This post is in response to a recent request from a blog reader who asked me to share my thoughts on prison governors. To be honest, it wasn’t a topic that I had on my to-do list, mainly because the average prisoner doesn’t get to see them on a day-to-day basis, but here goes anyway.
|Some Governors are about as remote|
In some respects, prison governors are rather like the ‘peace of God’: they often pass all understanding. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that they are from a rare endangered species in most nicks.
Trying to see a prison governor in the flesh can be a bit like one of those nature documentaries on television. The presenter, hiding in some swampy bush, waits patiently for hours… maybe days just to catch a glimpse of the rare creature as it saunters up to a nearby watering-hole. Of course, all too often the wait is fruitless and nothing of any real interest passes by. I think you’ll get the picture.
Moreover, there are various different species of ‘governor’ to be found in the nick. Some are lowly operational managers who have been raised to ‘governor grade’, even though no-one in the upper reaches of the prison hierarchy would give them the time of day. You can find wing ‘governors’, works ‘governors’, security ‘governors’ etc, etc. Above them all, like the Almighty in His heavens, stands the Olympian figure of the ‘Governing Governor’ aka the ‘Number One Governor’ – who is usually nothing like Governor Venables, the bumbling fictional counterpart in the BBC TV comedy Porridge, played by the late Michael Barrington.
|Porridge: The Governor|
The current system for recruiting governor grades is either via the graduate recruitment programme run by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) or by joining the Service as a uniformed officer and then rising through the various ranks up to managerial level. The salary isn’t particularly exciting, however. On the NOMS graduate programme, for which applicants needs to have at least a 2:2 degree, annual pay rates start at £26,000, rising to around £28,700 by the end of the training period.
Salaries for qualified ‘operational managers’ start at £32,000 a year, while more senior managers (including governors) can earn around £60,000 pa. It’s a professional salary, but hardly ‘riches beyond the dreams of avarice’, as Dr Johnson once observed. Of course, there are other benefits, including a civil service pension.
In my personal experience – and I have met a fair few governors myself – Governing Governors fall into two main categories. There are the ones who can be nice to cons on those rare occasions when they come face-to-face with them (mainly because they rarely have to make any real decisions that will impact on specific prisoners) and then there are those who are so distant and elevated that the very idea of meeting an actual inmate would be an unthinkable act of lèse majesté… far beneath their dignity, unless of course the prisoner happens to be Jeffrey Archer or some other celebrity con.
|Lord Jeff: he got to meet the Governor|
“Oooh look, a tame con! Does he bite?” Sometimes I even gave little power-point presentations on subjects such as how prisoners could be used in peer mentoring roles while governors from other nicks nodded in agreement (or snoozed in the back rows after a heavy lunch). At least we inmates got reasonably well fed at these junkets – a bonus not to be underestimated.
When I was a D-cat I remember turfing up at one notorious Cat-C jail having been granted inter-prison Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) to participate in a meeting, together with another con who was a lifer. Of course, we were dressed in respectable civilian clothing. We duly reported to the official visitors’ reception with our licences where we were met by a very inexperienced OSG (operational support grade – a kind of ‘plastic screw’ who has little power, often even less experience and who has done a two-week crash course to get the job).
|Escape List suit|
All went well at the visitors’ counter until we showed our prison ID cards. At that point the proverbial hit the fan. I’m still amazed that the general alarm wasn’t sounded.
“Prisoners!” he shrieked, wide eyed. “Outside the gate…. What do I do?”
No-one in the visitors’ reception – mostly staffed with equally clueless OSGs – knew the answer. None of them seemed to understand that prisoners from open prisons could be allowed out without chains or handcuffs and even attend meetings at other nicks. It was beyond their limited comprehension that such a thing could happen, even though both our names did appear on the guest list for the event.
The worrying consensus of opinion among the gaggle of terrified OSGs appeared to be that we should both be ‘twisted up’ (put into painful restraint) and dragged down to the prisoners’ Reception to be stripped, photographed and put back into prison uniforms – like all other cons – or even into green and yellow ‘clown suits’ worn by escapees. Fortunately, sanity – in the form of a Senior Officer – appeared and the problem was cleared up. We were just given the usual pat-down search all visitors get and we made it to the meeting in one piece.
|OSG: a chip on each shoulder?|
Anyway, that’s one of the reasons I’ve met quite a few prison governors. On a one-to-one level, I found most of them normal, intelligent people, although obviously some were a bit uncomfortable to be actually speaking to a serving prisoner on any level other than dishing out punishments during adjudications (internal disciplinary hearings). Having to treat us like normal human beings for a while was something of a novel experience. You could see it in their eyes.
A few even seemed genuinely curious as to what prisoners really thought about various issues and took the opportunity to ask me some questions, even noting down my answers. That gave me the impression that they really needed to get out on the wings a bit more in their own nicks and actually try talking to some cons from time to time.
|Mr Mackay: knew how to say "no"|
Moreover, each prison only had one governor, plus a deputy. They wore suits and ran the show, assisted by the Chief, the Chaplain and the Medical Officer. There was none of the current layers of bureaucracy or multiplicity of various governor grades. These days it can be difficult to work out who really does what, if anything, up at the top.
The average con is unlikely ever to meet a real-life Number One Governor. Many can go through their whole sentence barely meeting anyone more senior then wing screws or maybe a ‘custodial manager’ (what used to be called a Senior Officer or a Principal Officer, depending on the grade). Facing a lower-level governor grade in a suit almost always means being across a table during an adjudication, and then it won’t be the Number One, but some lower-ranking manager.
|Man in a suit: a Governor?|
Occasionally, a newly arrived Number One will try to introduce some new radical system that absolutely outrages the rank and file wing officers. At times, this can lead to a state of almost open warfare between the Governing Governor and his or her wing screws. A stark example of this sort of internal conflict is recorded in the 2012 HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ report on HMP Lincoln (you can read it here). The Inspectors found:
At the time of the inspection the prison was frequently disrupted by failure of the roll check – the process by which all prisoners are accounted for at regular times during the day. Numbers were miscounted and all movement ceased until the numbers tallied. This meant that prisoners were often returned to their cells from work or education, could not attend health care or other appointments, and in some cases remained locked in their cells for the entire session. We were repeatedly told by prisoners, staff and managers that this failure was deliberate and occurred because of a dispute between management and staff about new regime and roll-check procedures. We were unable to verify if this was true – but the fact that so many people believed it to be so revealed much about the atmosphere in the prison.
|HMP Lincoln: dispute over regimes|
I’ve even seen this sort of thing happen in the relatively quiet backwater of a rural Cat-D (open prison). A caretaker Number One Governor had sought to force unit screws to get out of their cosy wing offices and do some security patrols around the establishment. Not a bad idea in theory, since the nick was awash with contraband, particularly so-called ‘legal highs’. However, it was winter and the screws really didn’t fancy trudging round fields in freezing weather. The policy lasted about as long as the interim bloke was in his office. As soon as he left, the old system was reinstated in order to keep the peace with the local Prison Officers Association (POA).
When I was still a con, I once had a very lengthy and remarkably honest discussion with a deputy governor about the problems the Prison Service was facing in the Team Grayling era. This governor was, in my opinion, a very decent bloke who truly despaired of the increasing politicisation of the British penal system, as well as the imposition of ideologically-motivated punitive regulations that bore little or no relation to evidence-based prison practices – for example, the forcing of many prisoners back into prison-issue clothing, which was proving costly and causing chaos for many local nicks.
|'Crisis Chris': he who never listens...|
NOMS then informed the dissident governors that no further representations to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) would be made. The die was cast and, predictably, many of the problems that experienced prison governors had foreseen have indeed come to pass.
Of course this, in itself, raises important questions about how much autonomy Governing Governors now really have. It seems that they are largely being reduced to the role of bureaucrats who are charged with carrying out Whitehall’s diktat, even when all the evidence suggests that our prisons are deep in crisis. Just one more in the ever-lengthening list of disasters being caused by the failure of ‘Crisis’ Chris Grayling – and his sidekicks in the MOJ and NOMS – to listen to those people who actually know what they are talking about.