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What does prison governor autonomy mean?

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Written ministerial statement

To accompany the Prisons and Courts Bill published last Thursday (24 February 2017), Justice Secretary Liz Truss published a written ministerial statement which provided more information on new performance indicators for which governors, with their new devolved powers, will be responsible.

The Bill enshrines in statute the purpose of prison, setting out for the first time that reform of offenders is a key aim for prisons and makes clear how the Secretary of State for Justice will account to Parliament for progress in reforming offenders.

The Bill also provides strengthened powers to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, including enabling the Chief Inspector to trigger an urgent response from the Secretary of State where they have significant concerns about a particular prison that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. It puts the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman on a statutory footing, giving them greater permanence and powers.

The white paper set out how this new framework would be underpinned by new standards, a new commissioning structure and new powers for governors.

Three year performance agreements

The statement says that the MoJ will create new, 3 year performance agreements signed by the Secretary of State and the governor of each prison. The agreements will be phased in over the next two years: the first third of prisons will sign the new agreements on 1 April, with the other two thirds moving to this approach by 1 April 2019. The agreements will include the following standards, based on the aims for prisons set out in the Bill, which governors will be held to account for:

  • Reforming offenders; measured by:
    • Time spent out of cell, starting from April 2017 in the prisons where the technology to track this has been introduced;
    • Progress made in getting offenders off drugs. Prisoners will be tested on entry and exit with a phased roll out beginning in 2017;
    • Progress made in health, starting with a measure of medical appointments attended by prisoners starting in England from April 2017;
    • Progress made in maths and English, starting with qualifications gained from April 2017 and introducing testing on entry and exit in the longer term; and
    • Progress in maintaining or developing family relationships. This will be a new measure which we are currently developing.
  • Protecting the public; measured by:
    • The number of escapes from closed prisons;
    • The number of absconds from open prisons; and
    • Compliance with key security processes such as searching.
  • Preparing prisoners for life on release; measured by
    • Rate of prisoners being released to suitable accommodation;
    • Rates of sustainable employment, including apprenticeships, and education in the period following release.
  • Improving safety; measured by:
    • Assaults on prison staff and prisoners;
    • Disorder and self-harm; and
    • Staff and prisoner perceptions of safety.

The Justice Secretary has emphasised the importance of transparency and the written statements commits the MoJ to publish data setting out how prisons are performing. Data will be collected from April 2017 and regular official stats will be published starting in October 2017.

prison governor autonomy

Empowering governors to deliver

The statement goes on to set out some details on the powers to be devolved to prison governors, arguing that if they are to be held accountable for the indicators set out above, they must have new powers to do so. From 1 April 2017, governors will have the freedom to:

  • Design their regime to meet local delivery needs and target training and work in prisons to match the local labour market. Prisoners could, for example, work shift patterns to deliver new commercial contracts. This would help them to meet the standards to reform offenders and prepare prisoners for life on release.
  • Decide their workforce strategy, including their staffing structure, to support meeting the standards. They could bring in specialists to work with particular types of prisoners, and tailor their staffing to support the prison regime they have designed.
  • Control how they spend their resource budget. They could choose, for example, to pay for increased dedicated police officer time to reduce criminal activity in prison to improve safety and protect the public.
  • Plan and take decisions about health services jointly with local health commissioners, through a co-commissioning framework.

Additional powers will be devolved in due time with governors empowered to:

  • Decide what education opportunities they offer. Over 2017 and 2018, governors will get control of the education budget, so that they can overhaul education and training to match the skills and qualifications prisoners need in the local labour market.
  • Control how family support services work. From autumn 2017, governors will control budgets for family services, like visitors’ centres and parenting skills classes, so they can choose the right way to support family relationships.
  • Have more say on the goods and services in their prison. As each national contract ends, for example on food or equipment, additional powers will be devolved.

This process of devolution and deregulation is being supported by learning from the work of the six reform prisons. These prisons will continue to explore and identify options for devolution across the estate as wider reforms are implemented. The MoJ has commissioned a formal evaluation to support this with regular feedback being provided to inform policy development ahead of the final report in early 2018.


So the prison reform programme, which was the centre piece of the Queen’s Speech in May 2016, will be fully launched on 1st April. Whatever your feelings about the likely success of the approach, I, for one, am impressed by the speed of progress. Given Brexit and all that surrounds it, prison reform appears to be the one area where government is pushing ahead with a sense of purpose.

If you want to make prison reform a reality, do get involved in the New Futures Network which is seeking to support governors, staff and prisoners on the ground.


All prison posts are kindly sponsored by Prison Consultants Limited who offer a complete service from arrest to release for anyone facing prison and their family. Prison Consultants have no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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