A day in the life of a prison governor: 'I never feel that I'm off duty'
I arrive at prison at 7.15am. As a duty governor, I know I’m in for a long day. We are contracted to work 37 hours a week, but we almost all work significantly longer hours, without overtime, just to meet the minimum demands of the job.
Today it is 10:15 when the first alarm sounds. When I arrive at the scene, I see a group of uniformed staff and I am told one of our officers has been assaulted by a prisoner. A prisoner is on the floor, being restrained by staff. A staff member gives me a brief account of what has happened, and the prisoner is then escorted, unrestrained, to our segregation unit.
The assault on the officer is serious. Her white shirt has blood on it, her face has scratches around the eye and she also has a nasty bite mark on her upper arm. We have to make sure that the officer is being cared for and evidence is preserved. She must be photographed, her clothing must be bagged and she will have to attend A&E within the hour for a vaccination. We have to take statements from witnesses, and the staff who intervened must complete the paperwork.
Having to manage an incident such as this is stressful, but it’s a controlled stress. The biggest pressure when you’re a governor is never being off duty and coping with a constantly overflowing volume of work.
Governors are leaving the profession and prison officer numbers have been cut. At the same time, the number of incidents we have to deal with, including attacks, suicide attempts and instances of self-harm, has increased. In the year to September 2014, there were 1,958 serious assaults in prison – an increase of 33% on the previous year. That figure includes 431 attacks on prison staff. It all makes for an increasingly demanding job.
At 5pm, there is another alarm. This time I arrive at the cell in question to find staff visibly shaken and the prisoner surrounded by nurses. It turns out that a prisoner has swallowed a J-cloth and paper towels. Despite the officers’ best efforts, they were unable to dislodge the blockage and the prisoner could not breathe.
We are lucky enough to have on duty a doctor whose previous role was in a hospital A&E department. He uses abdominal thrusts and manages to partially dislodge the blockage, enabling an officer to pull it out of the prisoner’s mouth to the sound of air rushing in. The prisoner is alive but needs to go to hospital. It is near the end of the main shift and we have to provide officers as an escort. This will mean that there won’t be enough staff to unlock prisoners for their association periods (time out of their cells), which will lead to discontent.
It is now 9pm and I am still in the prison. I wait for the assaulted officer to return to provide support and to get a first-hand account of what happened. The officer is grateful for me waiting to speak with her.
There is a plethora of paperwork to complete and it is only at the end of the day that I have time to reflect. In between these two incidents I am responsible for the smooth running of the prison – from handling people management issues to tasting the prisoners’ food (a mandatory requirement). As governors, we are expected to possess a wide range of skills, from incident command to contract management. It also helps to have some knowledge of medical law and to have the people skills to deal with everyone from a violent prisoner to a judge.
Some stress is healthy, but the frequency of incidents and the increase in the volume of work means that we find ourselves being stressed beyond those sensible doses, which results in governors leaving to become train drivers or vicars. Some prisons are more stressful than others but all are subject to the same degree of public scrutiny, particularly if something goes wrong.
Today, I eventually leave prison at 9.45pm. But the day doesn’t end there – I am now on call until 07:30 the following day. The author has worked in the prison service for 28 years.
It's no use MP's or anyone asking questions about CRC's because this is the response you'll get:-
On 1 February 2015, ownership of the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) transitioned to new providers. CRCs are now separate, private entities, contracted by the Department to provide specific services and as such are responsible for determining their budgets, staffing levels and staff salaries. As they are autonomous organisations, the MoJ no longer holds details of their budgeted annual expenditure.
In terms of staffing, while CRCs are contractually required to have sufficient suitably qualified and competent staff, they are responsible for determining their own staffing levels and recruitment. No Chief Executives and only a small number of staff at Paybands A-D left their CRC posts during January 2015 while CRCs were still under public ownership. Since 1 February 2015, staffing has been a matter for CRC owners. The Department has not issued guidance to CRCs on recruitment.
Here's former HM Chief Inspector of Probation Andrew Bridges with some typically weasel words and reflecting on TR last October:-
Indeed, if I’d been asked at the planning stage whether I thought that the TR programme was a good idea I’d have had to say No, as it clearly sets out to change much too much, much too quickly. In particular, it was a bad idea to divide off so-called “High Risk” cases, and have them supervised separately by a rump National Probation Service. But once it became the policy of our constitutionally elected Government, I – and everyone else involved – had a choice to make.
One option is to snipe from the sidelines, as many commentators do, saying loudly “I wouldn’t start from here”, and then walk away, while another option is to try to help make it work – or at least offer to do so – hence my offered prescription. For I have little patience with the ideological position-taking approach to discussing public services, when many people decide that being state run is unequivocally a good thing, and privately-run a bad thing, or vice-versa.
It’s effectiveness that I’m interested in, and in my experience none of the different forms of ownership have a monopoly on either success or failure. You can do a good job whether you are a public or a private organisation, and I’ve been happy to assist either type of organisation to try to do a quality job, and I still am.
First, I have a belief in Improvement, and also that with rare exceptions it does not require a budget increase to achieve this.
Second, although I have a strong emotional attachment to public service, and its virtues when it is at its best, I know that it can have its drawbacks, particularly when it has no competition. Meanwhile, although private companies can sometimes behave pretty badly, they are also capable of performing very well.
And third, new organisations can sometimes have the creativity and flexibility to devise new ways to do the work better. (To this end, will ‘staff mutuals’ - organisations co-owned by their staff - as well as other types of organisation, get the opportunity to prove themselves successful in the new Probation world?)
Contrast the mealy-mouthed stuff from the likes of the former HMI, Probation Institute and even Napo, with this from Lord Rasmsbotham, the indomitable former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. He has some sound advice to offer the new Justice Minister Michael Gove on the OurKingdom website. I'll end on some highlights from this absolute masterpiece that really does warrant reading in full from a true friend of probation:-
There is no doubt that too many of today’s politicians are ill-equipped to judge the practicality of ideas, or to know, from experience, just how essential is proper leadership of any people who are involved in the delivery of any programme or activity. This makes it even more important that they should seek out, and listen to, those who know what they are talking about.
I fear that politicians have inherited a most unattractive blame-culture, which amounts to trying to ensure that they can never be held responsible for any decision or action, for which they might be blamed. While I can sympathise with them for their lack of experience, I am always sad when I see them falling back on the traditional tool of the inexperienced — the presumption that the measurement of the quantity of process, based on prescriptive targets and performance indicators, is an appropriate substitute for professional judgement of the quality of outcomes. This cult of managerialism is the curse of our age, not least because it is so widely practised by inexperienced Ministers and officials.
Nothing encapsulates the danger of this more than the recent introduction of Payment by Results for services commissioned by NOMS, and/or the Ministry of Justice, for the rehabilitation of offenders. I have lost count of the number of times I have said in the House of Lords that ‘People Are Not Things’. Every person, offender or otherwise, is an individual, who will act differently, think differently and behave differently, in different situations, from other people. Therefore you cannot generalise about offenders in the same way that you can about things such as different types of baked bean for example, or assume that any measurement of quantity, other than their overall number, has any meaning.
On Day 1 as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons twenty years ago, I asked the Home Office statisticians how they measured the re-offending rate, on which the success, or failure, of the offender management system seemed to be based. They told me that it was impossible to measure and what they actually measured was the reconviction rate, which they did by counting up court appearances. I have come across no evidence to suggest that that situation has changed, yet Ministers continue to refer to the un-measurable as if it were a Holy Grail.
To say that you will only pay organisations, for achieving — or deny them payment for failing to achieve — something that cannot be measured, suggests that you are out of touch with the real world.
Such action risks alienating the voluntary sector, which does more than 50 per cent of the rehabilitation work with offenders. No organisation, or its funders, can afford to wait for the three years that it takes to measure the so-called re-offending rate, to be paid for services rendered. If such organisations walk out, or are forced to close through lack of funds, Mr Gove’s ability to rehabilitate offenders will be seriously diminished.
When Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, introduced what is euphemistically called the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which is not a service at all but a system with its own bureaucracy, it was dubbed by some of its concerned opponents the ‘Nonsense On Marsham Street’.
It seemed to them, as it did and still does to me, that the last thing the Criminal Justice System needed or needs, is yet more bureaucracy, not least because both offenders, and those who have to manage them, are people, and ‘People Are Not Things’. Notwithstanding the dedicated hard work of many admirable individuals within it, the organisation and structure of the management of offenders has been dysfunctional for years, with operational staff crying out to be led rather than subjected to the cult of managerialism.
Since the introduction of NOMS, two of the three Secretaries of State for Justice have interfered with the management of offenders in a way that would not be tolerated in countries such as Sweden, the worst offender being the first non-lawyer ever to have been Lord Chancellor throughout the long history of that appointment. I hope that Mr Gove will not be tempted to do the same, because managing offenders is a time-consuming task, requiring considerable skill and training that neither he, nor the vast majority of the bureaucrats who surround him, possess. There is no reason why they should, because they have other parts to play in the whole process, for which they need different skills and experience.
Mr Gove might like to reflect on the fact that, unless things are right for staff, nothing will be right for prisoners. That is the way things are now.
Staff numbers have been cut below a sensible safety and operational minimum – witness the increased number of assaults, the number of times the emergency response teams have had to be called out, and the number of activities for prisoners, such as education and training courses, that have had to be cancelled because there simply are not enough staff to escort prisoners to them.
Far too many prisoners are left locked up in their cells all day, doing nothing, which is the very antithesis of rehabilitation, and hardly the best way to help them to live useful and law-abiding lives in the future.
Austerity is, or ought to be, a very powerful driver of all that I have mentioned. Mr Gove has an awesome responsibility, to exercise which he has been given a suspect bag of tools. Rather than rush in, with yet more theories, with which the Criminal Justice System, and particularly the Prison and Probation Services, have been bombarded for far too long, I beg him to ‘Stop’, before doing anything, ‘Look’ at what is required of him, and ask himself whether his present organisation is capable of doing what is required of it, and ‘Listen’ to those who know what they are talking about, and can tell him what will or will not work.
Armed with the knowledge of how much it costs to run an agreed offender management system, a regional structure, in which each region has someone responsible and accountable for supporting the management of its offenders, and an operational structure in which someone is responsible and accountable for consistent treatment of and conditions for each type of prison and prisoner, he will be in a position to run an offender management system that has at least a sporting chance of being able to protect the public. If he can go further, and persuade the Prime Minister that, it would make sense for one Minister to be responsible for co-ordinating the contribution of others, he will be in a position to determine whether and what remedial action needs to be taken to mitigate the ‘revolution’ rushed in predecessor. On his decision rests the protection of the electorate.