Did the reform prisons pilot work?

Official evaluation of reform prisons pilot found positive potential of devolving powers to prison governors.

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Governor autonomy

Between July 2016 and December 2017, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) trialled greater autonomy for prison governors across six prisons. This was known as the reform prison pilot and allowed the prisons governors more control over key aspects of prison management and service delivery.

This included local prison budgets and contracts, staff recruitment and management and local partnerships. Further, each ‘reform’ prison received a one-off mobilisation budget of £1m and additional staff to fund and resource the delivery of the pilot. New governance structures were also created in the prisons. Executive governors and executive teams formed of senior staff were introduced to lead and deliver reform in the prisons and wider groups of local establishments, which grew in number during the pilot.

Earlier this month, the MoJ published a qualitative evaluation of the pilot (undertaken by Ellie Roberts, Sarah Sharrock, Merili Pullerits, Matt Barnard and Caroline Turley of NatCen Social Research) which:

  • described the range of perceived impacts of the reform pilot in the six prisons;
  • identified the factors that influenced the degree to which the new governance and performance management arrangements were achieving intended benefits; and
  • mapped the effect of the reform pilot on the prisons’ partners.

Key findings

Each prison used their new powers differently, depending on contextual factors such as their prison population, category, and the stability of their regime. Changes were made across four main areas: budgets and contracts; human resources; the prison regime; and, buildings and facilities. Key changes included:

  • Budgetary flexibilities enabled the prisons to maximise financial savings by improving access to funds and reducing the level of bureaucracy involved in procurement. For example, pilot prisons purchased goods and services more quickly in line with their needs and priorities when spending limits on government procurement cards (GPCs) were increased.
  • Contractual flexibilities were used to review services. Reform prisons sought to renegotiate contracts using existing contractual terms and discuss underperformance, which led to improvements in specific areas of service delivery, for example, gardening and maintenance contracts.1 There was also evidence of prisons commissioning new services, which were often with smaller, local partners.
  • Reform was used to stabilise prison regimes through the development of targeted, local human resource (HR) solutions to speed up the process of recruitment and improve conditions for existing staff. A wider Government drive to increase staffing across the prison estate was also felt to have improved feelings of stability within the reform prisons.
  • Some prisons had used the reform pilot to expand or improve regimes to benefit prisoners. In relation to work and education, this included more varied education programmes, new workshops and one-off events such as recruitment fairs.
  • The prisons spent a proportion of their reform budgets on estates projects such as refurbishing wings and purchasing new furniture to improve the look and feel of their environments in a timely way. Changes were reported to enhance morale and improve the atmosphere and mood of the prisons.
© Andy Aitchison

Barriers to delivery

A range of barriers were perceived to have challenged the delivery of reform work across the prisons.

  • Contextual challenges relating to a reduction in staff numbers, and increases in substance misuse, for example, were perceived to have limited the capacity of some prisons to effectively use reform powers in a timely way. It was thought to be important to stabilise operating environments as a priority before implementing new reform work.
  • A range of communication challenges were perceived to have inhibited delivery and partnership working across reform projects and between staff and stakeholders at different levels. For example, some staff participants were unclear how reform differed from other things happening in the prisons and some prisoners had not heard about the pilot at all. Effective and consistent communication from senior teams within prison groups and HQ was thought to be important in sustaining engagement in the future.
  • Some areas were perceived to be too big or risky to change using the new powers. For example, some prisons found that they were unable to exit larger national contracts as this would have been expensive and resource-intensive. To manage risk, some larger projects were delivered over a longer period than originally intended or in some cases halted to ensure the safe implementation of new policies and process across the reform prisons.


Contextual challenges such as understaffing and increases in substance misuse were perceived to make it harder for prisons to deliver reform. However, there were examples of new services, projects and models of delivery and a sense across different areas of work that the reform prisons were making efforts to deliver personalised, local services embedded within their communities. While many changes were introduced across the reform prisons, the extent to which improvements were thought to be innovative and experimental was questioned.
Going forward, there was an acceptance that larger and more transformational projects would take more time to safely develop and deliver. It will be important that prison governors and directors are able to access key learning to continue to safely innovate at a local level using devolved powers.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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