Management Rot in Our Prisons

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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8 Comments on Management Rot in Our Prisons

  1. Death penalty for calculated terrorist murderers? No prolonged confined misery for years or early release for potential re-“offenders”, deradicalization futility, dangers to staff, wasted taxes, &c. Also, straight to Paradise from the gallows [cf. “Houri”, Wikipedia] – a win-win all round. In any case, why should extra-judicial street “executions” by police “surveillance” teams be better than the Old Black Cap?

  2. Dear Bill,
    Your reference to the long term effects of managerialism are dead on. I have first hand experience of such a culture in two organisations one of which is still a government agency, one of which used to be a government agency. The demoralising effect upon those who actually do the work is horrible to witness, they watch the managers zealously guard their own careers, whilst employing ‘Human Resources Business Partners’ (commonly referred to as the thought police)to corporately bully and intimidate those with practical skills. Indeed as the former government agency became a Public Private Partnership under Tony Blair’s reign of insanity, the number of posts with manager in the title eventually reached 47%, we used to joke that we had a manager each, or at least a monkey for every back!
    There was of course no senior leadership at all, although the salary for the Chief Executive went from £200,000PA to £2,000,000PA, in a decade.

  3. Burka woman in the Question Time audience was not speaking as an oppressed woman compelled by tradition to wear the burka. She was forcefully asserting her right (as a muslim woman) to wear the burka and to do so without criticism. Never mind Afghanistan or Egypt, over here the burka has become a token of muslim defiance of Western values.

    I have worked with quite a few muslims and although there were no fanatics among them there was a general attitude that Islam was the right way to live. Western nations were not a force for good but our wealth and success could be made use for the time being. One Algerian I worked with cheerfully told me that the financial collapse of 2008 was a sign that Allah was undermining the West, that the muslim nations were rapidly accumulating Western technology and skills and soon would have no further use for American and European know-how.

    As for facing down a minority of fanatics – never underestimate the power of a determined minority to set the political agenda – especially when they claim moral authority.

  4. He does not mention Muslim prisoners and their visitors.
    Women with Burkas and hijabs are not checked whilst the staff are.
    Just think what that does to staff morale.

    Gangs often Muslims are running these jails. Drugs and drug gangs inside are massive.

    • On BBC’s Friday Question Time: Election Special there was a prize ninny in a burkha ranting about the terrible injustice done to her and other burka clad muslim women when Boris Johnson cheekily compared them to letterboxes – remember, there are no jokes in Islam (as Grand Ayatollah Khomeini is reputed to have said).

      Burka woman received the inevitable round of applause from the usual soft Left QT audience eager to show their inclusiveness and tolerance and to signal their disapproval of Tory “Islamophobia”. Lazy, easy live-and-let-live tolerance wins the day as ever. Perhaps they imagine that this kind of fawning response to Islamic assertiveness will result in intercommunal harmony.

      In his book “Enhanced Interrogation”, Dr James E Mitchell has some quite revealing things to say about the muslim attitude to Western tolerance of their faith. Mitchell helped to devise an interrogation progam for the CIA after the 9/11 attacks. His most prominent subject was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The so-called architect of 9/11, KSM, was convinced that Western tolerance and appeasement of Islam was the work of Allah. The minds of Westerners were being weakened in order to allow the eventual triumph of Islam. He even predicted that those in the West who were willing to fight against Jihad would be undermined by their own people – that was the will of Allah.

      • Burkas and intolerance were on the way out in the 1950s and as late as the 70s the hippy trail to Afghan was without incident except for offers to buy the women of the party which was taken as a big joke. Shortly after Nasser took over Egypt he made a hilarious speech to a crowd about what the Muslim Brotherhood had asked him to do – which was to make a law that women had to be covered up in public. People will say we have gone back to the dark ages, he said. He mocked the idea that he, a mere man, could make every woman walking in the street wear a big scarf – 10 million women! Men shouted out, Make the MB wear scarves. At one point he and the crowd were helpless with laughter at the whole idea.

        I suspect, never having encountered more than one Muslim fanatic (a lawyer wouldn’t you know) among many from here and overseas in universities that facing down the minority of jihadis would have stopped this nonsense dead. Instead we have had ignorance, stupidity, cowardice and appeasement.

  5. Evelyn Waugh wos ‘ere in 1928 with Decline and Fall. When Paul Pennyfeather winds up in jail the ninny in charge is full of reformist idiocies that lead, among other things, to the decapitating of the chaplain and a horseback escape.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.