‘If I were governor?’: People in prison respond

“Be seen as a human, not just a suit and a set of keys.”

Earlier this year, we asked readers of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners, ‘What would you do if you were governor for the day?’ The responses that came back were fresh and thoughtful – sometimes critical of the system, and often sympathetic to the pressures of working and leading in this environment. Here are some of the main themes that came out.

A broader curriculum

“Education in prison is very important - it is the bedrock of rehabilitation,” wrote Adeolu. He’s one of many who said that, as governor, he would prioritise education.

For many, this includes learning at a higher-level with a broader subject choice. RH said he would encourage all residents to take a Social Science course, writing: “When I was studying for a GCSE in Sociology, I learnt more about society and how we can be led to using crime as a means to express ourselves. This gave me a totally new perspective on life.”

Nicholas was mindful that “budgets are not infinite”, and would spend time talking to learners to discover what courses were worthwhile, asking, “‘Is the course meaningful?’ ‘Is it having an impact?’ If not, scrap it for something better – be ruthless.”

Treated as equals

“Prisoners are people,” wrote Adeolu. “We are supporters, service users, residents and learners.” The need to treat people with basic respect and dignity was stressed by several would-be governors. Michael W wrote: “All I ask is to be given every opportunity I can to demonstrate that I have changed, be treated with respect and dignity at all times, be cared for physically, mentally and emotionally and to be given a chance to ‘give something back’ to a society I have so badly let down.”

Christy said promoting a respectful environment was a way of preventing unrest.

“When you come to prison you lose a lot of self-respect,” she wrote. “The stigma surrounding prison is well and truly instilled in you and your self-confidence is at an all time low. When you are being mentally battered down this breeds hate, and when you hate yourself the situation becomes volatile.”

A better place to work

Several people raised the need for better staff training, accountability and incentives, and called for better pay. Jen said all staff should be enrolled in yearly mental health training. “In some cases they are social workers with keys, mental health workers with uniforms and also policers of behaviour.”

Attendees at the Annual Lecture look at the prisoners' governor recommendations

Attendees at the PET Annual Lecture look at the prisoners' recommendations

 

Peer support

Many of those who wrote said they would put peer mentors at the front and centre of their prison, having seen first-hand their positive impact.

“I’ve taken Spanish classes, learnt guitar and been introduced to theories by highly motivated men I’ve shared landings with,” said Michael S. “These activity groups should be taken out of their cells and given visibility. Use access to them as the carrot that encourages good behaviour and let them act as an alternative to spice and hooch.”

Jen argues that every wing should have health advocates and mental health mentors, acting as ‘middle men’ who make assessments and help with appointments. Simply having individuals who are equipped to listen “could make the difference between life and death,” she said.

Listen, and be seen

“Prisoners should have a voice, a real voice,” wrote Michael S. “Not just take part in sporadic focus groups where they can then be sanctioned for speaking out.” He and others stressed the importance of governors getting to know their prison and prisoners, and truly listening to their views.

“The most important thing for a governor to do is to be visible,” wrote Christy. Positive attention from someone so senior could have a profound effect, she explains. “When a governor, someone who is in authority above all of those screws, shows you respect it changes your mindset,” she writes. “This sounds weird but they have a sort of celebrity status. So, when they speak to you it boosts your confidence.”

Given just one day, Nicholas says he would spend all his time out of the office, passing the day with the men in his care, from unlocking them in morning, to mealtimes, to lock up at night.

“Be seen as a human, not just a suit and a set of keys,” he urges. “Education may not be changed overnight, but by spending some time with the people living and working in your estate, you can get a real list of what needs fixing.

“If you keep that up you will, I promise, start to see the impact of any changes you will make. You’ll see the people you work with. You’ll know them. And that surely is the real change you need to make.”

Thanks to Adeolu, Christy, Gary, Jen, Michael (x2), Nicholas, Philip, RH and Richard for their replies. These were also shared at PET’s Annual Lecture in London on 4th June.