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David Savage

AWARD WINNER 2018-19: David Savage is a Governor at HMP Maghaberry. He wins an Award for the dedication, passion and courage he has shown on behalf of both NIPS and the wider community throughout his career, and in particular for his driving contribution to Maghaberry’s recent, widely-praised transformation.
[This Award is supported by MTCnovo.]

David Savage was promoted into his role as a Senior Governor at HMP Maghaberry at an extremely challenging time: the prison had just been declared ‘the worst and most dangerous prison in Western Europe’. David’s response to that ‘title’ epitomises a deep understanding of how to respond to such claims – and how to deliver change. In his own words:

‘I had very strong feelings that the title was wrong and misrepresented the commitment and professionalism of the staff who are employed in this most complex of prisons. I was also extremely concerned that the message being delivered by such statements had a hugely negative and detrimental impact on those men in my care and, equally importantly, the families, friends and loved ones who were detained in custody. The impact of an individual being placed in custody is widespread and affects partners, dependents, siblings and parents to name but a few. These people face huge challenges and hearing such sensational reports makes their difficulties and issues worse.

I developed a team… who shared my passion and drive to improve the lives of everyone in my care – and by this, I mean offenders, offenders’ families and of equal importance, the staff and their families who work in such a high-pressured environment.

The over-arching ambition was to release men from custody as fitter, healthier, more educated, more responsible people who could achieve and offer a worthwhile contribution to society – and on occasion become a better parent, grandparent, brother, uncle or step-parent.

To that end we have been extremely successful.’

David’s Initial Nominator, Aisling Boyle of the Secretariat, describes how David set about ‘removing the belief that communal areas and exercise areas were ‘no go’ areas for staff.’ They had become ‘a breeding ground for bullying, intimidation, threats and violence, and due to staff fears, patrols had not happened for many years. David completed yard patrols with all staff, and continues to do so,’ proving that ‘the process was safe and that he would not ask staff to do anything he would not do himself.’

HMP Maghaberry’s Governing Governor, David Kennedy, concurs. ‘David has been key to what is simply a seismic shift within Maghaberry… in a relatively short period of time the prison has turned full circle, resulting in the most positive inspection Maghaberry has ever had. He has fixed the regime, which is now the most stable across NIPS, [and] transformed prisoner and staff relationships, making the residential units the safest and most incident free in many years, and made residential areas, some of which are 35 years old, the envy of the service in terms of cleanliness and hygiene.’

David Savage has also driven forward a number of other major initiatives, including opening a staff café (run mainly by prisoners), programs tackling abuse of prescribed medication and poor male health, more purposeful activities for the over 50s, and a walking club. David also developed and implemented a review group ensuring the health and well-being of individuals held in isolation – now recognised by the International Committee for the Red Cross as ‘best practice’ for detention services in the Western world.

It is perhaps indicative of what David Kennedy calls the ‘sea change’ in Maghaberry, which David Savage helped lead, that the prison has thrown up some remarkable Butler Trust winners in the last two years: Andrew Smith and John Bell and Neil Rippon.

David Kennedy describes David as ‘incredibly well-respected and considered by all his peers to be an honest, capable and hardworking individual. He is a highly talented Prison Governor, consistently professional and revered throughout the Service and into the wider community.’ David is both ‘a very visible manager’ and ‘a gentleman who works hard, who treats prisoners, staff and visitors with compassion, who seeks to improve himself, who seeks to improve opportunities and outcomes for those in his care and to support both staff and prisoners in times of difficulty and crisis.’

It is worth noting, too, that when David Savage refers to ‘this most complex of prisons’ he is acknowledging a deeper truth about working in prisons in Northern Ireland. As the Prison Service Trust charity notes, this ‘complex and unique’ working environment is ‘set in the context of the civil unrest in Northern Ireland over the past 30 years’. David Savage has personally faced numerous and very serious threats of violence but says, simply, ‘I knew it to be the right and proper thing to do.’

He continues:

‘The recognition that comes with the nomination is not just mine – or about me – but is in fact a huge reflection of the journey which the organisation, the prison and all its staff have travelled and the changes which we have all made. I have no doubt that we have all saved many lives, changed many lives and have added a significant amount to the quality of life for those in our custody, those who are no longer in custody, those who work within the custody setting, the families of our employees and also the wider public of Northern Ireland.

‘I am a huge advocate of our prison having a strong moral compass and a high level of community responsibility, and have driven my teams to look outside of the prison and their own lives to identify ideas that we can all support and participate in to change and enhance the lives of those less fortunate than us. In this regard we have formed a partnership with the Cancer Fund for Children, and we assist in the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds at their residential respite facility.

We have also actively supported a local charity called Angel Wishes NI which makes the wishes of children with terminal cancer come true, and have assisted in raising funds for Dementia UK. This merely scratches the surface of our community involvement and we provide catering to charitable events (and use this opportunity to gain life and work skills for offenders) and provide seasonal dinners to local pensioners groups [a wonderful initiative described in greater depth in this write up of Andrew Smith, one of our 2016-17 winners]. This ensures that the community is part of us and we are part of the community.’

Explaining why he volunteered to become a Butler Trust Local Champion*, David expressed the its driving ethos extremely well:

‘I feel strongly that the custodial setting is sometimes the forgotten side of society, the grey foreboding walls rightfully keep individuals in custody but prevent all but the bad news travelling out – this was something I wanted to change and I was determined that my staff would be recognised for their efforts. The irony of this nomination is therefore not lost on me. In recent years the prison has had national success with several staff receiving Butler Trust Commendations which I am immensely proud of – therefore the fact that staff even took the time to suggest I was worthy of nomination fills me with enormous pride and has strengthened my resolve ten-fold to positively influence as many lives as possible.’

It’s a mark of David’s understanding of the need to put successful change on a sustainable basis – having worked his way into senior management from being a prison officer himself – that he has also started a ‘mentoring circle’ to help bring along the next generation of leaders. And it’s a mark of his insight into that wider task that he emphasises that ‘you can’t lead without listening’.

* A role David obviously stepped away from for the purpose of the present nomination. Nominations normally include a section by the Butler Trust Local Champion, but in this case Governing Governor David Kennedy undertook this aspect.

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