Chief Inspector's blog: how good leadership can transform prisons

It is almost three years since my predecessor Peter Clarke announced an Urgent Notification for HMYOI Feltham A following an unannounced inspection. He pointed to a “dramatic decline” in performance at the YOI and “numerous significant concerns about the treatment and conditions of children” held there.

I remember it well because, as it happened, I was having coffee that day with another former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, who told me to read his report on Feltham from 1998. Doing so was a depressing experience. Huge chunks could have been cut and pasted between the two reports and no one would have noticed. The same issues – violence, demotivated, disengaged staff, lack of purposeful activity and unsanitary conditions – stood out in both, with few meaningful improvements in the intervening two decades.

One might be forgiven for believing that this suggests delivering improvement is impossible, particularly in institutions with a long history of problems. But I am pleased to say that our recent experience at Feltham and two other prisons we have inspected shows that positive change is possible – and, for me, the key ingredient is effective leadership.

During the pandemic, we conducted a scrutiny visit of the jail so we knew things were getting better, but we were still unprepared for just how much progress Feltham had made under the excellent leadership of the governor. There were genuine and immediate incentives for boys to improve their behaviour, such as more time unlocked, access to additional spending money and the chance to get involved in popular vocational activities. The Alpine unit was an impressive place where a well-trained and united staff team had created a therapeutic unit to support some of the most troubled children, who would in the past have spent time in and out of the segregation unit.

We also saw reductions in levels of violence, improved relationships between children and officers, and a leadership team focused on providing a more open and progressive regime. Our healthy prison test scores gave an unprecedented six-point rise across the board.

The week before the Feltham visit, I joined our inspection at HMP Bedford where in 2018, our report described it as a prison that was “fundamentally unsafe”, with an alarming rise in drug-related violence. This time we found some big improvements: the prison was safer, better organised and had a much healthier staff culture. Staff were working well with local police to reduce the supply of drugs.

There were also encouraging initiatives to improve the experiences of black and minority ethnic prisoners and to create a new unit to support younger prisoners, who were often disproportionately involved in violence.

Although there is a long way to go in both prisons – which are fragile places at the best of times – the work and commitment it has taken to make these improvements was impressive.

While HMP Doncaster had never hit the lows of Feltham and Bedford, our 2016 inspection report still described it as “very poor.” This month’s report reveals a much-improved prison with “a general sense of order and calm”.

Excellent leadership is the common factor that underpins these more positive inspections. In each, leaders knew and understood their prison through good use of data and by spending time on the wing and talking to prisoners and staff. They all had a clear idea of what needed to improve and were able to articulate their vision and priorities to their staff.

Leaders had used lockdowns from some serious COVID-19 outbreaks to resettle their prisons, using the time to focus on staff training. The prisons had all employed new, enthusiastic but inexperienced officers who needed clear direction and support to do their difficult and complex job with confidence. The director at Doncaster, in particular, had harnessed the potential of his young staff to become an enthusiastic and motivated team.

All of the three jails had focused on getting the basics right such as ensuring prisoners had toiletries, bedding and clean clothes. Leaders had also sought to improve the culture by making sure that officers were polite and respectful and there were high expectations of prisoner behaviour.

A year on from our first inspections of leadership, here is my list of what I think are the habits of the best prison leaders. It is, of course, by no means exhaustive, but I hope it sets out some of the most important qualities – all of which were reflected in these three, positive reports.

  1. The best leaders understand their prison – by using data and by listening to prisoners and staff.
  2. They prioritise by identifying those things in the prison that need to improve in the short and long term.
  3. They have clear expectation of their staff and prisoners and create plans for improvement.
  4. They monitor that progress is being made against their priorities.
  5. They communicate with their teams and with prisoners to make sure that everyone in the prison understands their vision and the part they must play in achieving it.
  6. They improve their team by supporting and training staff and identifying and promoting those with potential. They make their staff accountable for their area of responsibility.
  7. They are a visible presence around the jail, knowing who people are and what they do.
  8. They set an example to staff, modelling the behaviour they want to see, praising good performance and refusing to tolerate any fall in standards.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Read the reports:

HMYOI Feltham

HMP Bedford

HMP Doncaster