Thinking outside the box

“A prison is about people,” says Jim Heavens, governor of HMP Wandsworth in South London. “We don’t have a tangible product so we are about managing people – whether they are officers or prisoners.

“It can be quite difficult for me to disengage the management of both the prisoners and staff because you manage the prisoners through the staff. There is a close relationship between what they do and what happens to the prisoners,” he says.

With more than 1,400 prisoners and 700 personnel – roughly two-thirds officers and one-third administration, medical and works staff – the prison is a unique environment in which to work.

Heavens and head of HR, Anne Barry, are challenged with managing a discrete community. By its nature, the prison is cut off from the outside world, but staff must also work towards the integration of prisoners into that outside world.

As if that wasn’t challenging enough, Wandsworth is a local prison serving London. There’s a separate vulnerable prisoners unit, where prisoners may stay for two or three years, but the majority of prisoners are waiting to be sent on to other establishments, giving the building a turnover of around 70 prisoners a day.

In numerical terms, this is comparable to changing the entire population of the prison twice every month. This makes the creation of a stable and progressive regime complicated, as does the pressure on personnel resources available to the prison.

In recent years, recruitment of prison officers has been a concern throughout the service, with Wandsworth particularly suffering up until 12 months ago.

An inspector calls

The ultimate challenge comes with the regular inspection of the prison by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector. The results of an inspection carried out in May this year hit the headlines when it recorded a deterioration in the prison regime since an inspection 16 months previously.

“I was disappointed with the inspection,” admits Heavens. “Not because I thought it was necessarily wrong, but because I didn’t think it engaged with an organisation that was trying to change what we had done in the past year.”

Faced with staff shortages, the prison was hit by a number of crises, including one case of a prisoner setting his cell on fire that led to fallout in terms of staff sickness absence and poor staff morale.

“We managed to pick ourselves up from there. We hired new staff and the prison relaxed again,” says Heavens. “Prisoners were not locked up as much as they were and they had a more guaranteed regime. It felt a lot more comfortable than before, it was feeling more like a normal institution – even if it wasn’t completely right.

“That element wasn’t really acknowledged by the inspection so all the staff were surprised that having made that effort, there was no acknowledgement of the work they had done,” he adds.

To an extent, the challenge of making Wandsworth a success starts and finishes with recruitment. Insufficient staffing levels have a direct impact on the life of prisoners. The fewer officers on duty, the less activities the prisoners can engage in and the more often they will have to be locked up.

Recruitment is carried out centrally across all London prisons. This allows for efficiency and eliminates duplication of effort, while also preventing applicants from working their way around each separate establishment if the first prison they approach rejects them.

The regionally-based approach has enabled the London prisons to target an increasingly diverse applicant pool, attracting more women and people from ethnic minorities.

“We originally used a campaign in the local papers, which was quite effective,” says Heavens. “The current campaign seems less effective because we’re looking for people in the same places as before.”

As Barry points out, Wandsworth does have its own particular difficulties in attracting and retaining staff since it is a public service employer set in the middle of an affluent area of London. Officers can’t afford to live locally and may not wish to commute significant distances.

A number of excellent officers have left to join the police force and even to become train drivers – although there have been returnees who have found the prison offers greater flexibility and predictability within shift systems.

Staff turnover currently stands at around 12 per cent – a figure that is reasonable for most organisations, but worrying for the service. Historically, officers viewed their job as a lifetime vocation, with the result that staff turnover held at only 2 to 3 per cent. Moreover, the involved and time-consuming induction programme for new entrants means HR can never be simply switched on whenever staff numbers start to fall.

“Prison officers spend nine to 12 weeks in training,” says Barry. “And then spend a further three weeks at Wandsworth before being sent to work on one of the wings.”

Induction includes a physical fitness test, role-playing scenarios for assessment purposes and an extensive security check. Having completed this process, officers are then set to work on probation for a year.

“Every officer is given a massive task book with all of the information they need to take on board,” says Barry. “They’ll also meet with the deputy governor to ensure they’re going in the right direction.”

This process of task setting and review is ongoing throughout officers’ careers, although the first few months are certainly the most intensive. An informal mentoring scheme is also in operation. “It’s just someone more senior who they can discuss problems with,” says Barry. “We all get problems we’ve not experienced before, almost on a daily basis, so it’s someone with whom you can share those challenges.”

The promotion process

Promotion occurs through a straightforward process of working through the ranks to senior and principal officer, although there are initiatives within the service for fast tracking new and existing talent. Graduates and experienced officers can be identified and developed specifically for future governor and senior management roles.

The prison doesn’t encourage specialisation for prison officers, preferring to bring in skills and knowledge from disciplines such as psychiatry or education as and when required.

“We’re looking at giving the officers a range of experiences, rather than making them too specialised,” says Heavens. “I don’t know that we want people to be specialist at this level because we’re dealing with the general management of people.”

Officers with a good overall view of the service are more likely to be able to identify effective ways forward in the management of prisoners rather than trying to apply particular specialisms, which may not always be appropriate.

Heavens’ ideal for Wandsworth may be some distance away, but he is very clear on the kind of regime he – and the prison service in general – is trying to create. For many years, there has been a distinct move away from the containment of prisoners towards concentrating on the relationship between prisoners and officers. The move has dual benefits – enhancing security through trust and effective relationships, while enabling officers to play a positive role in resettling prisoners.

“There’s no quick fix on the issue,” says Heavens. “But there are behaviour management programmes and education initiatives that give prisoners skills for jobs. We can make sure they’ve got somewhere to live and that they maintain contact with their family while they’re with us. I don’t expect prison officers to do all that but I do think they have a role to motivate prisoners to go out and change.”

The service may be some way from creating and supporting that kind of prison officer, but the aim is both conceivable and achievable. A similar step change is required within race relations in the service. While the current situation is “not terrible by any measure”, as a more diverse staff is recruited to reflect a diverse prison population, the whole issue should be moved on a stage further.

There are a wide range of initiatives at Wandsworth to give prisoners the support and motivation they need to go back into society without re-offending. There’s a radio station established by an outside charity, which operates as an effective communication tool across the prison, as well as providing hands-on experience for prisoners taking courses in media studies. There are peer mentors, counselling and education services, sometimes delivered by prisoners for the good of prisoners.

Indeed, Heavens notes they have to be careful that the prison officers still retain an active role in the positive initiatives that take place in the prison.

“The danger is that if you do too many things where the prisoners do all the work with the other prisoners, the officers are left back in a policing role,” he says.

In some ways, everyone within the prison service works as an HR manager – identifying ways in which the prisoners can develop and realise their full potential. Perhaps it will be the realisation of this role that delivers job satisfaction and will finally act as an attraction and retention tool for new recruits.


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