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Following the evidence in prisons management

Our managing director for prisons, Jerry Petherick, on moving beyond casual assumptions about the values and expertise of those involved in prisons management
Jerry Petherick

From Texas to Tasmania, penal systems around the world are asking profound questions about the purpose of prisons and the balance that society demands between punishment and rehabilitation. As prison leaders and officers gather in Melbourne this week for the annual International Corrections and Prisons Association conference, top of the agenda is how to manage risk from offenders and achieve better results for victims, prisoners and taxpayers.

While every jurisdiction will develop its own specific responses, many of our operational challenges are the same and we share the overarching goal of creating a prison environment which helps to reduce reoffending and cut the number of future victims of crime. Rehabilitation is complex and we have seen in our experience that there is no single formula to turn offenders away from crime. In the UK, at HMP Rye Hill in Warwickshire our teams deliver sex offender treatment programmes and in south Wales at HMP Parc, we have developed the world's first family interventions unit with a focus on the family as the crucible of reform. Here in Australia, a colleague responsible for the youth unit at Port Phillip prison will receive an award this week for her work to support and reform young people. This is a complicated mixture and requires us to have the right organisations - with the right expertise - to have a meaningful impact on prisoners' behaviour, attitude and likelihood of reoffending. 

Key to this mixture is setting clear goals for a prison, with clear lines of accountability and a sense of common purpose and values. Later this week, I'll be talking to the conference about our experience at HMP Birmingham, which in 2011 was the first UK prison to transfer from public to private management. Throughout that process, we worked collaboratively with our customer, the Ministry of Justice, our colleagues in the Prison Officers Association (POA) and with partners including the local authority and police, to create a shared vision and sense of purpose for one of the busiest prisons in the UK. This has delivered results both for prisoners and the taxpayer. After just three months, an unannounced inspection found the prison to be "cleaner, safer and more decent" and in August this year, an independent three-year study of progress reported that the public service ethos of the prison was "rekindled" under private sector management.

This counter-intuitive conclusion is instructive and shows that to embed changes, we need to move beyond casual assumptions about the respective values or areas of expertise of the public, private or third sectors. We need to look instead at the evidence, share best practice and continue to develop the approach to prison management. After more than 30 years' experience in the management and operation of prisons, there is no doubt in my mind that prisons systems benefit from a diverse, multi-agency approach to reforming prisoners, cutting recidivism and lowering the burden of crime on our communities. This requires all of us to be open with the public and partners about what we deliver, how our success should be measured and commit to a unrelenting focus to follow the evidence.

The presentation linked to within this piece was first delivered at the International Corrections and Prisons Association conference in Melbourne on 27 October 2015