Chief Inspector's blog: trust

A prison chaplain recently asked me what I thought were the most important ingredients in creating a successful jail. I offered up a fairly predictable list of the things we see in the best places: effective leadership, a committed staff team, a set of values that pervades the prison, partnership with contracted services such as education and health, cleanliness, a consistent daily regime and effective support for the most disruptive or vulnerable. In the end, though, I settled for one vital element: trust.

Trust is essential in every tier of a prison system. It should run from ministers to senior leaders in HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), on to prison group directors (PGDs) and to governors and directors. Within prisons, trust should also pass from governors to the senior team, to custody managers, senior officers, prison officers and finally to prisoners themselves. Trust, however, cannot just flow one way. For a prison to be successful, the prisoners need to trust it.

We see many instances where prisoners do not trust the prison. Property gets lost, applications disappear, the regime is inconsistent, activities get cancelled, recategorised prisoners do not get to move to more open conditions. Prisoners, often stuck in long-term negative patterns of behaviour, need incentives to do the right thing, but I have lost count of the times I have been told the incentives scheme does not work and does not motivate them. Why bother to work for your category D status, when it will not get you moved to an open prison?

In the most effective jails, prisoners see the benefits of doing the right thing. In our inspection of HMP Oakwood, we commented on the many prisoner-led initiatives. One man, serving a very long sentence, told me that the wood workshop he had set up for some of the most vulnerable prisoners had given a new meaning to his and their lives.

When carrying out my review of the youth justice system in 2015, one of the things that surprised me was how little autonomy prison governors had, compared with head teachers. In my school, I was able to decide on my staffing structure, recruit and train my staff, set the rules, create the behaviour management system, commission health services and tender for building work. These freedoms are not generally afforded to prison governors. Of course, I did not have an entirely free rein: I was accountable to Ofsted, the local authority and my governing body and I had to follow policies on safeguarding, HR and finance. But if the outcomes for my pupils were good, I was trusted to get on with the job.

Prisons are not the same as schools and greater central control and oversight is necessary. It has, however, always puzzled me that the best governors in public sector prisons have only a little more autonomy than those that are the least effective or experienced, especially as directors of private sector prisons tell me they have much more independence. We see this further down the prison hierarchy, where the most effective functional heads or middle leaders work to the governor’s vision but are trusted and supported to get on with the job. In our recent inspection of HMP/YOI Swinfen Hall, for instance, a brilliant custody manager ran the induction wing. She set high standards for prisoners and staff and held them to account if they let things slip.

Trust cannot just be handed out, of course. It must be earned. Whether it’s prisoners or prison staff, they have to understand that being trusted also means being accountable. If prisoners were given unearned trust, then some would misuse it with serious consequences and governors (or head teachers) who were unfettered from any accountability could cause enormous problems. The aim, however, should be to pass as much trust downwards as possible and give people as much freedom as they can cope with. It involves those in authority taking a risk, because inevitably things will go wrong, but without trust, people and institutions will not flourish.

While central control can mandate minimum standards, trust is needed to unleash excellence.


Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons