person’s progress from trial to custody, to release, through the prison gates and into society. The hope was that having an “offender manager” would ensure that in the event a person did go to prison, there would be a single point of contact who would ensure that all the necessary steps were taken in preparation for release. Once someone came out of prison, this link person would ensure that all the relevant agencies talked to each other and that the individual had accommodation, access to the right kind of support and so on. In reality this never actually happened and NOMS quickly became a bureaucracy which, sort of but not quite, absorbed the prison service and the central elements of probation.

Meanwhile, the Blair administration’s obsession with user choice meant that various aspects of services in prisons (interventions, education and even catering) were put out to tender and in many cases privatised. NOMS then took on the administration of those contracts, and eventually expanded to developing operational policy, monitoring, evaluation and research. Sometimes policy sat at odds with the more political direction set by changing ministers at the Ministry of Justice. What NOMS never managed to achieve was what it was initially created for: end to end offender management. In the meantime the prison population continued to rise, and with it all the symptoms of an unhealthy system addicted to hyperincarceration: violence, poor health, deaths and low levels of staff morale.

The new structure is apparently not going to do any of the things that NOMS eventually took on. It will manage prisons and the few central aspects of probation which are still in the public sector. Policy, monitoring and commissioning will move to the Ministry of Justice. But what will this mean in practice?

It’s hard to know, against the backdrop of the prison crisis, rampant hyperincarceration and the highest level of deaths in prison on record whether the new arrangement will be a genuine improvement, or whether it’s a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the prison ship version of the Titanic.

What we can say for certain is that if the Justice Secretary wants genuine change, she ought to address the current crisis which has much to do with overcrowding and the overuse of prison. This isn’t just about sentencing, it’s about there being genuinely effective non custodial measures, strong resettlement work and a recognition that a social safety net for those at risk of offending is a key aspect of improving public safety. Through our work at Justice Studio  we also know that new initiatives can be successful if they involve from the outset those who deliver services and those who use them. The best approaches incorporate co creation,  with the genuine buy in of those they affect,  specifically prisoners and staff. We hope that all current reforms don’t take their eye off their most important component: the people.


Why Justice Studio?

Why Justice Studio?

Justice Studio was born on 17th May 2011 (which makes it a Taurus, reliable, practical and independent). Its infancy was spent in and around Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, with proposals and reports being written from cafés and me, the founder, visiting organisations with my reports tucked under my arm. Our social justice consultancy is now in its fifth year but its creation still very much reflects the culmination of the passions, successes and disappointments of my career up until that date.

My first job as a temp in the UK civil service was enlightening for all the wrong reasons. The inefficiency of the civil service, where there seemed to be job posts simply for the sake of job posts, and people not really doing very much with their time, and where I was ridiculously bored and de-motivated through lack of tasks, made me passionate about efficiency and wanting to see it in my country’s government. I became a management consultant in my heart before I knew what one really was.

Then, after months of working there by day and at a bar at night, I managed to save enough money to do a volunteer placement in Bangladesh. I left in February 2004, aged 22 full of nervous excitement. The capital city, Dhaka, where I was based for four months, displayed abject poverty. Children would be hunting for scraps on the rubbish tips that lined the sides of the roads. There were people begging whose limbs had been removed, or with growths on their stomachs, some with their eyes gouged out or simply burnt, and faces and bodies otherwise scarred from abuse. There appeared to be little hope, and anyone with any money or education seemed to be leaving as fast as they possibly could. I saw that whilst aid agencies were trying, they were not a substitute for businesses, and people staying in the country and investing in services.

With a conviction that I wanted to be a development consultant, I worked for a succession of large, then larger, then smaller, and then very small consulting firms. They worked in international development, UK public sector, and charities and other not for profits. All areas that Justice Studio would end up working in. My respect for these companies in terms of their sector knowledge, the efficiency and effectiveness they strove for and the intelligence and drive of their staff was cemented and helped to define what Justice Studio would come to embody. However my frustrations in these companies, a lack of empathy for the end beneficiaries of our services by some, and the fact that I felt my passion for human rights and particularly youth justice, were being quashed rather than built on, defined what Justice Studio would not be.

I didn’t fit in at these organisations. I suppose I could have tried harder, but instead I decided to create somewhere I really wanted to work. This would be a place that would embody my values and my passions as well as being a high quality consultancy machine. This would be a business that had the heart of a charity or an NGO but as efficient as the other consultancies I worked in and was built on rigorous research and a firm commitment to making a difference to the lives of the beneficiaries of those we worked with.

The name was important, and was decided in a brainstorm on googlechat with a good friend. We landed on ‘Justice Studio’ and instantly it felt right. The ‘Justice’ embodies the subject areas that we work in: social justice and human rights, which particularly encompasses crime, child protection, access to health, education and housing. The people we work with are active in these areas and are seeking to produce better outcomes for the beneficiaries they work for. The ‘Studio’ embodies how we work: flexibly, embracing new methods, and new ways of working. We pride ourselves on our creatively and collaborative working.

Five years on we are still guided by the values and commitments we started with. We are proud of the diversity of our projects which range from evaluating a dance project for troubled young people in Hampshire and writing the first Child Rights Act of Somaliland. What links all of our projects together is a deep held belief in ensuring better outcomes for those most unheard or discriminated against.

We don’t work in cafés anymore but in a workspace on top of one. Our strong small team is looking forward to growing further. With our new blog space we hope to reach out to new people, and we urge you to reach out to us too.