Following the government reshuffle and the obvious disappearance of a Minister for Probation, the MoJ may feel that further progress has been achieved in their long-term aim of completely erasing the term from the lexicon of criminal justice. They've never understood us and were always nervous and irritated by our proudly independent voice and notorious historic resistance to all attempts at imposing command and control.
I have heard it said that this blog continues to be regarded as a 'risk' by the MoJ, precisely because it steadfastly remains a bastion of non-conformity and resistance to their efforts at ridding themselves of such troublesome dissident voices. So imagine how upset and uncomfortable the mandarins must be at the emergence of a much reinvigorated Prison Governors Association under the inspiring leadership of Andrea Albutt.
Of course there was a time when the Probation Service had a similar authoritative and respected voice, but we all know where that got us. Anyway, here she is telling it how it is in the Guardian and I dare the MoJ to try and silence her:-
Andrea Albutt: ‘Carillion has left our prisons in a terrible state’
Andrea Albutt, the president of the Prison Governors Association, is angry. The former army nurse, who joined the prison service as a young hospital officer in 1990, announced last week that despair was “running through the veins” of her organisation. With the highest rates of self-harm, suicide, drug use and violence ever seen and the recent scathing prison inspection reports on HMPs Liverpool and Nottingham, the prison system has arguably reached the lowest point in its history.
The collapse of Carillion, the construction company responsible for prison maintenance contracts, has only added to its woes. “It’s a big deal,” says Albutt. “Governors have had to run prisons with not-fit-for-purpose contracts which failed to deliver the promised service. These contracts have failed in their entirety, leaving accommodation and maintenance in a far worse state than when governors owned their own works departments.
“We desperately need a reintroduction of the prison works department. I can then say to my works guys, ‘the seg’s [segregation unit] in a mess, needs work, B wing needs new windows’. I, as the governor, the boss, tell them – and then they crack on with it. With an external contract, governors are not empowered to do that. Too much senior management time has been spent trying to deal with these contracts instead of strategically managing prisons.”
Since taking over the £200m maintenance and cleaning contracts for the prison service, agreed by the then justice secretary, Chris Grayling, in 2014, Carillion has been continually criticised by the Prisons Inspectorate and Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) for its failure to carry out contracted works. In its latest annual report, the Independent Monitoring Board for Dartmoor prison said that Carillion’s contract was “an ongoing source of frustration”, calling it cumbersome and expensive.
It is clear from talking to her that Albutt cares a great deal about our prisons. But, I say, why should decent, law-abiding citizens care? If prisoners are living in cells with no windows, infested with rats and cockroaches, many would say, so what? They shouldn’t have committed the crime. “We disempower people when they go to prison,” she says, “so we have to care for them. If we don’t do the best we can for them, what hope is there? You have to remember that prison could happen to anyone – a member of your family, a friend, a loved one. I know how I’d want anyone in my family treated, if, God forbid, it happened to them.
“It’s a well-coined phrase – but there but for the grace of God go any of us, really. None of us knows what might be waiting in life, and you have to remember that most people in prison will be released.” The main source of her frustration is the constant change at the top at the Ministry of Justice. This is where she gets particularly animated. “In seven and a half years, we have had six secretaries of state, which has left prison governors punch-drunk with change,” she says. “We have endured constant interference from ministers who have little or no knowledge of the complexities of prisons, and who leave our service in a disastrously worse state than they found it.
“So, we had David Lidington for six months and he didn’t do anything. It just feels like they do not care about our prisons. They chop and change secretaries of state without a thought. Ministers don’t know prisons, their special advisers don’t know prisons. They might visit them occasionally, but they haven’t a real clue about how to run one safely and effectively. Even civil servants busy writing policy – they also might have visited a prison, but they don’t know prison.”
Albutt certainly knows about prisons. She joined the prison service in the first place, she says, “just to pay the mortgage,” but it soon turned into her vocation. She spent seven years patrolling prison landings, including HMP Woodhill, a Category A prison holding some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country, before being promoted to management.
“As one of the first women into Brixton, I quickly saw that it was a brutal place – and I was just shocked at some of the things I saw,” she recalls. “As a nurse in the army I’d seen tragedy, but the violence of prison was something else.”
Initially her male colleagues were “terrible” she says. “I don’t know if they felt threatened by women entering their male environment, undermining their perceived macho culture.” In contrast, she says male prisoners were generally quite protective of her and her female colleagues. “I have to say, though, that there were times in that first six months when treatment by male colleagues was so bad, I thought about getting out. But I stuck it out and I’m glad I did. In that respect, it’s a different world in prison these days.”
What’s her advice to the new justice secretary, David Gauke? “The one positive thing is that the path we’re on now, started by Michael Gove and then carried on by Liz Truss, is helping us make, possibly – and I emphasise possibly – some inroads into the decline. I don’t know David Gauke at all; we had a brief conversation on the phone, but I just hope that he doesn’t decide to go down a completely different path.
“We lost 7,000 staff and apparently we’re getting 2,500 back. But that still leaves us with 1,500 vacancies, so in fact we need closer to 4,000. I was talking to a colleague last week, and I think they are wondering in the MoJ why things aren’t improving. Well, if you had new officers who were experienced and confident you might get some improvement. But if you’ve got brand new officers going into a place like Liverpool, it’s going to take a while for them to get confident, to acclimatise and to make a difference,” she says. “A failing prison takes forever to turn around. To get back to where we were 10 years ago is going to take years. That’s something I’m determined to get through to ministers.”
She also wants a public inquiry into government policy in the prison service over the past decade. “It’s highly unlikely we’ll get one,” she admits. “We have the Grenfell inquiry and rightly so. But if you think of the number of people who have killed themselves in prison in recent years [2,022 since 1990], so many people have died in our care in prison. We need to look and find out why.”
Career: 2015-18: operational lead for HMPPS national project; 2012-15: governor, HMP Bristol; 2010-12: governor, HMP Eastwood Park; 2007-10: governor, HMP Swansea; 2004-07: governor, HMP Low Newton; 1990-2004: prison officer at HMPs Brixton, Woodhill, Grendon, Wakefield and Eastwood Park; 1984-1990: military nurse, Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps, serving in Germany, UK and Falkland Islands.