Chief Inspector's blog: how do you make a culture?

Last week I visited HMP Five Wells, the newly built prison just outside Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. The main building work is now largely complete and it is due to open in February 2022, to be run by G4S. Governors from elsewhere, particularly those who run crumbling Victorian local jails, will envy the new buildings. They have showers in every cell, bar-less windows made from toughened glass and separate floors, rather than landings around a central, shared space. The architects have worked with the Ministry of Justice to design a prison that can support rehabilitation.

Five Wells will operate as a category C jail, holding prisoners who have made good progress with their sentences and have shown that they can be managed with fewer overt security measures and greater levels of freedom. A prison building alone can contribute to, but will not in itself, make the culture that is essential in achieving the good treatment and conditions that will lead to rehabilitation.

Opening a new prison gives leaders a fantastic opportunity to start from scratch in creating a jail that is untainted by existing institutional culture and expectations. The difficult start experienced at both HMP Berwyn in North Wales and HMP Oakwood near Wolverhampton shows that this is not as easy as it might seem.

Creating a culture (simply put as ‘the way we do things here’) is a difficult job and it is easy for any new institution to get into trouble when it lacks the ballast that comes from an established way of doing things.

A governor taking over an existing institution, even when it is in a mess, will have something to build on – even the most dysfunctional systems can be moulded to become more effective. In a new prison, every process has to be created without an historical understanding of what has worked before. Relatively uncomplicated jobs, such as making sure prisoners have bedding, soap and are in the right place at the right time, must be developed and tested to make sure that they work efficiently. Systems can be lifted from elsewhere, but that does not mean they can be seamlessly adopted, particularly where most staff members are as new as the prisoners.

An alert and able leadership team will view this as an opportunity, not a drawback, and will be able to deal with any evidence of bad habits being imported or allowed to flourish. A physically well-designed prison, with accessible and properly working facilities, will help greatly.

While leaders are sorting out the day-to-day systems and processes, they also need enough bandwidth to focus on making their vision for the culture of the prison a reality. They must make sure that their staff team understand what they are aiming to achieve with new officers trained and, where necessary, retrained so that they interact with prisoners in the way that the leadership wants. Prisoners also need to understand what they can expect and what is expected of them. Some will have been in other jails for many years and leaders have to resist this gravitational pull of established prison practice.

A rehabilitative culture is a hard thing to articulate because it includes so many different components, but at its heart there will always be a staff team that expects the best from prisoners (though is prepared for the times when things inevitably go wrong) and treats them with kindness and care, maintains clear boundaries and is consistent and predictable in its responses. Above all there must be trust between prisoners, officers and leaders – at the heart of so many problems that we see in prisons is a breakdown of trust.

Five Wells will open under an established and successful governor. He and his team are in no doubt about the challenges that they will face, particularly in the first year where everything and everyone is new. It is an exciting but also a brave undertaking and I wish them well.


Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons