Journalists are calling on the Ministry of Justice to open its prisons to media scrutiny. ‘What do they have to hide?’ asked NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet. ‘Journalists on newspapers such as the Guardian say they are routinely prevented from making visits,’ Stanistreet told www.thejusticegap.com. ‘Prisons, as should all publically-funded institutions, must be open to scrutiny by the press. Together with a recent ruling on restrictions on civil servants contacting the media, this all adds up to a government which is intent on making secrecy and not open government its modus operandi.’
The Howard League for Penal reform has called for action to secure independent examination of prisons after their chief executive, Frances Crook, received a letter from the MoJ revoking her previous invite from the G4S to visit two prisons across the country. ‘I take the MoJ at face value, they blocked it [the visit] because they don’t like criticism. It’s not grown up,’ she said. Crook said she was ‘bemused’ by why it had taken so long for the MoJ to respond, given that G4S had informed them of the invitation weeks ago.
The recall came just days before Lord Woolf, former Lord Chief Justice, called for a new jail inquiry, claiming that conditions in prisons are as bad as they were 25 years ago, with cuts and rising inmate numbers.
Whilst G4S have been criticized by the Howard League, they appeared happy to allow her on their premises, even tweeting Crook on Friday saying: ‘We are proud of our work at Oakwood and Birmingham and we are happy to provide access subject to the approval of NOMS.’
Rather than citing any security issues, the letter that Crook received from Ian Blakeman, director of custodial services at the National Offender Management Servics, stated: ‘Given your comments about private prisons I do not feel your visits would be appropriate.’ Blakeman added that he believed ‘appropriate independent scrutiny is in place’.
‘If this is the case – that she has been stopped for the reason that they don’t agree with what she has previously published – this seems at odds with their transparency policies,’ commented Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors. ‘They should not differentiate from journalist to journalist.’
The MoJ says that their access policy is based on a case by case basis, and this does not differ if the individual is in the media sector. They say that they frequently allow visits to various organisations and individuals – however their press office was not able to put a number on it. A spokesman said: ‘It is absolutely right that prisons, like all public institutions, face significant media scrutiny and we welcome public debate on the issues they face.’
‘Groups and individuals are of course entitled to express their opinions. Those who irresponsibly misrepresent the situation by making inaccurate comments, and who fail to correct them when their inaccuracy is pointed out to them, are not a priority for access to prisons.’
Ministry of Justice spokesman