Making sense of prison 6

Institutions are theatres of competition. This was nowhere more true than in Grendon prison in the 1980’s. I was fortunate in some ways that my instinctive reaction to highly competitive environments is to withdraw and this in the early days in this job reinforced the quietness to which I allude above.

The price to be paid was my discomfort and sense of worthlessness for a while but it saved me from going up some blind alleys (such as arguing over my office accommodation!).

There are in all prisons different power groups; governor grades, prison officer grades, education staff, psychology, industries, works managers etc. the nature of prison life means that there are always issues of competition between these groups. Building works disrupt the psychology programme and pose problems for security; the workshops compete with education for prisoner time etc.


Making sense of prison 5

The prison had other ways of making one feel small. The location of my office was a case in point – even from outside the institution, there was some awareness of the manoeuvring that would go on in prisons about who had what accommodation. Power structures were acted out or seemed to be acted out through issues such as the rooms you were allocated for an office. As in all such issues, of course, the
closer you were to the experience the more you saw that what appeared to be the dominant power structure was in fact some other process at work. So a favoured office space would be allocated to someone who plotted carefully to get it in order to bolster their position in the hierarchy of influence. The allocation would often in fact be a sop allocated to the individual instead of influence.

Nonetheless, when I arrived I found that I had been allocated an office

  • that no one else wanted,
  • that had been used to store papers from one of the unending management development initiatives that characterised the world of prison management,
  • that had no exterior windows except a small postage stamp of a window high up on one of the walls,
  • that was tiny and could not comfortably accommodate more than two people,
  • and that was located on its own where few would pass in the daily course of their work.

This was the institution making sure I knew my place.

Making sense of prison 4

Being new
My deployment to lead the probation teams in the two prisons felt therefore something like a prison sentence, one that I knew I had to do but that involved anxiety and sat under the shadow of feelings of loss for my field team.

As I have thought about the difficulty of this change, I realised that I was also having to deal with quite entrenched feelings about institutions. To me these were
environments in which I tended to feel powerless and afraid. Hospitals are places about which we tend to feel intense anxiety, and I had in my school days until the sixth form, always disliked schools. From a community setting in which I felt comfortable, valued and influential, I was entering an environment in which I
was low down the pecking order of influence, was an outsider and with skills that many did not recognise. Some people find these anxieties are associated with the keys and locked doors, but for me it was the noise, the banging doors and shouting prison officers.

The shouting prison officers aroused other anxieties about masculinity. They of course had their own anxieties about the potential violence locked away inside the incarcerated men that included murderers, rapists, and violent offenders, anxieties that asserting dominance helped to manage. In the face of them, however, I felt small and quiet and was suddenly hesitant about making my voice heard.

Making sense of Prison 3

This was all the more striking in that, despite the almost universal existence of policies that required staff to move around between specialist functions and generic field teams, the application of the policies was totally erratic. This did not only apply to prison work. Person A would be deployed to work at the Crown Courts. They would win the confidence of judges whilst being regarded with scepticism by the Probation staff and managers, and as a result, for a quiet life perhaps, or because
managers realised that person A would not function effectively in any other post, he or she would be left alone well beyond the timescales of any staff movement policies. Person B would be enthusiastic about prison work and develop a very critical view of field work in the community from what they saw in the prisons, and again they would be left alone to avoid having to move a reluctant field officer by direction into prison.

From time to time, a crisis would force managers to get the policy out, dust it down and try to apply it! Different Probation Services faced this problem to different degrees because the geographical location of prisons was very unevenly spread across the country. My own service, a small one, had to staff three prisons – this involved two senior officer posts alongside I think six other senior posts. In
these circumstances, we could all see that we would have to take our turn in prison.

There is no doubt that when you worked in a community based team, you thought of prisons as backwaters. All the key professional discussions related to work in the community and although there were some enthusiastic voices about prison work, they seemed to operate in a somewhat marginal part of the Service.

Such was the context when I was deployed to work at Grendon and Springhill Prisons. To this in my case, there were also the emotions involved in leaving behind my first team as a manager, a team that I had forged through some very painful and stressful early years to reach a point at which we all enjoyed working together. I was having to hand the leadership of my team over to a young officer who had recently been promoted but for whom I had little respect and who for a number of reasons
was disliked by many of my team.

Making sense of prison 2

There was also a hostility to management efforts to move staff around between responsibilities, a strategy that was officially thought to ensure staff did not get stale and burnt out by staying too long in one kind of work, and to ensure skills acquired in one setting would be extended to other areas of the Service’s activity. Many staff were hostile to being moved, as they saw it, for the convenience of management and argued that staff should be allowed and encouraged to develop advanced
expertise in an area of the work that most suited them.

Curiously, given that the Probation Service’s work was all geared to encouraging the criminal justice system to take an individualised approach to each offender in the light of their issues and needs, nobody seemed to advocate a similar approach in the deployment of staff across the Service’s responsibilities – this had to be a matter of policy that applied equally to all. Either everyone had to move around or no one did.

Making sense of prison 1

A traditional source of argument and resentment in the Probation Service was how to staff the prisons. This issue touched several nerves in the Service. So much energy was devoted by probation officers to keeping people out of prison and there was such a widespread belief that prisons were damaging environments for prisoners that prisons were to some extent demonised. This was obviously not a good basis for recruiting enthusiastic volunteers to work in them.

The concerns about the prison setting were institutionalised through a system of secondments to prisons – the Probation Service thought that prisons needed to have staff deployed who were not part of the line management of the prison, who would bring a degree of independence and detachment to the work, and who would only stay in the work for relatively short periods of time to avoid institutionalisation – or as some might have said, ‘going native’.


Unpaid work in the community 13

There is a certain sadness in looking back at missed opportunities and it may be that what I have described is much more truthful to reality than many a description of a sea change in service delivery. The idea behind this project has re-appeared from time to time but there remain some fundamental rigidities that limit what is possible:

Organisational boundaries are very difficult to move – there is always a retreat into safer isolation of functions. Over the past decade, where attention has been given to organisational boundaries in Criminal Justice it has been around the boundary between prisons and probation or between police and probation. The work and learning sectors have not seen any radical efforts to establish more flexible boundaries that would enable better alignment of skills and resources for the benefit of offenders.

Even where the most radical organisational change efforts have been made, (in the establishment of NOMs that brought prisons and probation into a single organisation,) the outcome cannot be argued to have significantly changed the problem of continuity of case management between community and prisons. In the educational sector, it has been well known for years that it is almost impossible to get offenders with poor educational and vocational attainments to attend the school=like environments of FE colleges. Only in basic skills provision has there been any real improvement in the alignment of teaching resources and the availability of students amongst the offender population.

The distinction between therapeutic / change focussed interventions and activity based work with offenders has remained, so that the notion of therapeutic effect through activities has been poorly explored. Where efforts were made in the 1980s and 1990s, they were often misplaced on the basis that you could reach offenders who appeared to offend partly for reasons of excitement by involving them in legitimate excitement such as outward bound type activity, or motor racing etc. The evidence however suggests that such efforts are worse than doing nothing – reoffending rates do not decline and may even get worse. Unpaid work has been completely separated out of the change oriented work of Probation so the development of truly joined up strategies to work with offenders through vocational and practical activity seems farther away than ever.

Some of the most interesting examples of such boundaries being re-worked have been developing amongst drug services and especially amongst recovery oriented, service user led organisations who have developed social enterprises or are building shared activities into their own working practice.

There may be sadnesses in looking back on a project of this kind but change and development require efforts of this kind. Too many people don’t try to make things happen and so never are disappointed and on this basis I remain proud of this work and think ‘fail again, fail better’ is its most suitable motto.