Over one hundred handpicked prison officers attended the Prison Officer Summer School, which was funded and organised by The Butler Trust, in association with the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, on behalf of NOMS Learning and Development. The event was held in the University’s nearby Faculty of Law.
Officers came from across the estate, with some making very early starts: high levels of commitment and engagement with the event were evident throughout. The programme was demanding, and involved a mix of academic presentations, plenary discussions, as well as breakout workshops and feedback.
Simon Shepherd, Director of the Butler Trust, opened the school with brief remarks welcoming the audience and outlining the purpose of the school – bringing together expert practitioners with academic experts to explore this challenging area of work and generate insights that could be fed into the development and training of prison officers. He then introduced one of the world’s leading prison researchers, Professor Alison Liebling, Director of the Prison Research Centre (PRC) and the Cambridge University Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Alison gave an outline of the history of the Prison Research Centre and its work.
Ian Mulholland, Director of Public Sector Prisons, then made introductory remarks on behalf of NOMS. Prisons, he said, are “better places – and safer places” because of staff. He acknowledged that “these are difficult and challenging times, with the number of self-inflicted deaths at their highest in 15 years and assault rates continuing to rise,” but added that “one way to make a difference and change the environment is by our prison officers stepping up to this challenge – as, historically, they always have. When prison officers work at their best and have the time and space to talk to prisoners and listen to them then prisons become better places.” He pointed out that each officer in the audience had been personally selected by their Governor as “the best of the best” and hoped they would enjoy this unique event.
HMP Wandsworth: The View From The Other Side
Another group of experts on prison officers – prisoners themselves – were then given a chance to speak to the audience via the highlights of a conversation recorded by Simon Shepherd in HMP Wandsworth with the help of Radio Wanno, the award-winning prisoner media and literacy project based there. Their remarks were as insightful – and flavourful – as you’d expect. One cited “having a normal conversation…it makes me feel like I’m not a prisoner for that two or three minutes.” Others agreed, while another emphasised the value of “an officer being honest with me.”
Respect was also discussed, with one prisoner saying: “It boils down to having a mutual respect and understanding between a prisoner and an officer.” Another observed how new officers had learned the value of mutual respect from more experienced officers, while a prisoner described his relationship with a particular officer as akin to:
“a relationship that I would have with, say, my manager in a workplace: I know my place, I know that I have to do certain things that I’m asked or told to do, but other than that, he just treated me like a normal person. Just to be able to be talked to and treated like a normal human being…I just take my hat off to this officer and I would do anything for this officer on the wing because he’s given me respect – and I’m willing to give that respect back twice.”
Alison Liebling: Prison Officers at Their Best
Alison Liebling then gave the first of several POD (‘Prison Officer Development’) talks. Alison’s presentation, “Prison officers at their best”, drew on her own and others’ research, and offered a wide-ranging and fascinating delve into this complex and important area. She explained that “prison officers matter far more than they realise”, contributing “80% of quality of life in a prison.” She noted that they “are not ‘turnkeys’ but ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘peacekeepers’: figures with moral and instrumental power.”
As the lead author of the only book focusing specifically on research into prison officers, The Prison Officer – now in its second, revised and updated edition – Alison was well placed to outline the contribution that the individual officer makes to the experience of imprisonment. She emphasised the value of talk and ‘presence’ of a certain kind and how role model officers have ‘clear boundaries’ and deploy ‘moral strength’. She compared a prison officer’s delivery of excellence, of ‘outstanding common sense,’ to a footballer scoring a goal. A player may do something very well indeed, but is not necessarily very articulate about how they do it. This is where academic research helps, as it provides a framework to explore the nuances underlying the very real skills needed to be a good officer.
Alison added, to widespread nods of recognition among the audience, that prison officers are “accomplishers” rather than “keepers of the peace”. Also gaining recognition in the audience was her remark about “the prison officers’ tragedy” – that so much of their work in accomplishing the peace is, in effect, invisible.
Alison then described some of the methods she and her researchers used, ranging from ‘appreciative inquiry’ (“tell me about your best day ever as a prison officer?”) and shadowing (as a way to reveal the gap between ‘rules’ and ‘action’). She then quoted her reformulation, in 2011, of an important paragraph in a 1984 Home Office Report: “At the end of the day, nothing else that we can say will be as important as the general proposition that ‘staff professionalism’ is at the heart of the whole prison system and that control and security flow from getting these right.”
Alison also explored some of the ‘moral dualism’ involved in finding a balance between ‘security’ and ‘harmony’, before diving into some quantitative findings in staff development, and modes of authority (explored in more detail by the next speaker, Dr Ben Crewe). Emphasising how ‘good authority’ led to ‘good outcomes’ in prisons, she also explored issues like fairness, mercy and ‘attentiveness to detail’. Her conclusion cited her 2011 paper, in which she had written:
“What is distinctive about prison officer work is that it is based on, or requires, a sophisticated, dynamic and often subtle use of power, through enduring and challenging relationships which has effects on the recipients. This is highly skilled work. Competence in this area – in the use of authority – contributes most to prisoner perceptions of the quality of life in, or moral performance of, a prison.”
Ben Crewe: The Bermuda Quadrangle
Dr Ben Crewe, Deputy Director of the PRC, then presented an examination of the difference in regime styles. Noting that, if blindfolded, he and colleagues felt they would be able to identify whether a prison was public or private, he described how they had alighted on the idea of the ‘lightness’ versus ‘heaviness’ of a regime, and explored it as an axis. He went on to note that, perhaps surprisingly, the results of a survey had found that prisoners actually preferred a slightly ‘heavier’ regime, and how they had set about exploring this seeming paradox.
The answer, he explained, was to do with “the way that staff in the two sectors used their authority. In the less good private prisons, prisoners described serious weaknesses in the use of staff authority: in particular, failures to intervene when things ‘kicked off’ and a reluctance to impose rules. In other words, staff were under-using their authority, either because of an attitude of lenience, or to do with a lack of skill and confidence in deploying their power.” He went on to explain that “this partly reflected the fact that there were fewer staff on the wings, and partly reflected a lack of experience or jailcraft within the staff body. The result was that the wings in the private prisons were more often under-controlled and sometimes chaotic.” He quoted one prisoner who had said “It is mayhem sometimes…They have not got a lot of control. [On] certain wings, the officers are not running the wings. The lads are running the wings.”
In essence, he explained, “prisoners did not want the prison to be run by their peers. They wanted staff to be in charge, to use their power responsibly, to set clear expectations about forms of acceptable behaviour, and to be able to use their power where necessary.”
He then introduced another conceptual axis based on “absence” versus “presence.” Absence and presence referred, he explained, to “the availability and visibility of prison staff, particularly uniformed staff, the depth and quality of their engagement with prisoners, their willingness and ability to supervise and police prisoner activity, and their competence in using authority.”
Taken together, these two axes offered up four possible quadrants, and a fascinating and valuable lens through which to examine different styles of regimes.
Simon Shepherd then led a ‘Fireside Chat’ (complete with a video showing a flickering fire), which brought together Alison Liebling and Ben Crewe with two experienced officers, Lorraine Salkild from HMP Whatton and Tom Cassidy from HMP Thorn Cross, to discuss these findings and field questions from the audience.
Drawing on his own experience, Tom pointed out that it helped to know “the lads’ lives, families, what’s going on with them… then they are far more likely to operate in an atmosphere of peace – but there’s no ‘tickbox’ for that.” As Simon added, one of the ironies for prison officers is that “one of the indicators of success is that nothing happens.”
Talking was identified as “one of the things we do best”, to murmurs of agreement, with one audience member asking “do you know how many lives I’ve saved – and my colleagues have saved – just by talking to prisoners?” As Lorraine pointed out, “It can’t be taught…a lot comes down to interpersonal relations.” Another audience member pointed out that “every single person – prisoner and staff – is different, and every situation is different…and that’s why it’s interesting.” This lively and thought-provoking conversation could clearly have continued indefinitely – but lunch called.
Helen Arnold: It’s More Than Just a Job
After lunch, Helen Arnold, a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Suffolk and Visiting Scholar at the Cambridge Institute for Criminology, who is completing her PhD at Cambridge on ‘Identifying the High Performing Prison Officer’, gave her POD talk, “It’s more than just a job”. Helen won over the audience with her relaxed and informal style of presentation, as well as her engaging account of her own experiences when ‘embedded’ in an actual prison officer training programme.
She explained that the focus of much of her research was on prison officers, and a variety of intriguing questions like “What makes a good prison officer?”, “How does the initial training course for officers prepare people (or not) for the job?”, “What are the effects of prison work on prison officers?”, “How do officers cope with the demands of the job?” and “How important are things like empathy, resilience and emotional expression, detachment and management?” Her talk went on to explore some of the findings from her research into these questions.
From her own experience of prison officer training, Helen was able to observe that much of the course focussed, understandably, on security elements, but “what was missing were formal training modules concerned with interpersonal skills and the delivery of care and support to prisoners.” There was, she said, “a lack of any real discussion about the part officers may play in rehabilitation.” Thus “having and building relationships with prisoners was very much about security, and maintaining order, discipline and control.” Overall, she noted, “training was very procedural and practical. It wasn’t really about relationships in any meaningful sense – despite their fundamental and crucial role in prisons.”
She then went on to examine a number of related factors to help tease out some of the research questions that interested her, and asked “What motivated people to join the prison service?” In exploring the meaning and purpose officers give to their work, she described how “as officers acclimatise to the demands and realities of the job, much of the initial optimism found in new officers gets somewhat lost and buried under a growing mound of cynicism, disillusionment and scepticism about the ability of imprisonment to rehabilitate and about their own ability to influence it.” Yet against this, she explained, “good prison officers find a way to maintain their initial motivation and retain a sense of meaning and purpose.” Helen went on to give a touching example of an officer reporting a really positive feeling that their work “had made a difference” – when a prisoner proudly displayed the first book he had ever read.
After looking at purposefulness and meaning, Helen described how good officers had a robust sense of their identity, and how a key piece of advice from her research (strongly echoed in the feedback from the breakout workshop that followed) was “do not try to be somebody that you’re not.” This advice – an echo of Shakespeare’s famous line in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true” – had repeatedly emerged from her research from both prisoners and staff. She argued in effective relationships – with prisoners, colleagues and oneself – lay the route to higher levels of satisfaction with the job compared to a focus simply on security. She then asked the audience to break into workshop groups and explore and report back on these issues.
The feedback session offered incredibly powerful and moving testimony about the work prison officers do – and how they do it. Here is a selection of extracts giving a flavour of this, but the full transcription of this feedback session is well worth reading in detail:
“First and foremost we are role models: sometimes the first and only role models that certain individuals have.”
“Staff adaptability and flexibility are some of the key factors that make people good officers, but it’s not just one or two things that contribute: it’s a thousand little different things that make up being a good officer.”
“Top of our list was a sense of humour and banter, which I think is what gets most of us through the day.”
“Teamwork, camaraderie and the pride of actually doing the job because, believe it or not, we are proud to be prison officers and we do feel that we do a good job and we can make a difference when we all pull together.”
“We spoke about our proudest moments; one member of the group said just maintaining their own personal integrity throughout their long career was their proudest thing… someone else said that he read a feedback form from a prisoner stating: “thank you for keeping me alive” and obviously this meant the world to him.”
“Diversity is what makes a prison officer and the prison service so great because we’re all different and by our differences we grow stronger.”
“There is a very diverse group that work in different establishments doing different roles. All of us are proud to do the job that we do, all of us work hard every day and all of us make a difference. Small things that we do with prisoners every day, whether it be to help with an application, to help with a prisoner having difficulties in family relationships or whether it be someone’s lost a loved one.”
Bethany Schmidt: You’ve Got The Power
After a break for tea and coffee, Bethany Schmidt, also doing a PhD at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, gave a POD talk called “You’ve got the power.” This examined some of the important issues involved in the use of power, and discretion in deploying it, by prison officers in their work, and looked at “the extent of and limits on trust”. Bethany cited Alison’s observation that “Prison work is all about the use of power and authority, deployed through human relationships,” before exploring the many different variables – from age and experience to staffing levels and culture to leadership and organizational values – which can effect the way power and authority operates in a prison setting.
Bethany went on to explore a range of spectrums or axes of behavior that officers have to negotiate to strike the ‘right place’. These include the use of power and discretion, setting boundaries, relations with prisoners, personal feelings, respect, communication, involvement, and fairness.
Bethany then examined power in more detail using “Hepburn’s five bases of power”: legitimate power, coercive power, reward power, expert power and referent power. She again referred back to some of Alison’s earlier work while looking at “the importance of legitimate and relational authority”:
‘Prison officers deploy their authority through relationships with prisoners. They use the rules when relationships do not work, and this is one of the reasons for the centrality of staff-prisoner relationships to prison life. If they resort to the formal rules without going through relationships – without talking first – this is bad news for prison stability.’
She then asked the audience to break into groups and explore some of these issues together, and in particular to focus on how they negotiate the various spectrums mentioned above; again, the full transcription of this feedback session is well worth reading in detail.
After this session, the day’s work closed in time to check into accommodation at Cambridge’s newest college, Robinson, and then change for pre-dinner drinks in the splendid setting of King’s College, followed by dinner in King’s College Hall, justly described as “one of the most magnificent and dramatic dining halls” of the Georgian era.
Natasha Porter: Inspirational Teachers
The second day’s talks began with Natasha Porter, who has worked at the Policy Exchange, is a Policy Fellow at the Department of Education, and a founder of Unlocked Graduates, a pioneering and innovative programme designed to draw in more graduates to the prison service. Natasha’s own background is as a teacher, and her exploration of what makes a good teacher highlighted the many echoes between the teaching profession and the work of prison officers. She noted that, contrary to the received wisdom that “great teachers are born not made”, there was a growing body of evidence that showed inspirational teachers had a variety of skills that could be taught to colleagues.
Natasha looked at several factors that were consistently found among inspirational teachers, including an insistence on very high participation rates, maintaining high expectations of all students, a ‘firm but fair’ approach that involved a kind of ‘tough love’, clear structures and routines as well as a ‘growth mindset’ and focus on aspiration.
She then presented startling evidence showing the enormous impact that inspirational teachers could have on pupils, and how it could “change the trajectory of their lives.” She then handed over to her co-presenters for this session, leaving us with a telling quotation that could equally apply to the prison system and its officers: “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
Amy Ludlow & Judith Gardom: Prison Officers as Teachers
Dr Amy Ludlow, a Lecturer and Supervisor at Cambridge, and Judith Gardom, a PhD student at the PRC, then gave a joint presentation, examining in some detail the implications of Natasha’s work in terms of “Prison officers as teachers”. They looked, in particular, at “transformative learning”, and how “breakthroughs can happen in the most unexpected places”, as well as in “moments of crisis and apparent failure”.
Citing Smith (2010), they pointed out that “transformative learning is communal” and shared this quote in a PowerPoint slide:
‘Only by living in communities of other personal selves can anyone become a distinct personal self. Thatcher was dead wrong: it is not existent individuals who aggregate into (allegedly fictional) communities but communities that emerge as real institutional facts from individual interactions.’
What works in supporting transformative learning, they explained, is “someone who can be bothered”, “care and support”, “trust and individual interest” – in effect, “nurturing.” One factor they highlighted was that in prison contexts, it would often be “necessary to overcome the effects of educational exclusion, fear, failure and shame.” There is, they said, clear “common ground” between “parenting, teaching, and prison work.”
Challenges here include encouraging autonomy, letting go, giving responsibility and mentoring into ‘adulthood’. They also spoke of “care”, “respect” and “appreciating their abilities”: before asking the audience to break out again and explore these issues in workshops, they concluded with an extended analogy with education, based on osmosis and water, and how the loss of water could make cells ‘limp’ and ‘shrink the cell away’ from the membrane wall.
Discussion Forum: Staff:Prisoner Relationships
Following another break for tea and coffee, there was an extended and lively structured discussion session about what a constructive and rehabilitative staff/prisoner relationship would look like. Chaired by the BBC Home Affairs correspondent, Danny Shaw, a number of distinguished guests and contributors took part, including Terry Waite, Prison Governor Pia Sinha (who also contributes to The Butler Trust in a voluntary capacity as part as their Awards’ Sifting Panel), Alison Liebling, Natasha Porter, and PJ McParlin, a former National Chair of the Prison Officers’ Association.
PJ noted that over recent decades the prison service had changed dramatically, and “was very much a different country”, but also pointed out that “staff just don’t have the time now” for the kind of relationships they might wish to develop with those in their charge. Terry Waite agreed and said, “many officers are frustrated and feel they can’t do their job properly.” PJ added, “we need to recognise the value of the work that men and women do in our prisons – and get that over to the public.”
Natasha pointed out that “the ones who are good at doing their job are heroes – they change people’s lives.” One officer in the audience said, “being recognised would give us hope – and that’s as true of prisoners as it is for officers.”
Pia explained that, for her, it “was about being curious”, adding that “we need to refocus on our staff,” whilst Terry emphasised “the key role in the whole prison process is the prison officer – it’s absolutely key.”
Golden Nuggets: Advice for Colleagues
That became very apparent in our next and concluding session, which took account of the sheer weight of expertise in the audience – over a thousand years of experience earned ‘on the job’: in fact, nearly 1200 years in total!
A short and inspiring piece of film, showing what ‘a thousand years of wisdom’ could look like, led into the breakout groups being asked to pull together ‘golden nuggets’ of wisdom and advice they would share with colleagues.
The results, in plenary, were once again extraordinarily potent and moving examples of people doing a tough job in a difficult environment and still keen to share and communicate with peers and management alike.
Again, a selection follows, but the complete remarks are collectively so strong that they should really be read in full (PDF):
“Don’t take it personally. Don’t take it home.”
“Find your own way and stay safe.”
“Look after each other and encourage each other’s personal development.”
“Be yourself, don’t try and change.
Take the experience and lessons and make them your own: don’t be afraid to listen, question and make your own mistakes.”
“Look for the comedy in the darkest of times and share this with your jail family.”
“If you don’t know, ask someone: every day is a school day regardless of how long you have been in the job.”
“Stick together and support each other through thick and thin – even if you disagree with your colleague, stick together.”
“We need to give ourselves credit for the job we do; we can lose sight of the incredible job we do every day.”
“We are not alone; we are all in it together.”
Messages to Management
The groups went on to discuss the messages they’d like to send to management. They weren’t about money, conditions or the daily risks and stresses of a tough job; instead, officers chose to send a clear, reasonable and coherent set of messages – read them in full here (PDF), or watch the animated version (with subtitles) on YouTube. Officers wanted a deeper recognition of their work by both management and the public. They wanted far more understanding of “the real constraints we’re under” (“work with us”) and asked, poignantly, that management “simply listen to us”. “Sometimes we can feel like a number”, said one group, “we’d like to be treated fairly and decently, which is how we treat prisoners.”
Concluding this remarkable session, Simon Shepherd said:
“the kind of things that shone through for me were very much the kind of things that I have always admired in prison staff, which is that even though you face so many challenges – and we heard about a lot of those challenges, and they’re very real and you cannot brush them under the carpet – you’ve still got that ‘can-do’ attitude that says: no, we need to fight the negativity and we need to make the best of the situation that we are in and we are bloody good at what we do. We should work together, stick together, support one another and keep our sense of humour and that is an astonishingly powerful and positive message.”
Responding on behalf of NOMS, Deputy Director of Custody Andy Rogers gave a commitment to learning from the two-day school. An experienced former prison officer himself, and who still wears his belt from those days as a reminder, Andy explained that the lessons and insights would be fed back, and that NOMS would also work closely with the Butler Trust to ensure a wider legacy from the Summer School.
As the event concluded, it was clear from the energy in the room that worthwhile and valuable connections had been made among the officers, and with the academics studying their work. Highly positive feedback confirmed this. The sincere hope now is that insights from this unique event will inform future thinking – not least with the kind of positive and proactive attitudes that characterised the summer school itself.