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What does prison governor autonomy mean?
The government's prison reform white paper details the powers which will be devolved to individual governors to allow them to develop a modern prison service.

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In this third post on last Thursday’s (3 November 2016) Prison Safety and Reform white paper, I look in more detail at the MoJ’s plans to “empower governors” which it sees as the main lever for driving prison reform. (The other two posts are a brief summary of the white paper and a look at the details of the MoJ’s plans to improve prison safety.)

The white paper sets out the current problem of an over-controlling centre:

There are tens of thousands of pages of instructions covering every conceivable aspect of prison life. At the moment, services in prison are sometimes poorly coordinated, and are often designed and commissioned above establishment level. Governors lack the levers they need to integrate these so that prisoners receive the right services at the right time.

Earlier in the year, the MoJ designated six establishments (Wandsworth, Holme House, Coldingley, Kirklevington Grange, High Down and Ranby) as reform prisons and gave their governors operational and financial authority in five key areas to:

  • spend budgets more flexibly to prioritise the issues that matter in their particular prison;
  • design new strategies to recruit, manage, develop and recognise staff so they attract the right people and retain them;
  • manage staff more flexibly to increase frontline numbers and support safety, security and rehabilitation;
  • decide which goods and services they buy locally and who supplies them; and
  • decide who they partner with and what services they commission.

The white paper makes it clear that the MoJ wishes to roll out this greater autonomy throughout the prison system.


A devolution timetable

The white paper very helpfully sets out a proposed timetable to give governors greater authority on a phased basis over the next two years; the details below are reproduced in full from the document:

From April 2017, we will give governors greater authority in the following areas:

  • Accredited programmes: governors will be able to choose which programmes to run for prisoners to tackle their offending behaviour. They can focus on those most suited to the types of offenders in their prison, drawing on the improved national evidence base;
  • Health: we will move to a joint approach to commissioning health services in England, with governors jointly involved in the decision making process at each stage of the commissioning cycle alongside local NHS commissioners;
  • Work: governors will be able to develop local commercial relationships to provide meaningful work opportunities for prisoners. They will be able to reinvest the income they generate to deliver additional services or grow their employment offer;
  • Staff: governors will be able to design their staffing structure from scratch and hire the senior leadership team, officers and specialists with the skills they think the prison needs;
  • Budgets: governors will decide how they spend their money rather than being given specific budgets for different things, with tight restrictions on how they spend it;
  • Operating framework: governors will be able to introduce operational policies that fit the prison, as long as they meet minimum national requirements, rather than having to comply to the letter with hundreds of detailed instructions.

During the course of 2017 and 2018:

  • Education: we will give governors the budget and responsibility for education once current contracts end so that they can overhaul education provision completely;
  • Family ties: we will give governors the budget and responsibility for services to families so that prisoners can build and keep family ties;
  • Contracts: we will review national contracts as they come to an end, to assess whether we should devolve responsibility to governors or (where we continue with a national approach) give governors greater flexibility to buy elsewhere if they choose.

A modern employment strategy

The white paper puts considerable emphasis on making a “fundamental shift” to preparing offenders for future employment in modern jobs.

It sets out expectations that governors will operate in an entrepreneurial fashion making links with employers in local labour markets and re-shaping the prison day in order to make the most of commercial opportunities.

They will also be empowered to incentivise prisoners to gain new skills and reward them appropriately for the work they undertake for outside companies.

Critically, governors will be allowed to reinvest income as they see fit.

The white paper also announces a new Prisoner Apprenticeship Pathway which will allow inmates to start a formal apprenticeship inside:

Prisoners will have access to the same high quality training and education that an apprentice could expect in the community, and will not need to repeat training that they have successfully completed in custody on release, if they can demonstrate competence in the activity they are being trained in during the apprenticeship.

There is also mention of devolution on a wider scale with a recommendation of co-commissioning with local authorities to ensure that offender services are aligned with community-based services which are key for successful rehabilitation. Unsurprisingly, the MoJ cite the devolution deal that they have just brokered with the councils across the Greater Manchester area.


At first glance, it appears that the MoJ is serious about devolving powers to governors which, in my opinion, is the only way for the prison service to modernise and make a proper attempt to focus on rehabilitation.

There are, of course, huge challenges.

While some governors will relish the opportunity to run their own prison and will thrive on the greater freedom and responsibility, others will lack the experience, attitude or skills to operate in a more entrepreneurial climate.

It is assumed by many (including me) that the resourcing for a prison reform programme can only come from making very substantial cuts to the NOMS budget (it makes little sense to devolve power and keep such a large central department) but there is no mention of this in the white paper. In fact, the word NOMS does not appear once in the document.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to look forwards with a sense of anticipation and not a little hope.


Interested in helping the MoJ take prison reform forward?

There are 30 justice policy posts on the jobs board, based in London £29k-£40k, closing date 16 November 2016.


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