Offender Management in Custody – The Emperor’s New Clothes?

The extension of Stop and Search – a return to the SUS laws?
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Offender Management in Custody – The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Rows of prison cells, prison interior.

The Offender Management in Custody (OMiC) model is now being rolled out across the male closed prison estate.

Napo members have questioned the model’s design since it was announced; particularly claims it will lead to higher quality offender management input for clients in prison.

The first part of the model – the key working element – is in place in most establishments, assigning all prisoners (except some women) a uniformed prison staff member to act as keyworker and meet with them regularly.

Despite concerns about workloads and the possibility of uniformed staff having to prioritise other duties, feedback from those participating has been largely positive. There has also been a much needed increase in prison staffing to accommodate keyworking.

The second element of the model is to move the offender management function of probation staff in the community to the offender management unit in prisons effectively replacing the offender supervisor role with the offender manager role. Offender management units will be staffed by both prison and probation staff.

Initially, probation officers will manage high risk clients and prison staff low to medium risk clients. However, this will change when OM work is transferred into the NPS (December 2019 in Wales and spring 2021 in England).

Privately managed prisons will have fewer probation officers working with staff without a probation qualification using the case management support tool.

A complex process of handover to and from community probation based offender managers has been devised.

OMiC was designed to improve offender management during custody. The current “end to end offender management” model has an offender manager based in the community for the duration of the sentence, and an offender supervisor based in custody to carry out the day to day work required.

Consistency and relationship building is an important principle. I was once told at a desistance seminar that role of the worker in a relationship with someone trying to desist is to hold the “golden thread” or to be the guardian of hope.

This means the worker is the one who is consistent in their approach and support and who holds onto the hopes and ambitions that the client has for their future even during times when the client may falter or encounter setbacks.

Building and maintaining that relationship is difficult when both you and the client know you will not be working together throughout the sentence, and that they will then be handed over to a new worker at the extremely vulnerable pre-release or post-recall stage, or when they move to a different prison.

End to end offender management was a sound concept based on best practice but never truly worked because the staff doing the offender manager role were never given the resources to do it properly.

The workload management system does not factor in any travel time to prisons, and neither is the time it takes to build relationships in custody or in the community is acknowledged.

When workload pressures become extreme, offender manager staff are forced to prioritise their work based on immediacy of risk, meaning those clients in custody are lower on the list.

Add to these issues the never-ending cycle of organisational change and the ensuing staffing churn, the “end to end” concept was doomed, not because it was inherently wrong but, because it was never allowed to work properly.

The offender supervisor role was affected in the same way since prison staff were subject to workload pressures and, at times, removed from their role to perform essential safety duties.

The OMiC model builds in an inconsistency in client-worker relationship that we seek to avoid in other circumstances. In fact, part of the rationale for the integration of offender management into the NPS is to create fewer changes of worker in the system.

The only conclusion that can be reached is that the OMiC model is cheaper than properly resourcing end to end offender management.

While most will welcome the increases to prison staff resources and the renewed focus on rehabilitation in custody, the reality is that OMiC requires fewer reviews of the sentence plan during the custodial phase of the sentence (moving from annual to biennial or triennial dependant on the length of sentence), and only mandates monthly contact between offender manager and client for high risk cases and only quarterly contact with the client in low risk cases.

While it may appear to be more than the current model for offender manager contact, it is less contact than most clients experience from the combined team of offender manager based in the community and the offender supervisor based in custody.

Closer examination of the model reveals that decisions have been made in terms of resourcing that assume shorter times to complete various tasks including OASys assessments, which will lead to higher caseloads for staff undertaking the offender manager role. While the mandatory contact and review of sentence plan demand may be lower than before this will place intense pressure on staff working in custody.

Ultimately staff will face the same impossible choices they face now: being forced to prioritise on the basis of immediacy of risk (assessed in terms of the risk to the process and system rather than to client, victims and community) and we will have similar conversations in future when another new model is introduced to try to improve performance.

Quality and best practice don’t come cheap, when cost is the driver we all lose.

Katie Lomas, National Chair

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