Open letters to Britain
Unless you have worked or visited a prison before, it’s hard to understand what working within the establishment is like. Instead, your opinions and views are formed by headlines, articles and programmes. It’s true that there are challenges, but the daily reality is probably very different from what you think. Which is why members of the current Senior Leadership Scheme wanted to take the opportunity to share their side of the story.
The letters in full
The three questions I, as a 30 something year old woman, get asked most when I tell people I work in the prison service;
Them; ‘Oh, a women’s prison?’
Me: ‘no, I work with the adult male population’
Me: ‘no, I’m a governor’
But isn’t prison too soft now?
And this is where I become incapable of staying in small talk territory, because I am passionate about the opportunity my career affords me to change people’s lives, and I want you to understand why.
It sounds very grand, doesn’t it? The sort of overly optimistic, dreamy rhetoric that gets spun by people who haven’t had to deal with the nitty gritty chaos of criminality. The news is delivered to us on so many different platforms these days and it’s so easy to read a story and believe you hold a really informed opinion. But we’re a pretty hidden organisation and it’s time you hear it from me, someone actually doing the job.
Quite often the people in our care have done some truly terrible things. They have wounded people, hurt families, ruined lives. For many, 10, 15 or 30 previous prison sentences before have done nothing to change this behaviour. And many of them, at this moment in time, really couldn’t care less about that. They continue to be angry, suspicious, aggressive, rude, addicted, entitled and violent long after they arrive with us. Then there are those who are just desperate not to live like this anymore, desperate to be better people, but have no idea how to make this a reality. At some point, and it might be next month, or in five years, those people will be ready to change their behaviours and we need to be there to catch them when they are.
I think it comes down to this: the vast majority of people in prison will leave one day, and rejoin our communities, so we must ask ourselves, ‘what do we want these people to be like when they leave?’. Surely we have a responsibility to do everything we can to break bad associations, negative thought patterns and destructive cycles of behaviour?
It is certainly not easy, to keep coming back, keep thinking of new ways to deal with age old problems, keep motivating and pushing your staff – but it is so very satisfying, when inch by inch, you see new seeds being planted, and opportunities open up. It’s not for everyone, but if it sounds like it’s for you, then think about joining me as a senior leader.
Having worked for the Probation Service with men on release I would often get frustrated about how poorly I felt men were prepared for life back in the community. I used to question how difficult could it be to rehabilitate men when they’re quite literally a captive audience.
I’d seen news articles in the papers and online about prisons. I’d seen reports on the news about the Prison Service being in crisis because of levels of violence, drugs, drones and poor staffing levels.
Over the years I’d visited prisons to see men prior to release and what I’d experienced never quite reflected what I’d read and seen in the media. My experiences had been broadly positive and I’d observed staff and prisoners interacting in a relaxed and friendly way the vast majority of the time.
Then I had the opportunity to apply to be a future leader of the Prison Service. It came at the right time for me and I felt strongly that I should put my money where my mouth was and try and be the change that I wanted to see.
I think having what I call an ‘external lense’ on the Prison Service can be a hugely helpful thing. Alongside those with valuable experience within the Service, I think it can help staff to consider things differently and not just do something because that’s how it’s always been done. I think it can be helpful for both parties to have this perspective.
I’m under no illusion that it’s ever going to be an easy job, but the reward, when you can see someone’s behaviour improving, their attitude changing and know that this will translate into a safer society when they’re released is amazing.
I, like many of you are now I am sure, was craving a change of direction. Frustrated in my previous role and needing to feel my work had value and that I was truly making a difference. I also wanted to progress and to see that there was a clear route for me to do so.
I read about a direct entry fast track scheme for senior leaders in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service… yes you have read correctly, working in prisons! I had management experience, I had dealt with difficult situations and I believe in second chances… so why not?
What I have realised is that I deal with challenging individuals daily and these aren’t always the prisoners in my establishment. Morale can be just as low amongst friends and staff as with prisoners. I find the time tables I plan can be re – written for me as soon as my days begin due to critical situations and ever changing need. This has tested my resilience but strengthened my resolve. Challenging conversations with colleagues have led me to question their motives to be a part of the challenge I face but confirmed my own.
Being a role model to people who consistently break promises to you and to themselves isn’t easy but the satisfaction I feel and share with my peers when even just one person makes a lifestyle change and truly rehabilitates is like nothing I have ever experienced before. Don’t get me wrong it is far from a perfect system and not all the people imprisoned have a desire to change or address their offending right now. That poses a different set of challenges and sometimes I must accept that I can’t make positive change. Instead I try to ensure that the good order of the establishment is not disrupted by those that don’t want the help on offer.
The investment in me is unique and the support from not only the scheme that recruited me but from the fantastic people here that are as up for the challenge as I am is great.
If, like me, you are looking for a challenge, you can stay strong in the face of adversity and you want to be proud of your achievements… then don’t just read this letter… follow in my footsteps and join the next cohort of future prison leaders.