Chief Inspector's blog: leadership matters in prisons

One of my priorities as the new Chief Inspector was to sharpen the focus in our reports on prison leadership. Assessment of leadership was always a factor in our inspections and was commented on in the chief inspector’s report introduction or in the sections about our healthy prison tests. However, given the importance of leadership in improving prisons, we decided to introduce a separate section at the beginning of each report focusing not only on the governor but on leadership from the prison wings to higher levels in the prison service.

Good middle leadership is essential if the aspirations of the governor are to be enacted successfully on the wings. For instance, I was recently at a prison in the Midlands, where an outstanding custody manager ran an induction unit in which prisoners told us they felt safe, cared for and supported. There were high expectations of behaviour, the rules were clear, the regime was predictable and prisoners knew how to get help. When they had shown they could behave well, they were given greater levels of trust and freedom.

To get our inspection of leadership right, we consulted widely inside the prison service and beyond. We also needed to help our inspectors become confident in making judgements about leadership, so we piloted new expectations in inspections in June and July, producing draft leadership sections in reports that were only shared with the governors and prison group directors. Two weeks ago, we published the final versions of our leadership expectations and from October a section on leadership will appear at the beginning of our reports.

The starting point will be the prison’s own self-assessment report (SAR) (175 kB), which was developed as part of our consultation and which we will expect to see completed when we inspect prisons. It asks leaders three main questions: how well do you know your prison? What are your priorities? And how will you know you have succeeded? In the SAR, prison leaders are asked to describe their vision for the establishment and assess their progress against our four healthy prison tests – safety; respect (care for children); purposeful activity; and rehabilitation and release planning – as well as against our previous recommendations. They should also explain how they will measure their success in achieving their priorities.

In the SAR pilots, we’ve found that leaders can usually justify their priorities and can identify actions needed, but attempts to measure success – what they are aiming to achieve and by when – often do not have the detail or focus that we would expect. Ultimately, priorities and plans will always be limited if they do not contain clear measures of success.

The aim of the SAR is to help prisons over time to improve assessment, planning and prioritisation. It should be regularly updated during the year, rather than hurriedly filled out when we arrive to inspect. We have decided, for now, not give to give a score on the quality of leadership, but we may consider this in the future.

Prisons are complicated, difficult places to run, but in my time as Chief Inspector I have already seen many examples of outstanding leadership in action – governors who really know their prisons, who develop and support their staff, who plan, prioritise and monitor progress, and who are visible around the jail, communicating clearly to everybody who lives and works there.

We hope that by focusing more on the quality of leadership and creating a body of evidence of good practice we will help the prison service, governors and their teams improve prisons even further.


Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons