This week we’ve been warned not to approach the Skull Cracker, Michael Wheatley, after he failed to return to HMP Standford Hill after being granted Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) from an open prison.
Wheatley was given 13 life sentences in 2002 for a string of brutal armed robberies on banks and building societies. He earned himself the nickname the ‘Skull Cracker’ after pistol-whipping his victims, including a 73 year old woman.
The offences were committed over a ten month period whilst Wheatley was released on licence after serving the required part of a 27 year custodial sentence for other robberies.
No lifer gets to just wander in and out of prison. Even with an open prison, there is a whole host of cogs whirring behind the scenes assessing risk before any ROTL is granted. But being assigned to an open prison indicates that risk is considered low enough for the prisoner to be ready for reintegration back into the community. All that really separates a prisoner in open conditions from the general public is the prison boundary line.
The whole ROTL process is rather curious. The paperwork lands on the probation officer’s desk when they will then make the necessary enquiries and determine the suitability of ROTL for that prisoner. All to be conducted, usually, within a couple of weeks. But in many cases, certainly if you’re new to the office, or the office has a high turnover of staff or the allocated officer for that offender is on leave, the probation officer making that assessment will have little to no knowledge of the offender.
The officer will then contact the prison for more information and updates on the offender’s behaviour in prison – have they behaved well? How have they been spending their time? Have they received any sanctions imposed by the prison? How have they performed in rehabilitation programmes and offending focused work? And are there any concerns regarding breach of trust?
Risk assessment is critical
Every piece of information is critical in the decision making and risk assessing process. This one particularly.
So essentially, a probation officer is often making an assessment on someone they have never met before based on information received by various prison staff and taken from previous case records. That’s quite some responsibility.
A recommendation for or against ROTL will then be made alongside recommended conditions for the period of release and the return to prison. Ultimately, it’s not the decision of the probation officer, it’s the decision of the parole board, but the information given is taken very seriously.
I believe Probation Officers are highly skilled at managing risk and assessing risk. I would say that, right? Afterall, I used to be one, but I really do. I’ve met some incredibly skilled officers who take their role very seriously and rightly so; this is risk we’re talking about and people’s lives – the victim’s, the public’s and the prisoner’s life, their human rights. Yes, I know that some of you will consider that a contentious issue, but let’s not forget that people are capable of change and have to be given that opportunity to prove themselves. It’s about balance – balancing risk and human rights. You need to be aware of the risks posed by granting ROTL but you also evidence to decline a ROTL request.
There’s something not right with the ROTL assessment process and it does need reviewing.
Asking a probation officer based in the community to make an assessment on a prisoner they have probably never met before, perhaps only had brief conversations with on the telephone if they’re lucky, has always been a disaster waiting to happen in my view. Case loads are huge, officers are over-stretched, and at the moment, thanks to Grayling’s Transforming Rehabilitation plans, extremely demoralised.
I’ve been hugely against the Transforming Rehabilitation changes to the National Probation Service. Probation Officers are, in my view, critical in the risk assessment process and I can foresee a number of increased risks to victims and to the public as a result of Grayling’s privatisation of the service. But I hope as part of these changes, there will be a major overhaul of processes like ROTL and a very focused look at how these can be streamlined to incorporate a more informed judgement by those best placed to make the decision.
how this will work in a private prison setting…makes the mind boggle
I’m not sure what the answer is. Perhaps more probation officers working in prisons directly with prisoners, having direct contact with the prisoner allowing direct knowledge to inform accurate risk assessment. Having said all that, how this will work in a private setting when what is likely to become most important is contract negotiation makes the mind boggle.
The case of Michael Wheatley failing to return from ROTL is not isolated. There’s been others and there will be more cases like it. What it highlights is the dire need for the system to be reviewed – urgently – before something very serious happens.