What are Independent Monitoring Boards?

Work with Offenders looks at the important role that IMBs play in keeping our prisons safe

Our prisons are subject to two main forms of independent scrutiny. The first is Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons which reports on conditions for treatment of all people detained by the criminal justice system – whether they are in prison, youth custody, immigration detention or a police or court custody suite. The Chief Inspector, currently Peter Clarke, is appointed by the Justice Secretary from outside of the prison service and reports directly to ministers.

The second, and less well-known form of independent scrutiny are the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) which exist for every prison and immigration removal centre. IMBs are made up of ordinary members of the public who are independent, unpaid and make an average of 3-4 visits to their local institution per month. Their role is to monitor the day-to-day life in their local prison and ensure the proper standards of care and decency are maintained.

Members have unrestricted access to their local prison or immigration detention centre at any time and can talk to any prisoner or detainee they wish to, out of sight and hearing of a members of staff if necessary. A typical monitoring visit, for example, might include time spent in the kitchens, workshops, accommodation blocks, recreation areas, healthcare centre and chaplaincy.

Board members also play an important role in dealing with problems inside the establishment. If a prisoner or detainee has an issue, he or she can put in a confidential request to see a member of the IMB. Problems might include concerns over lost property, visits from family or friends, special religious or cultural requirements, or even serious allegations such as bullying.

If something serious happens at the establishment, for example a riot or a death in custody, representatives of the board may be called in to attend and observe the way in which the situation is handled. The IMB role is similar to that of lay observers, the term used for members of the public who provide the same sort of independent oversight but for people detained in court cells and “cellular vehicles”.

The differences between the two forms of independent scrutiny are important. While prison inspectors only visit some establishments every 3 to 4 years, IMB members are constant visitors and, in some cases, are likely to have a much deeper understanding of the successes and failings of an individual establishment. Not only do they have a much greater level of contact, but many prison inspections are planned in advance which means that the institution can try to remedy any existing failings before the inspectors call.

Readers may be surprised to know that IMBs produce annual reports on every institution and typically provide an insight into eight key areas:

  • Safety
  • Equality and fairness
  • Segregation
  • Accommodation
  • Healthcare
  • Education other activities
  • Work, vocational training and employment
  • Resettlement

IMBs can be important sources of information as to whether key initiatives are actually taking place as recommended. For instance the new Offender Management in Custody model, designed to make every prison officer responsible for a small number of prisoners with the ambition of improving both care and resettlement, has been rolled out across the prison estate. IMB reports often note whether staff are actively carrying out this role or have been re-deployed to other duties.

Of course, IMBs, like the rest of society, have been affected by coronavirus and many are continuing their scrutiny remotely although some institutions have been allowing more limited access visits if they can be carried out within the public health guidelines.

IMBs are often the first organisation to raise a particular issue which then alerts the prison inspectors. For instance, the IMB report published today for HMP Huntercombe notes concern at the level of complaints associated with bullying.

IMB members are much less well known than magistrates, but we should be grateful as a society that so many individuals are willing to give their time freely to safeguard some of our most vulnerable citizens.