Daily Telegraph, 30 July 2019
It isn’t hard to imagine the relief felt by a woman when the man who attacked her is sent to prison. For many victims, however, the breathing space is all to short as a violent ex-partner or rapist is released back into the community – often without adequate notice or supervision.
The extent of the problem has been highlighted by a no-nonsense report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, which confirms that high-risk offenders are being released from a specialist prison without first spending time in an open prison or undergoing an up-to-date risk assessment by the probation service. Many people will be shocked to learn that this group includes sex offenders who are being allowed to return to the community from HMP Ashfield in Gloucestershire, which has no facilities for resettling prisoners.
Almost nine out of ten of Ashfield’s 400 inmates are regarded as presenting a high or very high risk to the public. Not all of them are sex offenders or men convicted of domestic abuse, but those that are may well pose a threat to women they’ve previously attacked – or complete strangers who encounter them after their release. Yet Clarke’s report also reveals that the number of offenders released directly from Ashfield, due to a lack of spaces in open prisons, has doubled to around eight per month.
‘Given the high-risk nature of the vast majority of the prisoners at Ashfield, this was an issue of great concern,’ he said.
It’s particularly so for victims, who are often dismayed to discover that a great deal of post-prison supervision is carried via messaging rather than face-to-face. Abigail Blake, who suffered life-changing injuries after being savagely beaten by her former partner, was astonished to be told that he will be allowed to travel unaccompanied to his family home in Berkshire on his release from prison in Wrexham next week. He won’t even be tagged during the journey.
Ms Blake says she and her children will have to leave their home in Cheshire and go into hiding when Sebastian Swamy, 40, is released. ‘I can’t imagine he has reformed in any way whatsoever,’ she says, pointing out that he has served an even shorter sentence than she was led to expect during his trial.
Swamy was initially charged with causing grievous bodily harm with intent after kicking Ms Blake to the ground and stamping on her back and chest, leaving her permanently disabled. Her spinal cord was severed and she suffered a punctured lung before neighbours were able to rescue her. He admitted a lesser charge of GBH and Ms Blake was assured that he would spend a minimum of 20 months of a three-year sentence in prison.
Yet in an echo of other troubling cases, Ms Blake has discovered that her assailant’s custodial sentence has been substantially reduced – to just six months in this instance, because of the time Swamy spent on bail wearing an electronic tag. ‘The whole thing is just so wrong,’ she says. ‘It’s neither a punishment for him for what he’s done. It’s not enough time for us to heal.’
It’s no secret that the UK’s prison system is bursting at the seams, with record numbers of inmates and few resources to set about challenging prisoners’ behaviour. Two years ago, the main sex offender treatment programme in prison in England and Wales was scrapped after researchers found that it led to more re-offending. Serco, which runs HMP Ashfield, contracted out supervision of sex offenders to a social enterprise, Catch 22, but is now taking it back and says it has plans to improve staff training.
This is hardly a reassuring situation for victims, many of whom live in fear of the news that their attacker is about to be released. In one egregious case involving a multiple rapist, at least one woman found out from a news bulletin after the authorities failed to give her advance notice.
It’s all been made been worse by the part-privatisation of the probation service, one of Chris Grayling’s most controversial justice reforms. Last year, the government announced that some of the private probation companies were performing so badly that their contracts would be terminated early.
Women’s organisations have been particularly critical, describing a chaotic system where key players have not attended crucial meetings to assess an offender’s likely risk to the public.
But many victims feel let down at every stage, from sentencing – which often allows a much earlier release than they were expecting – to a flawed system of supervision once the offender leaves prison. We don’t even have a register of men convicted of domestic violence, which would at least allow the police to keep track of violent men – and warn new partners.
Obviously many men convicted of domestic and sexual violence will be released from prison at some point. But the question of how that release is managed, what victims are told and the protection they’re offered appears to be failing badly. Ms Blake speaks for many women when she says she can’t believe she has been put in this position. ‘There needs to be a change so that victims like me are given the right advice throughout the judicial process,’ she says.
It’s a reform that could save lives – and it can’t come too soon.