Speech

Speech to the Prison Governors Association

Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah tells the PGA why prison governors are the right people to drive our reforms.

Sam Gyimah MP

It is a great privilege to be here with you today, face to face with some of this country’s most valued public officials.

When I think about the challenges you face every day and the responsibilities you shoulder, I’m always astounded at the job you do.

Well, I want to offer some reassurance to you – the members of the PGA, our partners in reform.

You have our full support as we enter the vital next stage of our prison and safety reform plans.

We are giving you extra staff where they are needed to improve safety.

We are giving you the tools to tackle the violence, the drugs, the drones, the phones.

We will give you more power to run your prisons as you see fit.

In return, we look to you for outstanding leadership and ambition - to create prisons that are a safe and decent place to live and work, to reform the lives of those under your charge.

Whether you are a governor, a deputy governor or governor grade, you should know that the Secretary of State and I are fully committed to this cause.

This government is going to take on the problems of Britain’s prisons and make them work as places of reform.

Make no mistake: it is entirely right that when people commit a serious criminal offence, the state responds by taking their liberty.

People are in prison for a reason. It is right that they are punished. The have committed a crime and they must pay a debt to society for their crimes. We must keep the public safe and protect the victims of crime Many people encounter terrible setbacks in life yet manage not to end up in prison; I am no apologist for those criminals who do.

At the same time we don’t want to see them going in and out of prison year after year. In and out. Trapped in a cycle of reoffending with the underlying causes of their criminality left to fester. That helps no one. It leads to more victims and more crime.

And I am only too conscious of the complexity of your roles.

In the course of the working day, we ask you to be chief executive - and official taster.

Guard and guide. Mentor and minder – all this to some of society’s most antisocial and unmanageable members.

We do not take that for granted.

For reform to happen, we will need every ounce of your unrivalled experience, knowledge, skills, compassion, imagination, ideas, determination, the full works - and ability to use pressure as a catalyst for change.

Of course I read, every day, the harrowing incident reports coming in from prisons. But when it comes to really understanding the abuse, intimidation and challenges faced by you and your staff in the country’s toughest workplaces, nothing beats seeing operations at close quarters.

Sometimes a little too close.

During a fascinating tour of HMP Belmarsh the other week, an ultra-committed four-legged member of the drugs search team nearly took a chunk from the seat of my trousers.

To the relief of my host, the acting governor, Clare Pearson, the dog- handler had a firm grip on the situation.

Over the past months, we have taken soundings from across the Prison Service and listened to your concerns. Believe me when I met with the PGA in Westminster, they did not pull their punches.

Soon you will discover more details of our plans for prison safety and reform in a White Paper – the blueprint for change up to 2020 and beyond.

As well as empowering governors, we will deliver new facilities, more staff and modern technology to improve regimes.

But in the immediate future, life for everyone in prison –staff and offenders alike – must be made safer.

You do not need a lecture from me about the need to protect prisoners from further harm in custody, however heinous the crimes that put them there.

Beyond that, violence is standing in the way of our much-needed reforms to make prisons places of purpose.

You have told us that your staff feel stretched too thin, given the unprecedented threats posed particularly by synthetic drugs.

We have heard those warnings and responded. With immediate and practical help.

Last week the secretary of state pledged an extra £14million for ten of our most troubled prisons – including Guys Marsh, Leeds, Nottingham and Liverpool – that will pay for more than 400 new frontline staff to combat drugs and violence.

She announced that new working practices to be rolled out across the country will enable staff to spend more time supervising and supporting prisoners.

They can devote more time, effort and energy to developing the kind of constructive relationships that encourage offenders to feel hope is not lost.

These plans come on top of new laws brought into tackle the problems of drug, drones and mobile telephones.

Some of our other safety measures are also already in place: more body-worn cameras, for example, and the roll-out of drug testing across the prison estate.

But you have told us we need to do more, more to be ahead of the curve. I will soon be meeting mobile phone operators to discuss an industry scheme to block handset use.

All these measures come on top of the £10 million of emergency funding announced in July, which was allocated to individual prisons with the most concerning levels of violence and self-harm to invest as they saw fit.

And many of you have highlighted the problems you have with getting Carillion to carry out what should be matters of basic maintenance.

In fact some of you have told me that this gets in the way of delivering safe and decent prisons. Their performance is unacceptable, and this morning in a meeting with Carillion executives I advised them that in our view – your view - they are failing to meet the terms of their contract.

I have challenged them to provide me with their action plan to improve their services. And I expect to see a significant improvement by the end of this year. And as far as Carillion are concerned all options are on the table as I consider their performance.

I am also absolutely committed to prisons that are places of purposeful activity and work.

Offenders are literally a captive audience.

A regime working well for staff and offenders can instil in them a work ethic they may never have known: one that acknowledges discipline, the achievements of team-work, the need to deliver to a deadline.

One of my clear priorities is to see more prisoners engaged in work. I am focused on giving you the tools and facilities to achieve this.

I know too that many of you are frustrated that you cannot get more men and women out on ROTL, taking those first steps to rejoin society but with a safety net beneath them as they walk the tightrope from prison.

The very few high-profile ROTL failures have threatened to overshadow the many success stories.

The Justice Secretary and I are looking keenly at our current ROTL procedures to see how effectively it is working in practice.

These are some of the immediate steps we are taking based on what you have told us. As part of our reform agenda we are going further and putting the tools for change in your hands.

The reform governors are already making the most of their extra powers. Since July they have been freed from the grip of most of the 46,000 pages of rules, regulations and guidance issued by Noms.

They have, for example,

  • Control of their own budget.
  • The scope to make money and reinvest it in prison facilities
  • The power to fire education providers and replace them with a more aspirational outfit that better understands what we are trying to achieve on the back of the Coates report into prison education.
  • The opportunity to motivate offenders by tweaking the incentive and privileges scheme - by increasing family visits, for example.

In short – a toolbox of incentives, freedoms and practical help that will help in their common mission to rehabilitate offenders.

When offenders reach the end of their sentence, the governors will be called to account for their journey through prison and the milestones they have passed.

Are the men changed characters? Are they better at reading, writing and maths?

Keen to find work, enthusiastic about becoming a decent citizen who contributes positively to their family and community?

Are they, in short, more likely to steer clear of crime?

It is too soon to judge the governors on outcomes, but they deserve praise for the early pace they have set.

At Wandsworth, Ian Bickers has ambitious plans to set up 14 centres of excellence, offering training in catering, computing, construction, business and communications - in time, even in barbering and tattoing.

There is, apparently, a shortage of tattoo artists in London – and the Bickers philosophy is to match prisoner training with professions where jobs are known to be available.

He is training the men in scaffolding, painting and decorating, and dry wall lining, because jobs are available on the nearby Battersea Power Station site.

With control over his own finances, Ian can pay the £35 cost of a ‘CSCS’ construction scheme card that his prisoners must have to get a job on a building site. Previously, he could not have done that.

At High Down, meanwhile, the governor Nick Pascoe had an early taste of how he could swiftly tackle problems that might previously have taken weeks to resolve.

In this case, High Down wanted to access the additional payment scheme for ‘OSGs’. Rather than seeking authority Nick himself granted the necessary authority to access the payment scheme, writing to Noms to let them know.

It was the moment, he says, when his staff began to see that High Down could be a better place. Here was empowerment in action. The additional payment scheme was up and running the very next day. Job done.

I have seen for myself the scene at nearby HMP Coldingley, where they are building a café and showroom to sell work done by the prisoners in the metal and print workshops.

Every offender has a job in one of those workshops.

He too faces staff shortages, which he is tackling in two ways: turning a disused building into short-term accommodation for eight prison officers – tempting new applicants with the prospect of convenient housing in what might be an unfamiliar area. The prison receives rent money, and also has extra officers close at hand in the case of an emergency.

At Holme House and Kirklevington Grange, Ian Blakeman is also focusing on employment schemes.

He is getting more offenders out on ROTL from Kirklevington, and is close to landing an agreement with a local company that will bring up to 200 new jobs into the prison at no cost to the public.

These are just a few snapshots from a few governors.

They happen to be reform governors, but their bold attitude is something we want to encourage in all of you, as more powers are devolved from the centre. This will only work if we empower you to lead.

Reform is the only way to break the miserable cycle of reoffending, spare society from pain.

We believe most people can reform.

We believe prisons can help reform them.

And in our prison governors we believe we have the right people to drive reform.

Published 13 October 2016