Reform, in Name Only
Bill Hartley returns to prison
Along with other departments, the Ministry of Justice was required by the coalition government to undertake budget cuts. Prisons were particularly hard hit and according to the Prison Governors Association there are now 7000 fewer officers than in 2010. Some prisons were closed. In keeping with the tradition of care and consideration shown to employees by headquarters, governors of the affected prisons were given ample notice to brief their staff. Half an hour after a telephone call in one case.
Another method used was to merge some prisons which lay in close proximity to each other; hence there are interesting new names on the list of jails, ‘Northumberland’ and ‘Humber’ for example. These mergers have certainly produced an economy of scale in admin departments and the like, though running such places must be awkward: the governor having to go out of one jail to enter another then manage a new set of operating problems, even though as far as headquarters is concerned it’s the same jail.
More recently the Service has experienced another metamorphosis. Gone is the unloved and unlamented National Offender Management Service, meant to ‘seamlessly’ bring together prison and probation. Belatedly, headquarters figured out that there was going to be little loyalty towards something called NOMS. Now it is called HM Prison and Probation Service. Those poor folks in probation were always going to be the junior partners in this enterprise and they have suffered organisationally. First they were effectively nationalised, being taken out of local authority control. Then merged with the Prison Service, then disastrously privatised and now they are back in the fold as part of HMPPS.
At headquarters, there have been reorganisations a plenty and a few years ago it too was required to share some of the pain of austerity. With that in mind, it was combed through to dislodge some of the operational governor grades who had been working there, in order to get them back in the field. One governor, beached at headquarters when her jail was merged, was given the job of culling others of her kind. People who hadn’t seen the inside of a jail in years were led blinking into the daylight and given a set of keys.
So they have gone from HM Prison Service to NOMS to HMPPS in a few years with the partner service, probation, getting the biggest mangling along the way: local/ national/ privatised/national. Little wonder then that HMPPS presides over a workforce which believes that it is poorly led. At one time senior staff were known by name and often by sight. This was because they periodically visited jails and listened to the concerns of the people who actually did the job. Some of these individuals were patient listeners who often had to endure everything from the eccentric to the downright bonkers. It was, though, a price worth paying to maintain connectivity. This dialogue effectively ceased in the early part of the century. Assuming the culture of tolerant listening still existed, a prison officer gave vent to his feelings at a meeting with the then director general and was transferred for his trouble. Word of this shot around the Service and dissent was rapidly stifled. Still, at least that particular DG troubled to get around his fiefdom. It hasn’t happened much since.
Tom Wolfe, in A Man in Full, describes an annual contest among officials in the debt recovery department of a bank to find the most baffling organisational structure. Chai Long Shipping is described as being so complex as to resemble a bowl of linguini. Unfortunately, Wolfe never lived to see the latest version of HMPPS headquarters’ management structure. It runs to four pages and in none of them will you find mention of an actual prison. It resembles a layer cake full of exotic ingredients. What for example does the executive director responsible for ‘change, strategy and planning’ actually do? Is it allied to the work of the executive director responsible for the ‘transformation programme’?
Both the prison and probation services now each have a director general. In addition there’s a new kid on the block: a chief executive officer. Both report to her. This capo di tuti capi has no previous experience in criminal justice. It may be that she has ‘clean hands’ and has been appointed to counter criticism from probation staff that the Prison Service has been grabbing the top jobs. If so then the effect has been rather spoiled by the director general probation, being….a former prison governor.
Drilling down still further it’s interesting to see how a new name has provided lots of exciting jobs. Or rather the revival and expansion of old jobs under new titles. For example, there is an ‘executive director public sector prisons’, one for the north another for the south. These have history attached to them. Essentially it started with what used to be a director of operations. This was abolished. Then resurrected and divided into two. Then abolished and has now returned Lazarus like but under a new title.
There are fourteen privately run prisons and the taxpayer will doubtless be reassured to know that these are being well looked after. At one time they had their own area manager. Then responsibility was shared among the geographical area managers. Now there are three ‘senior contracts manager private sector prisons’, reporting to an ‘executive director custodial contracts’. Not mentioned on the chart are those actually doing the work; the ‘controllers’ at each prison, whose job it is to actually manage contract compliance.
High security prisons have for a long time been seen as different and consequently got their own director to reflect this. Now under HMPPS the executive director has acquired two deputies. This seems to have been achieved by inflating the title to include the words ‘long term’. It should be appreciated that every prisoner in a high security jail is by definitiona long termer. No-one doing six months for theft is likely to end up in one. To get this job inflation further into perspective; back in the 1980s all prisoners sentenced to more than five years in the North of England were moved to Liverpool. Here they were dealt with by a humble senior prison officer (about seven grades lower) working out of a converted cell.
There is also an executive director for Young Offenders. Somewhere over the horizon is the Youth Justice Board which commissions places for young people in custody. This director has no operational control over anything. Governors of Young Offender Institutions are appointed by and answer to a deputy director custody (see below). The only thing this executive director can actually do is try and convince the YJB that they are being taken seriously.
For anyone interested to discover who actually goes into prisons then it’s necessary to start the journey from an executive director, public sector prisons. Lurking below this individual is a list of names each with a geographical location attached. These are the deputy directors (custody): four tiers below the CEO and still no mention of prisons.
Clearly austerity at headquarters was a brief period of unpleasantness. Now under a new name it moves majestically onwards, reinventing itself and remaining remote from the core work which may be little more than an abstract concept. A prison might struggle to find someone to do a night shift but up at headquarters everything is serene, with an administrative retinue ‘supporting’ these key roles. Just for fun why not compare the HMPPS organisational chart with that for Operation Overlord? Of course, D day was only about liberating Europe.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service