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Reflections on life as a prison governor - By Simon Hart
For Brendan O’Friel, the idea for the book he has written about prisons in this country had been gestating for quite some time. For three decades, to be precise. ‘The book started with a lot of people telling me after the Strangeways riot, “You’ve got to write your account of what happened”,’ reflects the man who was governor of Strangeways Prison in Manchester when a 25-day riot and rooftop protest took place there in April 1990.
The idea kept coming back, notably in 2015 when he appeared in a documentary to mark the riot’s 25th anniversary and found some of his grandchildren suddenly eager to learn more. Yet, as he explains from his home on the Isle of Man, it was actually something that Pope Francis said which pushed the parishioner of St Columba’s in Port Erin to get writing. ‘The guy who really made me sit up and think was Pope Francis, who said, “We can’t just go back to what we used to call normal. We’ve got to change the world to a different and better place.” I thought, “Well, okay, I’ve got to put my twopennyworth in.’
The end result is his book, Prison Governor’s Journal, which is now available, offering his account of the prison service between 1945 and 1995 and a reflection on its current state. ‘With the pandemic you could see what it was going to do to both staff and prisoners,’ remarks Brendan, now 80. ‘The prison service has been getting into an increasing mess through the last 10 years. They’d made a bit of progress prior to that but from 2010 onwards, the government cut the funding, and didn’t cut the numbers so things just went downhill.’
The question of numbers is pivotal, he explains. ‘The real problem for the prison service is that since 1947 onwards they’ve been hit by overcrowding. The energy of management, to a far too great extent, was turned to just coping with this overcrowding. If you think that in 1946 there were about 15,000 people in prisons and now there are about 80,000 that’s a huge increase and we have to ask why. My book is very much saying we have got to get the prison population right down. The challenge is getting people to think who we send to prison, how long we send them to prison for and what we should be trying to do with them in prison.
‘Once people are in the system our job is to try to reduce the prospects of reoffending and that’s been extremely difficult to do really for the past 70 years because the prisons have been distracted and overwhelmed by the number of prisoners and just surviving rather than saying, “How can we stimulate and challenge prisoners to increase the chances of them not reoffending?”.’
Brendan speaks from a position of vast experience. Following an education at Stonyhurst College and the University of Liverpool, he embarked on a 33-year career in the prison service which took in nine different prisons, concluding with five years as governor of Risley Prison near Warrington. From 1990-95 he was also chairman of the Prison Governors’ Association. His Catholic faith provided a guiding force throughout. ‘I make no apology for saying religious principles and the importance of treating people as individuals and with dignity is driven in part by what has been imparted to me by family and the Church,’ he reflects.
‘I never made a secret of the fact some prisoners behave extremely badly. I used an expression that a lot of people raised their eyebrows at during the early days of the Strangeways riot when I described the behaviour as an “explosion of evil”. The use of the word evil pulled some people up short but I’m perfectly happy to stand by that. Yet just because you’re confronted with some extremely bad behaviour, it doesn’t mean you forget about people.’
Indeed, while reoffending rates might suggest otherwise, he believes that most prisoners can find a way out of crime if given ‘the right opportunities to acquire skills, literacy, to improve their health and fitness, and if on release they have accommodation to go to, jobs to go to, and good support and supervision not just from probation staff but also from the voluntary organisations who play a really important part like the SVP. There are a lot of prisoners who first of all wouldn’t reoffend at all and some who, if they did, it’d be more likely to be a less serious offence so you move them down the scale of how great a threat they are to the public.’ He recalls with a shudder the assertion by former Home Secretary Michael Howard that ‘prison works’, arguing that ‘all the evidence is that prison does not work’. Yet it would help, he acknowledges, if the support structures required for those returning to life on the outside were more solid.
In his own career there was no greater challenge than finding a response to the eruption of disorder at Strangeways.’ ‘The impact on me was considerable,’ he remembers, ‘because not only did I have to manage the riot for 25 days but the first few days were particularly tiresome because it was dangerous. We were in danger of being seriously injured and were dealing with a totally unprecedented situation.
‘There was some extraordinary bad behaviour by prisoners causing fires, beating up the more vulnerable of the prisoners, but what made it considerably worse for me was on day two we assembled quite a large force to take the prison and rather at the last minute, headquarters blocked the proposal to retake the prison.’ If that was an unpopular order for those on the ground, towards the riot’s end, the then director-general of the prisons, Chris Train, told Radio 4’s Today programme that it was Brendan ‘who’d taken the decision not to attack the prison’. Fortunately the ensuing Woolf report told the truth about that situation and Brendan ended his career overseeing change at Risley Prison.
‘If you read the book you’ll find in the chapter after Strangeways, I go to Risley and picked up the pieces of another very damaged establishment and was able to make a huge amount of progress, with a tremendously good staff team I worked with,’ he says. ‘We pushed it from “Grisly Risley” as it used to be known to an establishment that was regarded by the chief inspector of prisons as a centre of excellence.
‘You can tell to a degree by the improved behaviour you get within the institution – the way prisoners treat each other, the way they treat staff, the way they acquire qualifications. Even hard-bitten prison staff like myself might start saying about individuals who’d given us a hard time, “You know, I think they’re starting to change and improve”. It does indeed happen. It doesn’t mean when they get out they’re going to be totally good but they are on a path that’ll take them away from criminality.’ It is a positive note to end on – and readers of his book will find drawings by former prisoners offering, literally, the perfect illustration.
Find out more at www.prisongovernorjournal.com