If there is one prison acronym (and believe me, there are hundreds of them) that is calculated to make a prisoner’s blood run cold it is ‘OMU’. This is the Offender Management Unit inside every UK prison and it is, in essence, the department that literally holds every con by the short and curlies.
Getting a letter or note from OMU pushed under your cell door or handed over by a wing screw is often one of those heart-stopping moments. It can be positive news, or it can mean some devastating knock-back, particularly for prisoners who are serving life or indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPP).
|OASys screen in action|
OMU is responsible for the day-to-day management of each prisoner’s sentence. This includes monitoring behaviour and attitudes, updating OASys (the Offender Assessment System that is supposed to measure the risks and needs of people who have been convicted of criminal offences and who are under supervision), identifying appropriate courses and programmes, processing applications for Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL), preparing reports for the Parole Board (for those cons on parole sentences) and pretty much everything else.
An individual OASys assessment involves the following elements or layers:
• assess how likely an offender is to be re-convicted
• identify and classify offending-related needs, including basic personality characteristics and cognitive behavioural problems
• assess risk of serious harm, risks to the individual and other risks
• assist with management of risk of harm
• links the assessment to the supervision or sentence plan
• indicate the need for further specialist assessments
• measure change during the period of supervision/sentence
Many prisoners who are serving very short sentences may not even get a face-to-face meeting with their OMU ‘offender supervisor’ – sometimes called ‘inside probation’, as opposed to ‘offender managers’ (outside probation officers). I’ve been informed recently that many probation officers really don’t like the term ‘offender manager’ at all, but that is how they are referred to officially across the prison system, so who am I to question the wit and wisdom of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS)?
|NOMS: heart of darkness|
I know plenty of cons who are in for the proverbial ‘shit and a shave’ sentences – ranging from days to a few months – who haven’t got a clue who or what OMU is, or what it is supposed to do. In part, this is probably because prisoners serving terms of less than 12 months haven’t hitherto had to have sentence plans or supervision on release. This is changing as part of Chris Grayling’s controversial ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ (TR) agenda.
In theory, at least, prisoners should now have meetings with their ‘offender supervisor’ (OS) starting with an initial sentence planning meeting early in their time in custody, which will involve their outside probation officer, during which the all-important plan will be discussed and drawn up. Typical sentence plans include such commitments as: ‘behaving well’; getting and maintaining Enhanced status in the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system; finding a prison job or enrolling on an education course; participating in an offending behaviour programme; signing up for alcohol or drugs treatment and support.
Where OMU staffers hit the buffers is when they have a prisoner who is on appeal against conviction or who is steadfastly maintaining innocence of the offence for which a jury has convicted them. Such round pegs in square OMU holes tend to cause endless problems. Inmates who have a live appeal aren’t too much of a problem, because they can be effectively put ‘on pause’ until the appeal has been heard. As long as the individual con has an appeal case number issued by the Court of Appeal, their paperwork can usually be effortlessly shunted into the pending tray while the judges reach their decision down in London.
|Billy Hayes: a 'bad machine'|
However, without that all-important number, the prisoner becomes ‘a denier’ – a bad con who won’t accept responsibility for his or her crimes. Anyone who has seen Midnight Express, the 1978 film about the unsuccessful American drug smuggler Billy Hayes and his rather nasty (and now, admittedly, partially fictional) experiences in a Turkish jail, will be familiar with the famous scene in the criminally insane section of the prison where all the prisoners walk around a central pillar in the same direction. Except Billy...
Ahmet, a fellow con who claims to be a philosopher who studied at Oxford University, explains that they are all “bad machines”. As he tells young Billy: “The bad machine doesn’t know that he’s a bad machine. You still don’t believe it. You still don’t believe you're a bad machine? To know yourself is to know God, my friend. The factory knows, that’s why they put you here. You’ll see... You’ll find out... In time, you’ll know.”
This kind of dialogue could almost be straight out of a meeting between an OMU supervisor and a ‘denier’. The possibility that the prisoner might actually be innocent and the victim of a miscarriage of justice is never permitted to impinge on the process. The ‘factory’ always knows best, you see.
Of course, not all members of OMU staff are blind to the reality of this wicked world and I was always extremely fortunate with most of my offender supervisors while I was inside. A couple of them were incredibly supportive and helpful, so on a purely personal level I haven’t much to complain about. On the other hand, as an Insider (peer mentor) I often had to try to pick up the pieces of OMU mismanagement and under-staffing, both in closed nicks and open conditions.
|Had a note from OMU?|
When I was working as an Insider, I once had an IPP prisoner - who was years over tariff - in my pad ranting and raving about OMU and its perceived iniquities. Crucial reports hadn’t been written, important phone calls not made, letters from his solicitor not answered. He was not a happy bunny. In fact, he was so worked up that his plan was to get shipped out to another nick - any other nick - by going out onto the wing landing and “twatting” the first screw he saw regardless of whether they’d ever upset him or not. He was a gentleman who, shall we say, lacked an understanding of the finer points of anger management.
Having tried to calm him down for half an hour, mainly by letting him rant and rave using some very colourful language that would have made an army trooper blush, he remained resolutely committed to doing someone a mischief, preferably a wing screw, perhaps even an unsuspecting custodial manager (what they now call a senior officer in HMPS-speak) who might by chance be waddling down the wing on some fool’s errand.
Despite all this, I actually quite liked the lad and felt that he was a victim of staff shortages in OMU. No doubt his offender supervisor was on leave and no-one had picked up his dossier for weeks.
I really didn’t feel that he would help himself by carrying out his planned act of violence. In fact, the likely outcome would have probably been several years more inside on what had become an elastic band of a sentence. Nevertheless he was so wound-up that something bad was definitely going to happen very shortly. So I told him to hit me instead. Silly, I know, but at that moment I really couldn’t think of anything else that might just calm him down.
|Slippery showers, honest, Guv!|
He was so shocked by this suggestion that he just sat down on my bunk and went very quiet for a couple of minutes. Then he spoke. “Why would you do that to help me?” This opened the door to a much calmer discussion over a cup of prison tea about why “twatting” a screw would definitely be a very poor life choice, especially for someone on an IPP stretch. Fortunately, he did calm down and I didn’t get thumped.
Perhaps it was a high-risk strategy and one that certainly didn’t feature in the counselling course I’d taken many years before I went to prison. Of course, had he accepted the invitation and walloped me, I’d not have complained or reported him (“grassed him up”). I’d have only had myself to blame. “I slipped in the showers, honest, Guv. Very slippery this morning, they were...”
On this occasion my tactic worked. Perhaps it was the element of surprise. Who knows?
I give this example to illustrate just how frustrating many cons can find their dealings with OMU. I’ve also been in nicks where the unit is so sparsely staffed that nothing seems to go according to plan. I know for a fact that at one D-cat (open prison) a member of the OMU staff was absent on medical leave for the entire year I was at the establishment and there was chaos for any prisoner assigned to his supervision caseload. I lost count of the number of COMP1 forms (official complaints) I assisted fellow inmates to write about the lack of contact they were having with their absent supervisor and the many problems that they were experiencing in consequence. And answers came there none.
Another key problem is some OMU staff really do lack the education and professional training to do the complex assessment and reporting work that is required of them. One genial OMU supervisor, who admitted that he used to be a night shelf-stacker at Asda, couldn’t write to save his life. He was semi-literate at best, as his scrawled and misspelt hand-written notes revealed all too painfully. I knew that he was way out of his depth when he started to turn to me for advice on how the ROTL system actually worked, mainly because he knew I’d been asked to participate in a recent NOMS fact-finding mission on the subject, even though I was only a con.
|Just too complex to work|
Serious problems with the quality of OMU management have emerged during recent inspections. The HM Inspectorates of Prisons and Probation aggregate report issued in December 2013 makes for pretty grim reading. As the report observed: “We have come to the reluctant conclusion that the Offender Management Model, however laudable its aspirations, is not working in prisons. The majority of prison staff do not understand it and the community based offender managers, who largely do, have neither the involvement in the process nor the internal knowledge of the institutions, to make it work. It is more complex than many prisoners need and more costly to run than most prisons can afford.” Amen, brother. You can read the whole damning report here.
Of course, I can only imagine that the staffing crisis inside prison OMUs has become even worse in recent months owing to further budget and personnel cuts imposed by the MOJ. Staff morale, which was already rock bottom anyway, is unlikely to have been improved by Chris Grayling’s incompetent, ideologically-motivated tinkering with the system as the MOJ Titanic sails on towards disaster and probable further loss of life.
So there you have it: the wonderful, wacky world that is OMU. Enjoy!