Sunday, May 20, 2012
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
It’s no secret that, as a rule, I'd never encourage anyone to fork out good money to read the pearls of wisdom that passes for any Prison Governor’s thoughts. I find myself astonished, then, to read this analysis of the prison system by recently "retired" Governor John Podmore and find myself nodding in agreement with almost every page.
Podmore was a real governor, not one of the Matalan Army who plague our lives. Amongst others, he was the No 1 at both Belmarsh and Brixton. He was a Very Senior Governor. And such men rarely talk in public, let alone write a critique of the system that even I'd be pleased with. This book is the rarest of beasts - an excellent read written by a man who knows the inside of prison management and who pulls no punches. I can't recall any previous books from this genre.
Prisoners may not be surprised to learn that Governors live in a state of near paralysis, forever dancing to avoid a bollocking from Headquarters. This mindset encourages stagnation, a fear of change, an avoidance of radical thought - in sum, prison governors are stuck in a bureaucracy which attempts to squeeze out any sense of positive purpose. This alone could explain why prisons are colossally expensive failures. Podmore's career is, in a sense, shaped by a battle against such constraints.
Not that this book hangs in the air, suspended in a miasma of management waffle. Podmore gets down and dirty on the details, highlighting the failures and the sheer waste of many policies that have come to govern prisoners' lives. One such is the CARATs programme. That has cost £150 million but no one has ever bothered to check whether it does any damn good. Equally, the near impossibility of importing genuine work and pay into prisons is a point which Podmore has run aground on several times in his career.
There are very few areas of prisons which Podmore doesn't discuss, even if tangentially. And uniquely he examines aspects of the system which we rarely consider. From High Security through to Open, from Offending Behaviour Programmes to the work of charitable foundations, Podmore neatly dissects the prison enterprise. And all too often he discovers the waste of time, money, talent and sheer potential to create something positive and meaningful. Unsurprisingly, his view of the politicians who interfere with prisons for short term headlines is a very dim one.
The book is enlivened by the swipes Podmore takes at his bugbears, one of which is the plague of ex-prison staff who claim to have been a "governor". I know, and you know, that there are governors and then there are Governors. But to the outside world, these junior upstarts, middle managers, wave their tatty M&S pinstripes around as if to claim that they were a Big Deal whilst in the job. We know better and, hopefully, this book will skewer these minor bureaucrats in the public eye.
The overriding sense left by this book is that prisons are frustrating. Not just for prisoners but for those Governors who have the ability (or curse) to see beyond what is and envisage something more. In searching for an explanation as to why prisons remain so crap, this book has helped me to understand the pressures and constraints on such Governors. And why so few exist at all.
Towards the end of his (foreshortened) career, Podmore resided in the dim corridors at HQ, attempting to come to grips with pervasive staff corruption, a much neglected area. Not neglected through oversight; but neglected through deliberate policy. The Suits just don't want to know about staff corruption and Podmore found himself ousted from his anti-corruption role. Without a prison to run, he opted to take early retirement. Thankfully for us, he then chose to write instead of adjourning to the golf course. For anyone who wants some insight into the minds of those who control our lives, this book will remain the standard for a very long time.
Podmore is a Governor worth listening to. And just writing that makes me feel very, very weird.
John Podmore, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", Biteback Books
Labels: Prison Governors