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How to foster leadership in future prisons
Latest blog post on the RSA Future Prisons report which looks at the key issues of leadership, governor automony and devolution as drivers of penal reform.

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This is the third in a short series of posts on the RSA’s Future Prison project which sets out a blueprint for the modernisation of our prison system.

Leadership and autonomy

One of the few things we know about Michael Gove’s proposed penal reform programme (and it seems increasingly unlikely that he will still be Justice Secretary by the Autumn) is that the new approach will give governors much more autonomy to run their own establishment.

The Future Prison report dedicates a chapter to leadership and autonomy and explores what these media-friendly concepts would mean in practice.

Little power but plenty of responsibility

The report summarises the current situation:

There seems to be widespread agreement that the current system of centralisation catches all and that is ultimately inefficient. It leaves governors with little discretion or ability to do what suits his or her prison or to be able to adapt to what can be rapid changes in needs or opportunities.

That said, a number of governors do, clearly, make a difference. The RSA report basically comes to the same conclusion that I have formed over many years of evaluating prison-based initiatives: that best practice in the prison system often comes about despite, rather than because of, the system. Leadership, perseverance and a culture of “do first and ask permission later” are often the hallmarks of the wide number of positive initiatives which flourish (often in unexpected corners) of our prison estate.

The question, then, is how a new prison system can drive rather than restrict this positivity whilst ensuring that greater operational independence does not also lead to failings and abuse.

The RSA project considers governor autonomy under three main themes:

  1. What this means for leadership;
  2. What this could mean for national and local commissioning; and
  3. How greater autonomy could sit within the wider issue of devolution of public services.

Unsurprisingly, the RSA puts these issues at the centre of the Future Prison project:

Future Prison key themes


The Project’s leadership focus is around the individual capabilities that governors and senior management teams may need in the future; exploring what kind of governor the future prison system needs and the risks and challenges of greater freedoms; not least to governors’ themselves
who currently rely heavily on regulation and support from the centre.

  • The Project sets out to ask a number of key questions about leadership, some of which I reproduce here:
  • With rehabilitation as the central mission for all prisons, what core competencies and behaviours do future governors need?
  • What does ‘good’ look like in the future prison, what should be measured in order to drive performance and can the number of measures be
  • If local prison boards are to become the norm, what will be their purpose and who should be their members?
  • What is the right reward structure for future prison leaders?
  • From where might future prison leaders be recruited?


Central to fostering more autonomy is the balance of national and local control. Autonomy is not inevitably a ‘good thing’; poor governors will not necessarily achieve better outcomes, just as good governors do comparatively well under a centralised system. But, the RSA argues, prison leaders may need to become more outward and downward facing, rather inward and upward facing.

The RSA project sets out the key issues that it is exploring around governor autonomy for the rest of 2016:

  • How is risk shared under the current arrangements, what concerns would greater autonomy bring and how could these be mitigated?
  • What targets and incentives do governors currently have and how do these drive behaviour?
  • What changes would the future governor be able to make in relation to his or her workforce, including how they are profiled across the establishment, trained and developed?
  • How much of governors’ time is spent on managing contracts with external suppliers and what choice does she or he have over these?
  • How could greater governor autonomy change the mature of what happens to people when they leave custody including the work of the Community Rehabilitation Companies and what is the governor’s role in this?


Although there have been a number of recent calls for responsibility for justice, including prison, services to be devolved either locally or regionally, the RSA treads carefully and explores whether in addition to greater autonomy, there may be more radical changes that integrate prisons into a wider local, regional or sub-regional arrangements which take a more strategic approach to how criminal justice services and related interventions can better meet the needs of their communities, invest-up stream and pool resources.

Again, the RSA sets out a number of key issues which it intends to explore in more detail over the next few months:

  1. What are the current divisions between central control and local discretion and what are the advantages and disadvantages of this when it comes to rehabilitation?
  2. How might a devolved approach change the nature of the relationship between communities and both prisoners and prisons as an institution?
    In terms of sentencing, empathy and social value?
  3. What models of accountability would be desirable and pragmatic?


There are a number of obvious challenges in realising the goals of more autonomy for individual prisons, not least the fact that many prisons accommodate prisoners from a very wide area, rather than serving their local populations, which makes it much more difficult to join up with other commissioning and delivery systems.

There is, however, a broad and very welcome consensus, that real change is unlikely unless governors are formally supported and encouraged to run their own establishment in the best way to meet the needs of their particular population.


Thanks to Rachel O’Brien and the Future Prison project for access to some of the background papers supporting this project.


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One Response

  1. Thank you Russel for this informative piece of work.

    I am really interested in Prisons as Rehabilitation Centres.

    I have a few projects on the go one is called Peace in Prison where I am having my first attempt Crowdfunding .
    And one called:
    Start Again, with a calm equanimous and aware mind.

    I am looking for interested and proactive organisations or individuals, who are willing to work with me to help people out of marginalisation, who have been SPAMD….Stigmatised, Prejudiced , Angered , Misunderstood and Discriminated against. (S.P.A.M .D)
    Sometimes suffering from the affects of ADHD, ADD , Autism and Dyslexia in all its vaired forms.

    Starting with some of the most hard to reach people such as; prisoners and ex offenders who want to be valuable contributors to our society.

    Below is a very brief outline of what I am proposing.

    I am looking for Governors, people and heads of organisations who are autonomous enough and ready to be bold enough to make changes.

    My ultimate chief aim is to improve conditions on our planet, leaving it a better place to live after we move on.

    Briefly, my proposal would begin by delivering training and therapeutic interventions in the application , treatment and delivery of Acu-Stim. Please see web site for my background and further information.
    The Acu-Stim training and treatment described on the above web site would initially be used as an engagement tool, which would first bring about a calm, relaxed and aware state of mind and body. Helping people to be more receptive to change their paradigm at a deep and causal level. Moreover, at the same time as increasing relaxation, confidence and self esteem.

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