Sunday, 12 October 2014

Prison Governors: a Mysterious Presence

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
One of the reasons that I met so many governors of different grades is that as an Insider (peer mentor) who could actually string sentences together I occasionally ended up attending meetings and events for governors of nicks in specific regions where I was rolled out like a dancing bear to perform.

“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?
My fellow con and I laughed a lot about this incident later, but at the time we’d both had visions of being charged with absconding and then finding ourselves in some Cat-B hell-hole for weeks or months. Until we’d actually left that particular establishment at the end of the meeting we were still a bit nervous that we’d suddenly be marched back onto a wing to be banged-up for the night.    

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"
Back in the ‘old days’, governors (or their deputy – ‘the Dep’) would physically do the rounds of each cell to hear ‘governor’s applications’ from prisoners standing at attention inside the door. He (no female governors of male prisons back then) would be accompanied by the Chief Officer – usually a former army regimental sergeant major – who would write down each prisoner’s request in a ledger. I’m told that, regardless of subject, the usual response was “Application denied”. And that would be that. No internal appeals process or Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) snooping round back then, no siree!

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?
One of the sad things I’ve observed about new incoming Governing Governors is that some seem so eager to improve things around their new establishment – whether it be better regimes (day-to-day timetable); more education opportunities, new rehabilitation initiatives, a working personal officer system (where every con has a nominated wing screw they can ask for advice and help) and so on. In fact, very little ever seems to change for the better, mainly because of the chronic shortage of resources (both wing staff and budgets).

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
Fellow cons who have been at Lincoln confirm that this sad state of affairs was down to an almighty row between the then Number One and his management team on one side, and the uniformed staff on the other. Needless to say, the prisoners were the political footballs caught up in the middle.

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...
This governor mentioned that when NOMS was consulting senior prison managers on the new National Facilities List in 2012, a number of governors warned that the resulting Prison Service Instruction (PSI 30/2013 on Incentives and Earned Privileges) would prove unworkable, particularly since it removed much local discretion from governors over how they actually managed the establishments in their charge. He told me that most of these warnings were simply swept aside because decisions at a political level had already been made. 

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.


  1. As usual, very interesting, thanks.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found the post interesting.

  2. Do Governing Governors network much with each other?

    1. Thanks for your question. I'm not really in much of a position to answer that one, although I imagine that they do meet up with other governors at regional meetings and maybe at sessions of the Prison Governors Association.

      What I do know is that we did have various visits from governors in the various prisons I was in, so I suppose they must meet up on these occasions. Perhaps one of our readers who is a governor could contribute a comment!

    2. We do at regular conferences, regional meetings, and we often do business across neighbouring prisons

    3. Thanks for your contribution, Paul. It's great to have your input.

    4. Do governors of privatised prisons mix with those of public ones? And does the governor of a G4S prison co-operate with his competitor in a Serco prison?

    5. Thanks for your question. I have to confess that I really don't have a clue. Maybe one of our readers who is in the system can answer that one! It is a good question.

  3. Are you going to make a series of vlogs like Jack Hill?

    1. Thanks for your question. Probably not, because of the technical editing involved (and the time this would take up in addition to the blog - and my real professional work!) However, Jack and I are in discussion about some joint projects for the future, so a collaboration is definitely on the cards.

  4. What happened to grayling forty hr wk for cons. Vas

    1. Thanks for your question, Vas. Well, like so much nonsense that Mr Grayling comes out with I think it was all about getting a PR sound-bite for the Ministry of (In)Justice and then it was quickly forgotten about.

      Very few nicks - even Cat-Ds with farms - can really employ all cons for 40 hours a week. I was lucky if I managed 4-5 hours a day most of the time, and that was only if work wasn't cancelled for 'operational reasons'. In fact the 'core day' in many nicks doesn't allow for more than about five or six hours of work or education. Chronic staff shortages and overcrowding in closed prisons mean that even this is ambitious.

      A mate of mine who is still in a Cat-B is working as a shower cleaner and he reckons he can stretch it out to two hours per day (and that's doing a proper job, like polishing taps and emptying bins twice a day).

  5. Mr grayling needs to pull his head out of his ass n smell the coffee. People gonna get restless n then I hope we have strangeways revisited

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think pretty much everyone who knows anything has warned him: governors, screws, civilian staff, ex-cons... but it just goes over his head. Total lack of experience of the system means that he just makes it up as he goes along.

  6. I thank you for your eloquence, Alex. I have learned much from your piece.

    I lived in Denmark for a number of years and the Danes are truly scathing of our penal system (as well they might).

    The Danes (right or wrong) believe that a three week term, for a first offence and for all but the most dangerous offenders is sufficient.

    As I am led to believe, the howling, banging and sobbing and general outrage and consternation in that time frame is so disorientating it is hard to become accustomed to. And that is the whole idea.

    Don't get used to it. Make it uncomfortable and make it memorable and cut it short before people (somehow) learn to make the internal adjustments required to survive, if called to for any longer than the three weeks.

    Denmark does of course have real bad guys too - they get long sentences. But (and the fourth estate does seem to have free access to prisoners) all are treated first as people and second as prisoners - an important distinction.

    The Danish system is fit for the 21st century - why is ours still stuck in the 19th?

    1. Thank you for your very interesting comments and contribution to the discussion. Even before I ended up in prison myself, I wondered why Britain didn't take more from best prison practice in other Western European countries, particularly the Scandinavian models. If short sentences for first time offenders, weekend detention and intensive supervision in the community rather than custodial terms work so well there, why on earth don't we in the UK follow suit?

      I think you are quite right when you highlight the British obsession with 19th century penology. I was reminded of this when I read the case of a couple of daft lads who killed someone else's pet rabbit. It was a horrible thing to do - I'm an animal lover myself who supports the Dogs Trust - but given that rabbits are killed (hopefully humanely) and eaten for food everyday, it was hardly worthy of a prison sentence.

      Rightly, in my view, the magistrate handed down community penalties and fines. However, the local media in the North East has now launched a campaign for prison sentences... evidence of our completely pointless obsession with banging people up, especially for very short sentences. Yet this Victorian stupidity rolls on year after year, failing to deliver rehabilitation as it goes!

    2. A few years ago, I shot a wild rabbit as part of a cull on my cousin's farm. I was supervised of course and was given instructions how to hold the weapon and where to place the crosshairs.Thankfully the bunny didnt suffer...

    3. Thanks for your comment. While I obviously don't approve of any kind of animal cruelty, since I'm not a vegetarian, it would be hypocritical of me to condemn those who kill meat for us to eat. Hopefullly, as you point out above, it can be done in a humane fashion.

      In the case I refer to above, I think a custodial sentence would have been completely inappropriate. I would prefer to see some restorative justice - maybe arranging for them to meet the pet rabbit's young owner to see just how distressed see was, to have to pay for a replacement pet of her choice and maybe to then have to put in so many hours of voluntary work at a local animal shelter learning more about animals and their care in a practical way. This I think would be far more effective in reducing reoffending than banging these stupid lads up for a couple of weeks at the taxpayers' expense..

  7. What do you know about Black Eagle?

    1. Thanks for your question. Is that a Russian prison camp? That's the only thing I can recall in a prison context. If so, then not much I'm afraid, beyond something I read online a while ago.

    2. How right you are. There was an article about the place in the Sunday Times

    3. Ah. That would be it! At first I thought it might be a new brand of Black Mamba drug... then I remembered reading something online a while ago about the Russian prison camps.

  8. please could any one hep me i have been writing to the Governor at Onley in regards to my son whom is hundreds of miles away as his son has become very unwell and is but just 7 years old , we have tried everything possible for someone to listen as to trying to have him transfered closer to home but i cannot get any replies from all the correspondence that i send along with medical letters, is there anything else that i can do to help this situation we are at our witts end with knowing where to turn next as i seem to have exhausted all avenues with correspondence to the prison, any help or advice would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Thanks for your comment and questions. I'm very sorry to hear of your grandson's condition and I do hope he makes a full recovery. It's at times like these that having a family member in prison can be so difficult and frustrating.

      I think that the main problem when families try to engage with prison management about operational issues - such as transfers - they are constrained in communicating with outsiders because of confidentiality issues. If your son is at Onley then he must be an adult prisoner and the Service may not be able to respond about his situation for reasons of privacy.

      My suggestion is that your son explores three issues: accumulated visits (if he isn't having visits regularly). This means that he might be able to get a temporary transfer to an establishment nearer home so he can have a number of visits. He will need to stress the urgency of his son's health problems and he might be able to get moved, at least temporarily. Sometimes, these moves can be made more permanent, but it depends on category and spaces.

      The second issue to explore is that if the little boy can't travel, your son might be able to request Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) on compassionate grounds so he can visit your grandson. This would probably only be granted if he is in a hospital and the doctors are warning of a grave risk to his life. It would also depend on your son's security classification (A-cats aren't usually eligible and B-cats will face an uphill struggle) and disciplinary record while in prison.

      The third option is for him to engage with his outside probation officer (offender manager) and his inside supervisor and enlist their support for a transfer nearer home on compassionate grounds. He will also need to get support from his personal officer and he will need copies of medical reports to back this up.

      Getting a transfer on compassionate grounds can be done, but it may take time. Your son could also put in an application to the Governor himself and make his case based on his son's health. I really wish you all the best with this process. Let me know if you need any further advice.

  9. Thanks for the post and the blog in general. It's been an eye opener and I'll continue to recommend it to others.

  10. Is the Orderly Officer/Custody Manager a Governor Grade?