Monday, 20 October 2014

Chris Grayling: Cooking Up a Prison Crisis

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I refer in many posts to the ongoing crisis in our prisons. In my view this is attributable to three key factors: substantial budget reductions, serious overcrowding in many establishments and shortages of frontline staff. This sad state of affairs is, of course, denied by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). They prefer to use the weasel word ‘challenging’ and pretend that all is well in our nicks. 

Now add a dash of moral panic
Whichever way you choose to look at the problem, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny the facts. We have too many people in prison (many of them non-violent offenders or unconvicted people held on remand) and too few staff to manage them. This dangerous combination of factors is creating a highly toxic mix.

I must admit that I rather like my cooking metaphor, so let’s examine how you set about creating a prison crisis using Chris Grayling’s experimental recipe for disaster. Forget Gordon Ramsay’s cooking Behind Bars, this is more a case of Heston Blumenthal’s worst – and potentially most explosive – nightmares, combining various volatile and dangerous elements.  

HMP Shepton Mallet: closed 2013
The first ingredient has to be to have more prisoners than the existing system can reasonably cope with. This can be achieved in various ways, but closing a significant number of public-sector prisons without making any provision for a rising prison population is always a good start. Shutting down a prison is much easier than opening a new one, so once they’re gone, they’re usually gone forever. 

You can also create loads of new populist, knee-jerk criminal offences that carry custodial sentences, but don’t forget to make sure that Legal Aid is almost impossible for many defendants to get. These measures can be relied on to raise the prison population to historically high levels and will significantly aid the overcrowding you need to ensure the success of your prison crisis.

HMP Ford on fire in 2012
Next, make sure that your main ingredients are well stirred-up and highly volatile before you really get going. Raise the temperature by cramming two, three or even four prisoners – often very temperamental or disturbed individuals – into a tiny cell space designed by our Victorian ancestors for just one convict. Then bang up the cell doors for 23 hours per day, cancel activities, work and education because of chronic staff shortages and allow the mixture of resentment and misery to simmer until serious violence or an epidemic of self-harm bubbles to the top. (Warning: there could be explosions of anger and people could be injured or even killed).

If you can also reduce the availability of any form of mental healthcare or treatment for addictions to negligible levels, then this should also help in destabilising a large number of individual cons. Even if they aren’t driven to self-harm or suicide, then they could turn violent against others, including prison staff, thus raising the temperature even further.

The next key ingredient in making your prison crisis is to slash operational budgets and encourage large numbers of experienced staff to take early retirement or redundancy. This may reduce expenditure in one budget line, but don’t forget that provision will need to be made for bussing staff in from other regions and putting them up in hotels at a cost of £500 per week. Mrs Beaton would certainly not have approved this profligate waste of public money, but she’s not the Secretary of State for Justice, is she?

Prison wing after a major riot
Just as reducing is an important part of cooking, if you want to achieve a real prison crisis then reducing your frontline staff is always a vital ingredient in the mix. Personnel cuts have left prisons in England and Wales dangerously under-staffed. According to the latest report prepared by the Howard League for Penal Reform, using the MOJ’s own figures, the number of prison officers at public-sector prisons has been cut by 41 percent in under four years (see here). 

These statistics reveal that there were just 14,170 officer grades at the end of June 2014, compared to more than 24,000 at the end of August 2010. According to the report, a total of 1,375 frontline staff posts went as a result of the closure of 15 public-sector prisons. However, if you are going to make a real humdinger of a prison crisis that will by talked about for years, then these are the sort of reductions that will be essential. Remember, crushing staff morale is absolutely essential in your prison crisis recipe. 

Prisoners on roof during a riot
When you have your overcrowded, highly volatile cons on one side and your demoralised, understaffed screws on the other, the next phase is to mix the two together and stir vigorously. A great way to get cons to kick off is to introduce a revised and politically-motivated Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system that even most prison governors reckon is unfair and undermines respect. Confiscating a con’s personal possessions that they have saved up for over many months or even years is a really great way to ratchet up the tensions.

It always helps if you throw in a good measure of drugs (legal and illegal), improvised weapons and mobile phones. Also, there’s nothing like a generous dash of potent prison-brewed hooch to get a really good riot (sorry, ‘localised disturbance’) going a treat.

Screw the lid down and wait
Not all of your cons will initially want to get mixed into a prison riot, but you should ensure that even those who aren’t normally badly behaved are softened up by some long periods of bang-up in their cells, added to regular cancelling of activities, exercise, work, library visits and education. For a really big bang, an inventive chef can always cancel prisoners’ family visits without notice on the actual day, leaving their loved ones angry and disappointed. That rarely fails to set off an impressive chain-reaction of anger, resentment and hatred.

Once the vast majority of the cons in the toxic mixture are completely disaffected and rebellious, then you know that you will be well on the way to achieving your prison crisis. Screw down the lid on your pressure cooker environment and sit back until the inevitable explosion occurs and blood has been shed. Then be sure to look astounded, deny that anyone ever warned you, blame everyone but yourself and, above all, make sure that you leave someone else to clean up the mess. 

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Scariest Prisoner? An Innocent One

The media has recently carried a rising number of stories of people who have been released from prison after serving very long sentences before they have been exonerated and finally set free. Most of the latest reported cases have been from the USA, where very serious miscarriages of justice do seem to be a fairly regular occurrence.

US justice on trial
In the past week alone we have had a man from Brooklyn released after serving 29 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit; a woman from California freed after 17 years when her murder conviction was quashed and a man in Texas freed after spending nine years inside, four of those confined on Death Row waiting to be put to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Of course, as I’ve highlighted in a previous blog post – Guilty Until Proven Innocent – the British justice system has its own shameful roll call of scandalous miscarriages of justice. 

I think that it is very difficult for most people who are unacquainted with the legal system to realise just how easy it is to fall victim to wrongful convictions, especially since the Criminal Justice Acts (1991 and 2003) changed the ancient Common Law provisions for disclosure of all evidence to the defence. Previously, all evidence gathered during a criminal investigation had to be handed over for the defendant’s legal team to inspect. Now, it is up to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to make the decisions on what should be disclosed and what should be withheld and – as some of the worst miscarriages of justice have demonstrated – critical evidence that could help establish a defendant’s innocence before a jury is sometimes not made available.

"And how does the defendant plead?"
What is just as concerning is that, in many cases, the investigating police officers – who are supposed to carry out an impartial investigation – only opt to interview witnesses that they believe will help them secure a conviction. Against this background, how can people who are facing false allegations, or even cases of genuinely mistaken identification, hope to defend themselves, particularly in a era of swingeing cuts to Legal Aid? Following some of these trials can be like watching a train crash in slow motion. Many defendants are now fighting these cases with both hands tied behind their backs.

Ayn Rand: she warned us all
Indeed, almost every day the intention to create some new criminal offence is proclaimed by the government. Perhaps the American-Russian novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was right when she wrote that: “There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.” Sometimes it can certainly seem like that here in the UK.

Our ‘justice system’ – like that in the US – seems to have lost sight of some very important principles, including a person being innocent until proven guilty. As Voltaire put it so succinctly: “It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.” 

A fair few of those whom I’ve met in jail I genuinely believe are innocent men, failed by the legal system including lazy and unprofessional defence lawyers, as well as dodgy police investigations and the withholding of vital evidence. That, of course is of very little comfort to the wrongfully convicted or their families as the newly convicted or sentenced defendant is led off from the dock to be handcuffed before making the journey to the local Cat-B nick in a prison transport van.

Transports the guilty and the innocent
It can be painful to see the bewilderment of the truly innocent as they arrive in prisons to be stripped, photographed, given numbers and processed into new cons. No matter how humane Reception screws try to be, going into prison is often a deeply humiliating and dehumanising experience. Imagine having to go through all of that when you are entirely innocent.

Some of the newly convicted are in such deep shock at what is happening to them that they almost shut down mentally as a coping mechanism. For others, it seems like a very vivid nightmare from which they hope they will soon wake. They don’t and that first night inside the slammer – with all the noise, shouting, screams and banging of doors – can be a deeply traumatic experience for some. It’s unsurprising that many suicide attempts and much self-harm occurs in these early days in custody. As an Insider (peer mentor) I spent a lot of time with some very distressed men just in from court.

Moreover, it doesn’t just stop with the banging shut of a cell door behind you. A decision to fight a wrongful conviction can have a profound impact on daily life in prison. Not least because of the fact that our prisons, by their very nature, are primarily set up to deal with people who have been convicted of crimes that they have committed. Protestations of innocence just don’t cut it with Offender Managers (outside probation officers) or Offenders Supervisors (prison probation staff). They state that the prison system must respect the verdict of the jury and proceed accordingly.

In theory at least, while cons are on appeal against conviction they shouldn’t be put under pressure to confess to crimes they steadfastly maintain they didn’t commit. Offender Management Units (OMU) in prison aren’t supposed to try to bully appellants to do offence-related offending behaviour courses, mainly because these almost always require an initial admission of guilt and an analysis of the offence(s) as part of the programme. Obviously, an admission of any kind risks derailing the appeals process and potentially undermines protestations of innocence.

Outside the Court of Appeal
I’m always struck when I read media accounts of the wrongfully convicted having their convictions quashed that there is usually the obligatory observation that “he (or she) has always maintained their innocence”. Well, of course. Had they made any kind of ‘confession’ to a member of the prison staff, you can bet that would have been rolled out in a prosecution statement to the Court of Appeal and that, as they say, would have been that.

As I’ve explained in previous blog posts, the issue of maintaining innocence in prison can be a truly horrendous ordeal. Not only is there often unrelenting bullying from staff to ‘accept responsibility’ – difficult if you genuinely are the victim of a miscarriage of justice – but this can also have a devastating impact on quality of life inside the nick, especially since 1 November 2013 when the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system was imposed throughout the prison system in England and Wales by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.

Readers' letters reveal their misery
This new Prison Service Instruction (PSI 30/2013) has mainly been criticised by prison reform campaigners (and prison governors) because the new rules mean that even though an inmate is a model prisoner in all other respects, he must still face the prospect of being demoted to the highly punitive Basic level within the IEP system, for no other reason than he is determined to maintain innocence. In recent months, newspapers aimed mainly at the prison population, such as Inside Time, publish regular letters from readers who are now on the Basic regime solely because they refuse to confess to a crime (or crimes) that they resolutely maintain they did not commit. 

Of course, for prisoners who are serving life sentences or who are still on Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) – a penalty abolished back in 2012, but which continues to apply to anyone already sentenced – then a determination to make a stand can, quite literally, cost them the rest of their lives, regardless of whatever minimum tariff has been handed down in court. Being ‘in denial’ of an offence when you are serving an indeterminate sentence is almost always a barrier to being recommended for parole by the Parole Board, despite rather feeble protestations by the Board to the contrary. I think it’s probably fair to say that you’d be able to count the number of lifers freed on parole when they are ‘in denial of murder’ (IDOM) over the past 20 years on one hand.  

Grayling: gratuitous cruelty
When these people maintain their innocence despite coming under incredible pressure to make false confessions of guilt to win parole or to keep their Enhanced – or even Standard level – privileges, then they have my admiration. When you see a fellow human being stripped of absolutely everything that has any real meaning to him before being locked into a bare cell, in effective solitary confinement with deprivation of any supportive human contact, for no other reason that he dares to continue protesting his innocence, then he has won my respect and admiration. 

This sort of treatment may not be physical brutality in the same way as, say, being waterboarded or having your fingernails torn out, but it is a slower form of torture. In my opinion it is difficult to overstate the mental anguish, and often mental health problems, that can result from long-term solitary confinement.  

Anyone who is going down that path of passive resistance needs to be extremely strong willed and determined, even when they are vulnerable and almost entirely powerless. I’m reminded of a line from a book about the Russian writer and dissident – and ex-con – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It’s actually a quotation from the French writer and politician André Malraux: “The sight of a man saying no with his bare hands is one of the things that most mysteriously and profoundly stirs the hearts of men.” 

Malraux is quite right about this. I’ve seen it among some of my fellow cons who refuse to be broken by Grayling’s inhumane and punitive IEP system and who will not compromise over their determination to maintain their innocence and, maybe one day, to stand on the pavement outside the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court having finally cleared their names. I wish them every success. 

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Friend… Prison Friend!

Anyone who has seen the British TV comedy The Inbetweeners will no doubt recall the scene in which the other lads tease Jay over his newly introduced friend from West Ham Football Club: “Oh friend… Football friend!” Predictably, the joke doesn’t end well and eventually Jay loses it completely, trashing his football friend’s parked car. Ouch!

Jay: "Friend... Football Friend!"
I was reminded of this comedy gold when I read a recent blog post by serving prisoner Adam Mac entitled Pen Pals. Now when I first saw the title of his post I imagined that he would be writing about people who write to cons, a topic I’ve also blogged on (see here). However, the subject on Adam’s Blogging Behind Bars post about was actually much more to do with the odd social relationships that often develop in prison between prisoners.

The term ‘pen pal’ – which I’ve not heard used in jails in this context before reading Adam’s post – is said to come from the US prison system and is actually slang for ‘penitentiary pal’. Like much of what passes as inmate culture in British nicks – including saggy jogging bottoms that show way too much underwear – this seems to have been adopted by cons over here, at least in some prisons.

Adam Mac's excellent blog
I’ll let Adam explain for himself the precise meaning:

‘Pen Pals’ are those people who, in prison, you consider to be good mates, but who, if you’re honest, you wouldn’t associate with at all on the outside. Not necessarily because you think bad of them at all, but just because you are from different worlds altogether.

How right he is – as usual. I think Adam is a keen and acute observer of prison life and the fact that he continues to blog from inside the high security estate offers a rare and important window into his world.

The subject of ‘pen pals’ – or prison friends – is one on which I’ve touched before in my previous blog post entitled Homosociality: Why Prison Mates Matter. However, although I’ve referred occasionally to staying in touch with a few people I’d met inside, I’ve not really explored the issue of the social mixing that goes on every day in our prisons and it is an important topic when you are banged up on a wing with hundreds of other blokes, all of whom are usually complete strangers.

You can meet people from all walks of life in the slammer and, as Adam points out, a fair proportion of those aren’t likely to be from the sort of circles of mates with whom you’d normally associate back in the community. That isn’t only about value judgements on the type of people they are or their lifestyles, but because in our everyday lives we tend to have fairly narrow friendship groups which are either based on extended family relationships or people we’ve met through the years in our education system, at work or through shared interests such as sport or hobbies.

Adult male friendships: well defined
By the time we reach mature adulthood, our social circles are often pretty well-defined and it can be hard to introduce a new face into well-established groups (no matter what Facebook and other social media would have us believe). Of course, it can and does happen, but it’s probably rarer than most people would think.

One of the most important things about both family relationships and well-established social friendships is shared history. Relationships are built over time and involve common experiences and memories – good and bad – and these provide topics for the often mundane conversations that are the glue that hold these social relationship together. That’s why it can be so challenging for a newcomer to break into long-established friendship groups. Maybe that’s why the “football friend” scene in the Inbetweeners hit the target so precisely.

In contrast, prison is all about disrupting family relationships and social ties. There is the enforced separation, the high walls, the barriers to communication (travel costs for visits, expensive wing payphones, no internet access, having to buy stamps etc) and this can lead to the long loneliness of life inside the nick. Even when you are surrounded by fellow cons on the wing landing, you can feel completely isolated and alone in an alien environment.

Prison: an alien environment
People cope with being in prison in different ways. Some retreat into themselves and become – as far as they can – distant from other inmates, often banging themselves up in their cells and not speaking much or associating on the wings. Others do mix, but remain very wary and defensive, seeing the other men around them as potentially hostile and threatening (which some may well be). However, in my experience it is possible to make good, solid friendships with other cons – even those you’d never think of associating with on the out.

To be honest, my social and professional circle prior to getting sent down did not include – to my knowledge – any armed robbers, drug smugglers or murderers. If it did then they haven’t yet been caught! I suppose my ‘known criminal associates’ were limited to one mate who got done for drunk and disorderly on a London bridge and received a fine, and another friend who was caught embezzling over a million quid from his employers some years ago and who ended up with a fairly lengthy stretch, mostly spent playing chess at HMP Ford, an open nick. I did actually write to him occasionally while he was inside and we’re still in touch now, 15 years on.

Of course, I’m sure plenty of my casual acquaintances or work colleagues are concealing motoring offences or youthful indiscretions – usually involving recreational drugs or alcohol in some form – but I think you get the general picture. Prior to prison, I really didn’t know any real villains (although I did once get to meet the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in a professional capacity, but that’s a story for another time).

Armed robbery
Now, a couple of my mates are former armed robbers. I also correspond with the occasional murderer or retired drug smuggler and I know the odd struck-off solicitor, sticky-fingered accountant or ex-bank manager. They are a part of my social circle and I genuinely like them. Having served time together we have shared history and a wide network of acquaintances in common, all related to our time in the nick. However, I can state pretty certainly that had I not been sent down, I would never have met any of these blokes, not least because we are all from different towns or cities.

Our relationships obviously aren’t as close as – say – people I’ve known since school or university, but then those friendships have already stood the test of time over decades. Would I have them round to my house? Yes, even the ex-armed blaggers or one or two of the killers I’ve met and got to know and like. Naturally. It helps that we are all pretty well-educated and articulate. I suppose we are also ‘people people’ if that makes sense. We enjoy good company and lively discussion, which is probably why we were drawn to spend time with each other in jail.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from my time in prison is that snap judgements about others can often be wide of the mark. People commit crimes for a wide range of often very complex reasons. Some have made terrible decisions, others awful mistakes – often leading to horrendous consequences for others, as well as for their own families. That, in itself, does not make them inherently evil, although it must be stated that prisons are full of some extremely dangerous and disturbed individuals. I doubt I’d really want to invite some of them back home.

So, it is true. I do have some ‘prison friends’ and their friendship remains important to me even though I’ve been out for some months. A few are still inside serving life or other indeterminate sentences or else very long stretches. Whether we’ll still be in touch ten years down the road is impossible to say, but I hope so. In their own ways, each of them played an important part in me getting through my years in the slammer relatively unscathed, both mentally and physically. Thank you, lads – you know who are are!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A Failure to Communicate...

Call it a happy – or unhappy – coincidence, but when I posted my previous thoughts and reflections on prison governors, I wasn’t aware that their professional body, the Prison Governors Association (PGA), was about to hold its 27th annual conference in Buxton. The event kicked off yesterday, however, it is clear from the comments emerging on social media that the situation in our prisons is very grim, confirming much of my own analysis.

Prison governors: "prisons in crisis"
This open criticism of the present state of affairs will not go down well in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) or with the increasingly embattled Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, for whom each new day seems to bring tidings of fresh disasters within the prison system. However, I think we can all be confident that ‘Comical Ali’ Chris will remain in his blissful state of denial about the crisis, even if one nick or another is finally engulfed in the flames of violent riot, with the risk of loss of life and limb.

I think that it is well worth reviewing a few of the highlights of the PGA conference so far. According to the PGA’s official Twitter summary of the opening speech made by PGA President Eoin McLennan-Murray, “Governors are worn down and tired - days not long enough to achieve what we want.” He went on to highlight the negative impact that this is having on staff morale.

Mr McLennan-Murray criticised some governors for being “satisfied with average inspection outcomes” following HM Inspectorate of Prisons reports. He went on to tell PGA members that the Prison Service is “chronically short of staff” – something that everyone in the prison system, as well as every reader of this blog, will be only too aware. 

NOMS: fit for purpose?
He observed that the service had “let too many staff leave” – a pointed comment no doubt directed at the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – and that this has now led to the bizarre situation that “staff from [the] North [are] working in [the] South at a cost of £500 per week”.

He then went on highlight the “risks to decency”, pointing to “higher assaults… a large increase in serious incidents [and a] significant rise in self inflicted deaths.” Even more ominously, Mr McLennan-Murray warned that “prisons are moving to a state of instability” and posed the very relevant question: “How can a system in this state effectively reduce reoffending?” It’s a very good question and one which such concern us all.

According to the PGA President, “Prisons are struggling to deliver safe and effective regimes. This risks legitimacy, increases levels of ‘pain’”. He added that the PGA has been “criticised for referring to the current position in prisons as a ‘perfect storm’ when it is clear prisons are in crisis.”

Captain: "a failure to communicate"
If I may quote from the 1967 cult prison movie – Cool Hand Luke – it seems that “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate”, ironically words spoken by the Captain (warden) of the prison in which young con Luke (Paul Newman) finds himself serving his sentence. It seems that the President of the PGA should be addressing these famous words to Mr Grayling and to Mike Spurr, his faithful sidekick at the top of NOMS. 

This is not the first time Mr McLennan-Murray has directed pointed words at ideologically-motivated policies handed down by ‘Crisis’ Chris, particularly the highly controversial revision of the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system that was introduced on 1 November 2013 in Prison Service Instruction (PSI) 30/2013. This imposed a ban on prisoners receiving parcels, including books and clean clothing, from their families and friends, as well as forcing many more cons onto the highly punitive Basic regime – effective solitary confinement with no privileges, including no rented TV set or personal belongings.

At that time, Mr McLennan-Murray raised the important issue of running prisons with a degree of consent: “In order to run a safe, decent prison it is vital to have the co-operation of the majority of prisoners," he observed, adding that “this relationship is underpinned by staff having legitimacy in the eyes of prisoners and this is dependent on trust and transparency in decision making. Some of the recent changes to the IEP system have undermined this trust and threaten the legitimacy of decisions made by staff.”

'Crisis' Chris: not listening - as usual
He also warned that “if this is allowed to continue unchecked then a tipping point may be reached whereby prisons are more likely to become unstable than stable. We are already seeing the early signs of this with rising levels of assaults, reportable incidents and a disturbing rise in self inflicted deaths.” Similar concerns have recently been raised by both HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman. 

I’d say that this stark analysis of the serious crisis in our prisons couldn’t really make the situation any clearer, if only Mr Grayling and his minions would be prepared to listen to the voice of reason – and experience. Unfortunately, it seems that he really isn’t willing to take on board what his own senior prison managers are telling him. At least he won’t be able to claim that no-one told him when the proverbial eventually hits the fan, because just about everybody did.

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.