Periodically senior people in government departments get concerned about leadership. The Prison Service (known today as HM Prison and Probation Service) is a good example. Leadership as an issue rears up every few years, receives some attention then fades into the background. Given recent television exposure of what goes on in our prisons, leadership would seem to have become a Darwinian struggle and that few people evolve to a stage where they can confidently lead staff in difficult situations.
There was talk recently in the Service about getting the military involved in leadership training. Whether this happened hasn’t been confirmed, however drafting in people from a quite different organisation seldom works. There have always been both good and bad leaders in the Army. What the Army won’t tolerate is no leadership and for years this has been the default position in the Prison Service. The historically minded can trace it back as far as the infamous Strangeways riot of 1990. Lord Woolf in his report describes a command and control failure which ran right to the top.
Avoidance of leadership is built into the culture. The old style prison governors often had their shortcomings but the some of them knew that fundamentally their job was about leadership. It’s why the best remembered of them were the ones who ran larger, more difficult jails and their tenure has become part of Service mythology. ‘He was a bastard but we loved him’ was a remark made by a principal officer about one of HMP Manchester’s more memorable governors.
People like him would have been stillborn career wise in the Service of the past two decades. During this period managerialism has been the philosophy as the Service convinced itself it could do rehabilitation. The successful governor was one who could meet performance targets and get good inspection and audit reports as the chimera of rehabilitation was pursued.
Amazingly one serving governor at HMP Winchester recently broke ranks and went public about the obvious flaw in the rehabilitation process. He described it as a ‘fantasy’ and doubted that prison could undo years of failure by family, education, and services such as mental health.
That legendary governor of Manchester might have said it with impunity but these days someone breaking the code of omerta usually means the equivalent of a recall to Moscow for ‘consultations’. Some years ago a female governor went over the head of her boss with a protest about underfunding. She found herself loaned to the Health and Safety Executive for ‘career development’.
The governor of HMP Winchester added that prisons might just as well be places of punishment because that was just about all they could do. It was a brave statement and the recent television series set in the jail shows how staff cuts and daily crises have left officers doing little more than firefighting.
Over the years the Service has fished around introducing various recruitment schemes. A recent one was the ‘Senior Prison Manager Programme’. Note the emphasis on manager. It was born out of the idea that managers in other spheres possessed transferrable skills and could run prisons. It attracted few candidates from the private sector. What happened instead was that they found a very expensive way of moving people from one branch of the public sector to another. Having invested heavily in the scheme its creators were determined to make it work and introduced coaching to get candidates through the various stages, much to the fury of Service insiders who had to develop their careers unassisted. One person fast tracked up to deputy governor at a large jail, had to be dissuaded from issuing prisoners with ladders.
Currently the Service is running advertisements for a ‘Senior Leadership’ scheme. However it’s likely to be shaped around what management want the Service to be rather than how it actually is. In other words: progress chasing, meeting targets and so on. Unfortunately they have the wrong definition of leadership. Generally they see it as ‘holding people to account’ which takes us back to performance targets etc. and placing them on a ‘performance improvement plan’ if they fail to deliver.
The thing about this approach is that it institutionalises lack of leadership. The person failing to deliver is quarantined on an improvement plan; job done. Genuine hands on leadership involving say, mentoring takes time and there are no career benefits to be gained. Ironically evidence of why this definition of leadership is no good could be found in an aspect of promotion assessment that people couldn’t sidestep. This involved candidates taking over and managing a hostage simulation. Away from the cosy world of holding people to account some candidates found the experience quite daunting. It is a naked exercise in old fashioned command where the buck stops with the candidate and decisions made cannot be reversed. Some would hesitate to order a rescue even when told that the hostage was in grave danger.
Essentially then what the Prison Service has done in the past couple of decades is acquire the people it needs for managerialism. No-one seems to have paid the slightest attention to the fact that all this rehabilitative effort made no impact on the prison population figures, which takes us back to the comments made by the governor of HMP Winchester. For most prisoners fixing problems which have been years in gestation is unlikely to occur during a sentence.
Experienced prison staff would tell you that for most the only real cure to a life of offending is maturity. The majority will grow out of it in time. Added to which the lifestyle commensurate with criminality: drug and alcohol abuse, and carelessness over health, means they do tend to burn out fairly quickly. Have a look at fathers going into prison to visit their sons: there are some physical wrecks shambling through the gate.
The problem is that the Service has developed the wrong kind of leader for current operating conditions. Perhaps it would be just right for a benign Dutch or Scandinavian regime but with prisons having to deal with so many mentally ill persons who ought to be treated elsewhere, the performance manager type isn’t likely to instil much confidence in officers who may have to get confrontational with some very dangerous and unstable people.
It gets worse: whenever a prisoner complains of being manhandled the default position is suspend the officer concerned, launch a (frequently incompetent) investigation and pay no attention to the well-being of the accused sitting at home for weeks worrying about his future. Should they eventually return to duty it is unlikely the prison will get the same officer back.
Remarkably there is little or no formal training for people going into what years ago would be seen as leadership roles. At one time the Prison Service had a staff college (built by prisoners incidentally). Here people were given the time to reflect on their jobs, discuss with others and share experiences. There was a fifteen week long course for those taking on in charge roles for the first time. All gone now as has the college.
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