Our First Female Prisons Inspector: Airbrushed From Inspectorate History

Dr Mary Louisa Gordon – HMP Holloway 1914

[From the ‘Dedication’ of The Prisons Handbook 2022]

The Prisons Handbook 2022 is proudly dedicated to Dr Mary Louisa Gordon.

This truly extraordinary woman was the first female Prisons Inspector and while 2021 marks both the 80th anniversary of her death and the centenary year of her retirement, you will not find a single word about her on the website of HM Prisons Inspectorate – a fortiori therefore as to why I am proud to acknowledge her vital work for women prisoners here, by dedicating this edition to her.

Mary Louisa Gordon was born on 15th August 1861 in Seaforth, Lancashire and studied at the London School of Medicine for Women, qualifying as a doctor with the Triple Qualification in 1890.

After graduation, she worked part-time as the librarian and curator of the school and later as a clinical assistant at the East London Hospital for Children and at the Evelina London Children’s Hospital. Gordon joined the Association of Registered Medical Women (ARMW), a precursor to the Medical Women’s Federation, in 1891.

During this time, she contributed a number of publications and public addresses regarding a variety of topics including the effects of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), prostitution, and alcohol dependence on women.

This included writing a letter which had been signed by 73 members of the ARMW in 1898 to Lord George Hamilton, the Secretary of State for India, to criticise measures enacted in the previous year to combat the spread of STDs in the British Army stationed there – measures that included mandatory medical examinations of women suspected of carrying an STD living near a military building; if they refused they were evicted from their homes.

In March 1908, Gordon was appointed as a Prison Inspector and she was the first woman to hold the position. Her role involved the inspection of the female wings of 47 prisons, and the training of female prison officers. She had no formal training prior to being appointed therefore Gordon visited prisons in Europe in order to learn best practice. She soon identified that the majority of female prisoners had short sentences with high rates of recidivism.

Gordon supported a rehabilitative approach in prisons to combat this, organising prison labour so that menial tasks such as cleaning were assigned to short-term inmates, while more productive roles were given to long-term inmates such as training for jobs when released. Gordon is also credited with physical improvements in conditions in British prisons, such as better lighting in jail cells with the use of clear glass windows and introducing notebooks to HM Prison Holloway.

Gordon was a supporter of the British suffragette movement, and she secretly communicated with Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) about the state of prisons, and by reaching out to imprisoned suffragette leaders such as Emmeline Pankhurst. When the WSPU headquarters was raided by the police on 23 May 1914, this correspondence was discovered and she was asked by the Home Office to renounce her association with the movement; she categorically refused to do so.

During the First World War, she served from July to December 1916 with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service in Macedonia. By the end of her career, she was marginalised and isolated for her association with the suffragette movement and the “feminist” approach that she took to her role. When she asked for an increase in her salary in 1919, an official replied by describing her appointment as a “sop to feminism” and a further increase would be “a concession to the claims of feminism”.

Her attitude towards and treatment of women prisoners as explained in her 1922 book Penal Discipline, available free to Enhanced members of The Prison Oracle – prisonoracle.com – stands in sharp contrast to that of her male contemporaries, and the categorisation of her approach as ‘feminist’ as reinforced by her connections with the suffragette movement has resulted in the marginalisation and dismissal of her work, such that Dr Mary Louisa Gordon and Penal Discipline are virtually unknown today – despite which her insights into the position and needs of women prisoners retain a striking contemporary relevance.

It is deeply regrettable therefore that not one single word is to be found about this remarkable woman on the prisons inspectorate website and, in 2021, my invitation to the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charie Taylor, to mark her centenary retirement year on the Prisons Inspectorate website was casually waved away with the one line dismissive response: ‘Thank you for your interesting email’.

Editor: The Prisons Handbook
November 2021.

Mark Leech FRSA is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales and other works.

The Amazing Woman Airbrushed From Prison Inspectorate History

In the week when there were once again combined calls for a reduction in the prison population, calls that were ignored and overtaken by the announcement from the Ministry of Justice that they were to build a further 500 cells for women prisoners, it is apposite to remember just how marginalised women still are in our prison system today – whatever side of the cell door they stand on.

Take, as just one example, the qualified medical practitioner Dr Mary Louisa Gordon; for those of you who know a thing or two about prisons, go on, tell me: what do you know about this amazing woman?

She died aged 79 exactly 100 years ago this year but, disgracefully, you won’t find a single mention of her on the Prisons Inspectorate website – despite the fact that in 1908 she was appointed the first ever female Prisons Inspector; a post she held onto for 13 years.

Her attitude towards and treatment of women prisoners, as explained in her 1922 book Penal Discipline, stands in sharp contrast to that of her male contemporaries, and the sneeringly demeaning categorisation of her approach as ‘feminist’ (reinforced by her well-documented connections with the suffragette movement) resulted in the marginalisation and complete dismissal of her work – so much so that Dr Mary Gordon and ‘Penal Discipline’ are virtually unknown today – lost in the history of time and an age when women were seen as second class chattels at best.

Nevertheless, her insights into the position and needs of women prisoners still retains a striking contemporary relevance that cannot be allowed to pass into history without mention.

Along with many other vintage and valuable prison publications, her book is available free here (https://prisons.org.uk/publications/vintage-publications/) to Enhanced members of #ThePrisonOracle where site-wide access to the definitive prisons website costs less than a cup of coffee a week, and which can be cancelled at any time.

The incredible work of people like Dr Mary Louisa Gordon must not be allowed to descend unnoticed into his history – and the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, should ensure her name, her courage, and her appointment as the very first female Prison Inspector are no longer forgotten.

“There’s only one Captain of this ship – and that’s me”

The subject of former Governor grades, and indeed officers of various ranks, wanting to return to HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) months or years after they retired and collected their pension as ‘mentors’ is one that keeps cropping up every so often – and it needs to be confronted head-on.

Often portrayed as a way of helping ‘to mentor new recruits’ in the face of growing difficulties in retaining staff, the reality is that those good intentions can conceal real problems not just by risking the relearning of old bad habits long left behind but the problems they potentially cause too for those who manage our prisons today.

“I would find it very difficult, really difficult, in fact I would find it almost impossible” one current Governing Governor of a large Category C prison told me.

“To have a former Governing Governor returning after their retirement to my prison, dishing out their advice to my staff as to how they used to do things years ago, would make my position untenable; there’s only one Captain of this ship and that’s me.”

Of course, it’s easy to understand why retired Officers and particularly Governors would want to return to the security of a workplace that protected them for decades. A place that provided them with status and security, where they were cloaked with respectability, and had power and control over the lives and employment of more than a thousand men and women.

It’s easy to understand how difficult it must be for anyone to suddenly find all that power, influence, control and status that once resided in their hands being stripped away, literally overnight, when they retire and hang up their keys for the last time.

One day they are the Governing Governor of a High Security Prison, known across the county if not the country itself, flitting back and forth to London, conferences with Directors at the Ministry of Justice, invited to a whole range of senior civil service events, and perhaps pinning a medal or two to their breast in the process.

A time when their opinions and advice were sought on a whole range of important topics from deaths in custody to counter terrorism – to have all that prestige one day and then find the very next day that they are out the door, no longer ‘Governor’ or ‘Boss’, just plain old Joe or Josephine Bloggs sitting on the top deck of the Clapham Omnibus where no one could care less about who they are, or indeed what they were over the last 30 years, yes I can see that would take some adjustment.

To have that pedestal of power whipped from underneath their feet and replaced with a monthly pension giro cheque, I can understand I think why anyone would feel the need to return to that comforting atmosphere that once gave them a sense of security and self-worth in life once the novelty of retirement had worn off.

But the fact is they should not be allowed to return; ‘retirement’ means exactly what it says.

HMPPS has moved on while they have had their feet up, the Prison Service they would come back to is not the Prison Service that they left – and for good reason; times have changed and, in most cases, they have been left far behind with little more than their memories and regrets.

I don’t for one moment doubt their good intentions, or that they have helpful advice to give, often very good advice, nor that such advice could be of real use to new recruits or new entrant staff in the early days of their service; but that is advice they should put in the form of a book or a blog and publish it; not pretend they still have the power and status that their retirement removed from them when they agreed to leave and call it a day.

In my experience, some of the worst Governing Governors were those with 30 plus years of service under their belts – they tended to rule their prisons like they were some personal private fiefdom.

When they joined the Prison Service was a very different place then to what it is today, a service in which the Prison Officers’ Association ran our prisons, where abuses were many, where assaults by staff were common, where privileges were few, where slop out was the norm, where 11 hours a week out of cell was good going and which as a result, in April 1990 at Strangeways Prison Manchester – and six others across the country besides – exploded in an orgy of violence, destruction and death.

We have no need to go back to those days – I am not saying that we have nothing to learn from many staff with long experience, we do – what I am saying is that we do not need to provide them with a rank, keys and a pay cheque to learn it.

They chose to leave – so keep walking.

There are those too who we have nothing to learn from, those who saw what was happening way back then, and who chose to ignore it and look the other way.

HMPPS has worked too hard to leave all that behind to go back there again.

Now, thanks to the Tilt, Narey, Wheatley and Spurr era of prison management, the Decency Agenda has been chiselled into Prison Service bedrock, and we are not about to turn back the clock by risking the return of some of those who were a part of the problem.

I am sorry if former Officers and Governors crave for the status they once had, but they must find their own way forward now, find ways to occupy their time by focusing in a different direction; ‘retirement’ means exactly what it says and that is the way it must remain, for everyone’s sake.


One 25 year veteran Prison Officer could not understand why staff staff should not be allowed back and asked the one word question: “Why?”

My reply is simple:


Because the last thing the Prison Service needs is a lack of commitment in its staff – those who have left once will soon want to leave again.

I agree with David Breakspear I have no problem with them standing on the stage at Newbold Revel and spouting off about ‘The Good Old Days’, that costs that taxpayer nothing – the fact is however that increasing numbers of former prison staff – particularly senior staff – are seeking to come back a ‘mentors’ and get paid for it; but to serving Governors they would be little more than tormentors.

They may want to come back, clearly the novelty of no longer having a chain to swing, and/or their loss of status has worn off but, to my mind, letting them come back would be a seriously backward step and a blind alley for HMPPS that has worked hard to move forward from old ways of working.

The fact is they were weak enough to leave, HMPPS should be strong enough to say goodbye and, frankly, life doesn’t have a reverse gear.

That’s why.

The Dishonours List 2021

Today the annual New Year’s Honours List was published where so-called deserving individuals are either tapped on the shoulder with a medieval sword or have a useless thirty-bob medal pinned to their chest in an outdated ridiculous display of utter nonsense.

The fact however is that this is more of a Dishonours System for it not only rewards perceived success, but it is also guilty of rewarding proven corruption too; which is why we must never forget the 2019 case of Prison Officer Ben Plaistow.

Let me tell you about Ben.

Ben was born on 2 May 1978. He began employment as a Prison Officer on 28 July 2003 and for the next ten years he had an excellent, misconduct-free career. Ben was transferred at his request to HMP. Woodhill on 7 September 2014 and, just two years later, he was summarily dismissed on the stated ground of gross misconduct on 9 August 2016 having been suspended on 11 January that year.

There the story may have ended but Ben Plaistow is made of sterner stuff – his dismissal was held to be unfair in law, based not on gross misconduct at all but simply his sexual orientation – and he won damages that cost the taxpayer over £2 million because he is unable to work again.

While Ben was employed at HMP Woodhill the Court held that he was the victim of discrimination and harassment as a result of breaches to his legally protected characteristic of Sexual Orientation.

The court found that, in respect of Prison Officer Ben Plaistow:

  • he was regularly called ‘poof ’ and ‘gay’ by PO H and PO Puttock;
  • he was given an absence warning following an incident on 18 February 2015, during which he was injured in the course of his duties;
  • PO H called the claimant a ‘poof ’ in or about July 2015 outside House Unit 2 at HMP Woodhill;
  • in or about July 2015 and regularly thereafter, was called a ‘poof’ and ‘vermin ’ by PO H;
  • in July 2015, PO H pointed his finger into the claimant’s face and slapped him;
  • in August 2015, PO H squirted a bottle of water at the claimant;
  • in September 2015, PO H pushed the claimant from behind into a desk in the manager’s office at House Unit 2;
  • his grievance, raised with Richard Vince (who in June 2019 was awarded a CBE) in October 2015, was not investigated; [the Court ruled: “Mr Vince’s failure to investigate the claimant’s grievance was an act of direct discrimination [324]].”
  • he was told by SO Wallbank in November 2015 that he would “put [the claimant] on his arse”;
  • on 4 December 2015, PO Haige screamed at the claimant, grabbed his face and dug her fingernails into his face; and
  • when CM Laithwaite called the claimant a “poof”, on January 2016.

Ben was also the victim of harassment related to the protected characteristic of sexual orientation when:

  • PO Puttock, after the claimant’s arrival at HMP Woodhill, regularly asked the claimant if he was gay;
  • he was asked by CM Laithwaite to disclose his sexual orientation during the course of a discussion as part of the claimant’s induction at HMP Woodhill;
  • the HMP logo on his work bag was coloured pink in or about July 2015;
  • on the occasion in July 2015 when PO H pointed his finger into and slapped the claimant’s face, CM Laithwaite failed to intervene thus condoning the conduct;
  • in July 2015, CM Laithwaite grabbed the claimant’s arm causing bruising and told the claimant he was causing “too many problems”, including complaining about his treatment at Woodhill;’
  • his work bag was again coloured pink on 4 December 2015; and
  • when a pink “fairy” cake was smeared inside his work bag on 4 December 2015.

These acts of discrimination and harassment were not one-off events they were shockingly part of a continuing series of acts.

Ben made the following written complaints, each of which was a protected act within the meaning of s.27 of the Equality Act 2010:

  • his grievance, raised with Richard Vince in October 2015;
  • his letter to Andrea Leadsom MP dated 11 October 2015; and
  • his grievance sent to Michael Spurr and Carol Carpenter on 11 March 2016.

As a result of those protected acts, or one or more of them, the claimant was victimised, contrary to sections 27 and 39 of the Equality Act 2010 when,

  • the HMPPS pursued an allegation of gross misconduct against the claimant; and
  • the claimant was dismissed for gross misconduct.

In law Ben made protected disclosures, as defined by section 43A of the Employment Rights Act 1996 when,

  • he sent a grievance to Richard Vince in October 2015;
  • he wrote letters of grievance to Michael Spurr and Carol Carpenter on 11 March 2016;
  • he wrote to Michelle Jarman-Howe on 31 May 2016;

The court held Ben Plaistow was unfairly dismissed – and worse was to come.

The Court ruled:

“Perhaps most seriously, given the identity of the respondent [HMPPS], is the forgery by late production and backdating of documents designed to ‘plug gaps’,” the tribunal ruling states.

It also refers to “corruption of documents by conflation, amendment or post-dated creation” and said the HMPPS’s failings go “beyond error”.

Ben’s colleagues were found to have engaged in a “campaign of victimisation” against him with their conduct that was found to be “vexatious, disruptive and unreasonable”.

Government lawyers involved in the case were also criticised for failing to demonstrate appropriate diligence and were accused of having “blindly” followed instructions from their MoJ colleagues.

The devastating Judgement in the Ben Plaistow case was handed down in February 2019.

It was not appealed.

The Prison Service Chief Executive, Jo Farrar, told me personally in a meeting in September 2019 that she had ordered “a full investigation” that was to report “within weeks”, that she would then consider “disciplinary action” against those involved and that the report “would be published” – the Ministry of Justice also undertook to publish the report.

However in July 2020 when the promised report had still not been published I wrote to the Ministry of Justice and discovered they had now quietly changed their mind and the report would now not be published – you can read their response here.

Almost two years after the Ben Plaistow judgment was handed down this case remains a festering sore on the face of HM Prison and Probation Service that will not be allowed to be quietly forgotten.

What we do know however is that in June 2019, in the Birthday Honours List Richard Vince, the Prison Service Director of High Security who was specifically named in the Court judgment that twice called him a liar was, four months after the judgment was handed down, bestowed with the Honour of being made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) [last entry page 18.]

Let’s be clear this is what the Court (paragraphs 291/293) said:

291.  As a fact, what Mr Vince told the claimant about his previous involvement in the matter was simply untrue. He admitted under cross-examination that he was aware of a clear view having been taken in relation to the case and to tell the claimant that he had no prior knowledge of the case was not true.

Worse, at paragraph 293, the Court describes Richard Vince’s evidence as ‘Manifestly Untrue’:

293. Mr Vince did not question how a number of officers could be engaged in a use of force incident, resulting in a prison officer being absent from work as a result of injuries received yet, “no one was aware of the event. One officer followed the correct procedure by lodging his use of force form. To say that no one was aware of the event until the police had reverted to the prison with their view about prosecuting prisoner A, is manifestly untrue.

Richard Vince is the Director in charge of our High Security Estate – can you watch the person placed in charge of that part of the prison estate that has responsibility for the most dangerous prisoners our prisons have to contain, twice being called ‘a liar’ by a Judge, in a public judgement, that was not appealed, and watch him being bestowed with the CBE months later by HMQ and say nothing?

I’m sorry, I can’t – and I am not telling you anything here that I have not told Richard Vince directly to his face.

I like Richard Vince, I once respected Richard Vince, he lead from the front when HMP Birmingham had its problems and, prior to that, he managed HMP Manchester superbly; his was a good story. But alongside that once good story now runs another one, the one that is told here, and one that we cannot simply ignore just because it is inconvenient, inexpedient or frankly just because it is all rather embarrassing.

A Prison Officer was humiliated, assaulted, injured, his complaints were ignored and when he sought to take his complaint to Court those guilty of acting against him sought to defraud the court with lies and pervert the course of justice by falsifying documents – and all of this was done not by prisoners but by his own Prison Service colleagues.

The CBE awarded to Richard Vince was just another shocking slap in the face for Ben Plaistow, and the bestowing of an Honour that showed how corruption was at work inside the Honours System – a system that might well look the other way but which I for one will not be compromised by joining in.

The HMPPS Investigation Report into the Ben Plaistow case should be published, now, as was promised. Concealing its contents simply adds to the discredit that it has brought upon a once proud Service.

All of those named and shamed in the Ben Plaistow Judgment are still working in the Prison Service, some have been promoted, some to the rank of Governing Governor who are now running their own prisons, when in truth they should each have been subject to explicit disciplinary action and awarded the Order of the Boot out of the Prison Service.

Remember this case in a few days time when, on New Year’s Day, the latest batch of recipients will be announced by an Honours System that the Ben Plaistow case demonstrates like no other to be completely unfit for purpose.

Should Police manslaughter mean 20 years?

The mother and widow of PC Andrew Harper have both launched campaigns for tougher punishments for those who kill police officers.

Debbie Adlam, PC Harper’s mother, said that “something needs to change” after those responsible for her son’s death were handed 16-year and 13-year sentences at the Old Bailey.

She is calling for a minimum term of 20 years for anyone who takes an officer’s life – with no chance of parole during that time.

Pc Harper’s widow, Lissie Harper, has launched her own campaign, backed by the Police Federation of England and Wales, for full-life prison terms for those who kill emergency services workers.

The 28-year-old Thames Valley Police officer died as he tried to stop three thieves fleeing after they stole a quad bike in Stanford Dingley, Berkshire, on August 15 last year.

Henry Long, 19, and 18-year-olds Jessie Cole and Albert Bowers were sentenced for the newlywed’s manslaughter.

Pc Harper was caught in a crane strap dangling from the back of a Seat Toledo driven by Long, and dragged to his death.

Launching her campaign Mrs Adlam said: “We’ve come to realise that, with the outcome of the trial as it stands, something needs to change.

“He is worth much more than this and we’ve been thinking for some time that something needs to be brought in to protect our police officers.

“There’s nobody looking out for them and we aim to change that.”

Mrs Adlam added: “We’re looking to bring in a minimum term – 20 years. No parole, no reductions.”

The Attorney General’s Office has confirmed that it has been asked to consider if the jail terms handed to PC Harper’s killers are too lenient.

Long, of College Piece in Mortimer, was sentenced to 16 years, while Cole, from Paices Hill, Aldermaston, Reading, and Bowers, of Windmill Corner, Mortimer Common, Reading, were each handed 13-year terms.

Currently defendants under the age of 21 receive lower sentences, but Mrs Adlam believes this should end.

“As far as their age and the reductions go, my personal thoughts are there is no sense whatsoever in being 18 or 19 and getting time off your sentence.

“My gut turns when I think about that because you can change your gender, you can get a mortgage, you can serve in the Army, and the thing that really bugs me is you can be on a jury – yet you are not treated as an adult until you’re 21 in the judicial system.

“That can’t be right.”

Mrs Harper is also campaigning for tougher penalties in a move backed by the Police Federation, which represents more than 120,000 officers up to the rank of chief inspector.

She said: “As a widow of a police officer – a title which I would give everything to not have – I have witnessed first-hand the lenient and insufficient way in which the justice system deals with criminals who take the lives of our emergency workers.

“The people responsible for wreaking utter despair and grief in all of our lives will spend an inadequate amount of time behind bars.

“These men who showed no remorse, no guilt or sorrow for taking such an innocent and heroic life away will find themselves able to live out the rest of their lives free and able to commit more crimes and continue to put people in danger when they are released in a very small number of years.”

Since 2015, the starting point for a judge sentencing an adult over the age of 21 who has been convicted of murdering a police or prison officer is a whole life sentence.

The judge then takes aggravating and mitigating factors into account before either passing a life sentence with a minimum jail term, or a whole life order – but where the conviction is for manslaughter the sentencing range stretches from nothing to life.

I am absolutely with Andrew Harper’s family on reduced sentencing for those aged under 21, in this day and age it is totally out of date as a line to be drawn in the sentencing sand.

We need to change our system and make the term ‘young offender’ apply to those who are under the age of 18 – and as a result apply sentencing reductions to those aged under 18 when the offence was committed.

Those who are aged 18 and over should be treated as adults and be sentenced as such – if you are old enough to join the army, and die on active service for your country, then you are old enough to be treated as an adult.

However I am not with Andrew Harper’s family in demanding a minimum 20 year sentence without reduction or parole because a police officer died in the crime for which the conviction was manslaughter.

What happened to Andrew Harper was horrific but a fundamental cornerstone of English criminal law is that we leave matters of guilt to the jury – in this case the jury decided the evidence that those in the car knew Andrew Harper was being dragged behind it simply wasn’t there beyond a reasonable doubt and, as a result, manslaughter was the appropriate verdict.

Now we can all disagree with that; personally I find it inconceivable those in the car were not looking through the back window to see if the police car was following them, and if so they must have seen the officer being dragged behind their vehicle – but I was not in court, I did not hear the evidence and I was not on that jury – and in all probability neither were you.

The reality is that we are where we are.

If the Attorney General decides to refer the case to the Court of Appeal under the unduly lenient sentencing arrangements –  and it would be political suicide for her not to do so in my view – [she referred it on 21st August 2020] then the Court of Appeal will get the chance to review the sentence that was passed.

What we must not do, however sympathetic we are to the family of Andrew Harper, is allow cases where emotion is the driving factor to change our legal system – it is education not emotion that is needed here.

Murder of a police officer already carries a whole life sentence, which is absolutely right, but we do not advance the cause of justice by moving the legal goalposts and pretending a conviction for a lesser offence ought to be treated as more serious just because emotion skews the reality.

UPDATE 16th December 2020

The Court of Appeal has rejected the appeal of the Attorney General, who argued the sentences were unduly lenient and they clarified the law in relation to life sentences with Whole Life orders – read the judgment >>