“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.

Update:

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:

Why?

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.

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