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An interview with Phil O’Brien by John O’Brien
Phil O’Brien started his prison officer training in January 1970. His first posting, at HMDC Kirklevington, in April 1970. In a forty-year career, he also served at HMP Brixton, HMP Wakefield, HMYOI Castington, HMP Full Sutton, HMRC Low Newton and HMP Frankland. He moved through the ranks and finished his public sector career as Head of Operations at Frankland. In 2006, he moved into the private sector, where he worked for two years at HMP Forest Bank before taking up consultancy roles at Harmondsworth IRC, HMP Addiewell and HMP Bronzefield, where he carried out investigations and advised on training issues. Phil retired in 2011. In September 2018, he published Can I Have a Word, Boss?, a memoir of his time in the prison service.
John O’Brien holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Leeds, where he specialised in autobiography studies.
You deal in the first two chapters of the book with training. How do you reflect upon your training now, and how do you feel it prepared you for a career in the service?
I believe that the training I received set me up for any success I might have had. I never forgot the basics I was taught on that initial course. On one level, we’re talking about practical things like conducting searches, monitoring visits, keeping keys out of the sight of prisoners. On another level, we’re talking about the development of more subtle skills like observing patterns of behaviour and developing an intimate knowledge of the prisoners in your charge, that is, getting to know them so well that you can predict what they are going to do before they do it. Put simply, we were taught how best to protect the public, which includes both prisoners and staff. Those basics were a constant for me.
Tell me about the importance of the provision of education and training for prisoners. Your book seems to suggest that Low Newton was particularly successful in this regard.
Many prisoners lack basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. For anyone leaving the prison system, reading and writing are crucial in terms of functioning effectively in society, even if it’s only in order to access the benefits available on release.
At Low Newton, a largely juvenile population, the education side of the regime was championed by two governing governors, Mitch Egan and Mike Kirby. In addition, we had a well-resourced and extremely committed set of teachers. I was Head of Inmate Activities at Low Newton and therefore had direct responsibility for education.
The importance of education and training is twofold:
Firstly, it gives people skills and better fits them for release.
Secondly, a regime that fully engages prisoners leaves less time for the nonsense often associated with jails: bullying, drug-dealing, escaping.
To what extent do you believe that the requirements of security, control and justice can be kept in balance?
Security, control, and justice are crucial to the health of any prison. If you keep these factors in balance, afford them equal attention and respect, you can’t be accused of bias one way or the other.
Security refers to your duty to have measures in place that prevent escapes – your duty to protect the public.
Control refers to your duty to create and maintain a safe environment for all.
Justice is about treating people with respect and providing them with the opportunities to address their offending behaviour. You can keep them in balance. It’s one of the fundamentals of the job. But you have to maintain an objective and informed view of how these factors interact and overlap. It comes with experience.
What changed most about the prison service in your time?
One of the major changes was Fresh Start in 1987/88, which got rid of overtime and the Chief Officer rank. Fresh Start made prison governors more budget aware and responsible. It was implemented more effectively at some places than others, so it wasn’t without its wrinkles.
Another was the Woolf report, which looked at the causes of the Strangeways riot. The Woolf report concentrated on refurbishment, decent living and working conditions, and full regimes for prisoners with all activities starting and ending on time. It also sought to enlarge the Cat D estate, which would allow prisoners to work in outside industry prior to release. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t yet come to pass sufficiently. It’s an opportunity missed.
What about in terms of security?
When drugs replaced snout and hooch as currency in the 1980s, my security priorities changed in order to meet the new threat. I had to develop ways of disrupting drug networks, both inside and outside prison, and to find ways to mitigate targeted subversion of staff by drug gangs.
In my later years, in the high security estate, there was a real fear and expectation of organised criminals breaking into jails to affect someone’s escape, so we had to organise anti-helicopter defences.
The twenty-first century also brought a changed, and probably increased, threat of terrorism, which itself introduced new security challenges.
You worked in prisons of different categories. What differences and similarities did you find in terms of management in these different environments?
Right from becoming a senior officer, a first line manager at Wakefield, I adopted a modus operandi I never changed. I called it ‘managing by walking about’. It was about talking and listening, making sure I was there for staff when things got difficult. It’s crucial for a manager to be visible to prisoners and staff on a daily basis. It shows intent and respect.
I distinctly remember Phil Copple, when he was governor at Frankland, saying one day: “How do you find time to get around your areas of responsibility every day when other managers seem tied to their chairs?” I found that if I talked to all the staff, I was responsible for every day, it would prevent problems coming to my office later when I might be pushed for time. Really, it was a means of saving time.
The job is the same wherever you are. Whichever category of prison you are working in, you must get the basics right, be fair and face the task head on.
The concept of intelligence features prominently in the book. Can you talk a bit about intelligence, both in terms of security and management?
Successful intelligence has always depended on the collection of information.
The four stages in the intelligence cycle are: collation, analysis, dissemination and action. If you talk to people in the right way, they respond. I discovered this as soon as I joined the service, and it was particularly noticeable at Brixton.
Prisoners expect to be treated fairly, to get what they’re entitled to and to be included in the conversation. When this happens, they have a vested interest in keeping the peace. It’s easy to forget that prisoners are also members of the community, and they have the same problems as everyone else. That is, thinking about kids, schools, marriages, finances. Many are loyal and conservative. The majority don’t like seeing other people being treated unfairly, and this includes prisoner on prisoner interaction, bullying etc. If you tap into this facet of their character, they’ll often help you right the wrongs. That was my experience.
Intelligence used properly can be a lifesaver.
You refer to Kirklevington as an example of how prisons should work. What was so positive about their regime at the time?
It had vision and purpose and it delivered.
It was one of the few jails where I worked that consistently delivered what it was contracted to deliver. Every prisoner was given paid work opportunities prior to release, ensuring he could compete on equal terms when he got out. The regime had in place effective monitoring, robust assessments of risk, regular testing for substance abuse and sentence-planning meetings that included input from family and home probation officers.
Once passed out to work, each prisoner completed a period of unpaid work for the benefit of the local community – painting, decorating, gardening etc.
There was excellent communication.
The system just worked.
The right processes were in place.
To what extent do you feel you were good at your job because you understood the prisoners? That you were, in some way, the same?
I come from Ripleyville, in Bradford, a slum cleared in the 1950s. Though the majority of people were honest and hardworking, the area had its minority of ne’er-do-wells. I never pretended that I was any better than anyone else coming from this background.
Whilst a prisoner officer under training at Leeds, I came across a prisoner I’d known from childhood on my first day. When I went to Brixton, a prisoner from Bradford came up to me and said he recognised me and introduced himself. I’d only been there a couple of weeks. I don’t know if it was because of my background, but I took an interest in individual prisoners, trying to understand what made them tick, as soon as I joined the job.
I found that if I was fair and communicated with them, the vast majority would come half way and meet me on those terms. Obviously, my working in so many different kinds of establishments undoubtedly helped. It gave me a wide experience of different regimes and how prisoners react in those regimes.
How important was humour in the job? And, therefore, in the book?
Humour is crucial. Often black humour. If you note, a number of my ex-colleagues who have reviewed the book mention the importance of humour. It helps calm situations. Both staff and prisoners appreciate it. It can help normalise situations – potentially tense situations. Of course, if you use it, you’ve got to be able to take it, too.
What are the challenges, as you see them, for graduate management staff in prisons?
Credibility, possibly, at least at the beginning of their career. This was definitely a feature of my earlier years, where those in the junior governor ranks were seen as nobodies. The junior governors were usually attached to a wing with a PO, and the staff tended to look towards the PO for guidance. The department took steps to address this with the introduction of the accelerated promotion scheme, which saw graduate entrants spending time on the landing in junior uniform ranks before being fast-tracked to PO. They would be really tested in that rank.
There will always be criticism of management by uniform staff – it goes with the territory. A small minority of graduate staff failed to make sufficient progress at this stage and remained in the uniform ranks. This tended to cement the system’s credibility in the eyes of uniform staff.
Were there any other differences between graduate governors and governors who had come through the ranks?
The accelerated promotion grades tended to have a clearer career path and were closely mentored by a governor grade at HQ and by governing governors at their home establishments and had regular training. However, I lost count of the number of phone calls I received from people who were struggling with being newly promoted from the ranks to the governor grades. They often felt that they hadn’t been properly trained for their new role, particularly in relation to paperwork, which is a staple of governor grade jobs.
From the point of view of the early 21stC, what were the main differences between prisons in the public and private sectors?
There’s little difference now between public and private sector prisons. Initially, the public sector had a massive advantage in terms of the experience of staff across the ranks. Now, retention of staff seems to be a problem in both sectors. The conditions of service were better in the public sector in my time, but this advantage has been eroded. Wages are similar, retirement age is similar. The retirement age has risen substantially since I finished.
In my experience, private sector managers were better at managing budgets. As regards staff, basic grade staff in both sectors were equally keen and willing to learn. All that staff in either sector really needed was purpose, a coherent vision and support.
A couple of times towards the end of your book, you hint at the idea that your time might have passed. Does your approach belong to a particular historical moment?
I felt that all careers have to come to an end at some point and I could see that increasing administrative control would deprive my work of some of its pleasures. It was time to go before bitterness set in. Having said that, when I came back, I still found that the same old-fashioned skills were needed to deal with what I had been contracted to do. So, maybe I was a bit premature.
My approaches and methods were developed historically, over the entire period of my forty-year career. Everywhere I went, I tried to refine the basics that I had learned on that initial training course.
Thank you to John O’Brien for enabling Phil to share his experiences.
Busy London streets
I made my way out of the crowds towards my destination: The National Portrait Gallery, London.
Although this will be a time to indulge my love of Art, I’m actually here to interview rather than be an interviewee.
I arrived early and found a quiet(ish) corner of the café to collect my thoughts, helped enormously by the Earl Grey tea and slice of orange and polenta cake.
Two days previously I attended the Koestler Art exhibition on the South Bank entitled “Another Me”
I prefer to visit alone; I don’t want other people’s initial reflections to become mine. For me it’s not just the pieces of art that can stop me in my tracks but the titles of the pieces. This year I discovered “Stand Alone”, “Consequences”, “Innocent Man” and “Woo Are You Looking at?”.
From matchsticks to J-cloths, from socks to gold leaf such variety of materials, such ingenuity.
But the question that stayed in my mind was:
“Are these exhibits examples of escapism or expressionism?”
I made my way up to the large information desk at the National Portrait Gallery and sat patiently awaiting my guest.
Ten minutes later, he arrived looking rather bemused at my choice of venue to interview him.
Erwin James followed me up a flight of stairs where we slowly wandered around looking at portraits of people, from HM The Queen to Zandra Rhodes and every conceivable individual in between.
Trying to get my bearings, we turned a corner and entered the Statesmen’s Gallery, lined on each side by a series of white marble busts on projecting plinths in between painted portraits. It looked outstanding.
At the far end hung a portrait painting of Dame Christabel Pankhurst by Ethel Wright (oil on canvas, exhibited 1909), militant Suffragette, persuasive speaker and effective strategist. Erwin and I stood and pondered.
In one of the rooms off this gallery we found a bench, sat down and started to talk. Straight ahead was a significant portrait, covering a large part of the wall, entitled:
The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari
Faith Spear: When you look at that picture what does it tell you?
Erwin James: There are people who care about people that others don’t care about. This lady cared for the wounded she didn’t care about the war, she cared about people.
FS: How does it make you feel when you see that?
EJ: My experience of prison was that occasionally, more than occasionally there are people who care about people, about the wounded people in our prisons who need assistance, it’s a challenge for any community or society to think that we should care or help those that have hurt us. But she cared about everybody.
FS: Do paintings like that inspire you?
EJ: I found paintings in prison. I did an Arts degree and I was given this folder of great art; I had never had access to art or that sort of thing, ever in my life until I went to prison. I found art through the Open University.
I have never seen this painting before if I’m honest, but it tells us, “this lady, she doesn’t care who you are. She just wants to heal you.” The Onlookers: What are they thinking, should we help this person? There’s hesitance, others are standing away, observing. But you can’t hesitate or observe when people need help. My feeling about our attitudes to prisoners is that’s it’s a challenge to help people who’ve hurt us but if we don’t help them, they are going to hurt more people. When I look at that painting, I promise you some are taking advantage of the crowd.
FS: That’s interesting “taking advantage of the crowd”
EJ: We do that in our society now, longer prison sentences…we deserve a prison system that hates the crime, perhaps hates the criminal but for Christ sake give the prisoner a chance. That’s my philosophy really.
We slowly moved from room to room admiring and yet questioning the art we saw. Both of us were struck by a painting of Henrietta Maria (1635) and our hidden thoughts became open dialogue
EJ: Look how attractive we are, look how wealthy we are, look how amazing we are
FS: Always trying to prove something
FS: Is that because people can’t accept who they are?
EJ: People seem to want to portray an image that is more than what they are, that is exactly what these people did
FS: It’s not just status is it?
EJ: Status, its look at me, look at us, all the poverty in the country when she was painted.
The poor people, we always looked up to the people doing well, we always aspire to be like them
FS: Always looking down on those that are not doing so well?
EJ: I don’t know why because we are all trying to get up that ladder
FS: Do you think we fall into the trap that we don’t actually accept people for who they are?
EJ: Well we are not sure who they are, all we know is we think we know who we are we want to be better versions of ourselves come what may
There are many self-portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, some more obvious than others.
FS: With a self-portrait you are not necessarily portraying the real you
EJ: No, you are portraying what you want the world to know about you. As a writer I am the same, I’m exactly the same, I want the world to know me through words because the world sort of knew me through the courts through prison through prosecution
FS: So, do you think you were trying to re-invent yourself
FS: But then that is saying previously that wasn’t the true you
EJ: Yes, that wasn’t the true me
FS: Do you think that this is the true you now, what you are doing now?
EJ: Yes, before I became who I think I am, I’m not perfect by any means, but I am my own person and I think lots of people go through life thinking, well is this me? I’m born into this way of living but gradually you think did I decide this. Other people decide our lives and what prison gave me was the freedom to choose my own, if that makes any sense. But even though I am a million miles away from perfect, I am a real person
They all portray dominance over everyone else. The whole purpose of art in these ages was to say look at us, we dominate you – and then the dominated looked up and said, “we are so pleased to be dominated by you”, we didn’t know then that any of us could be dominate and dominated we didn’t realise then before mass education, we didn’t understand that we can all be people with education with skills and abilities
We walked up to level 2, not knowing what to look at first. We entered a small room.
FS: Do you see that painting over there of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with his books showing he is an educated man, well in fact, a poet?
EJ: Books for the educated people? No. books are for everyone, to me Faith, books are a great leveller. If you can read, you can be a King.
By this time, I needed to sit down; juggling bag, jacket, notebook, pen and phone was getting problematic. I found a wooden bench in one of the corridors and with phone at the ready I continued my questions as we sat down.
FS: One thing I am always amazed at in an art gallery is that everything is categorised, often by year, era or by event. Everything is numbered. And there is a lot of security. When you come into an art gallery you are watched by cameras everywhere.
Everything is numbered, everything is categorised exactly the same as it is in a prison.
How did it feel to be categorised and given a number?
EJ: That is a really good question.
Well I was categorised; I was a Cat A prisoner for 5 or 6 years. The system categorises you and gives you a number. I hated my prison number. I was in Devon driving down a lane and I saw a signpost for the B73…, arghhhhhh! That’s my prison number!
It was awful, I had forgotten it, forgotten it purposely. When you are categorised and given a number you become labelled, you’re not human you’re a prisoner. But thank god there are some amazing people that work in prisons who want you to be human. For various reasons you end up there, they work there, and they are there to help you to become like them. Thank god for that. Without those people I would never be here I would never have made it. Teachers, psychologists, probation officers some prison officers…
FS: But when people are reduced to a number do you think that is degrading?
EJ: Well I think the danger Faith, you are asking me something quite profound here, because the danger when we do that, we detach people psychologically from our community. Now prison is detaching. You did harm, you caused pain, grief etc, but what we do with that in our prison system is that we detach further psychologically so the people in prison psychologically don’t feel part of society. Don’t feel part of the community, there’s no sense of wanting to come back.
I want to do some good when I come back, but mostly we don’t want them back. But actually, there’s so many people that do come back do good but it’s the physiologically detachment that presents danger from the released prisoner.
As Erwin is a writer, I wanted to probe a little more into different aspects of his life.
FS: For someone who is setting out on a journey as a writer what advice would you give?
EJ: Well what I would say is first and foremost is tell your truth. But first, you have got to find your truth because if you don’t know your truth you will never be able to share that truth. So, there are a couple of things: have discipline, have courage because when you put your truth out there you are going to get people who hate you and your truth. You need to have courage and be bold, but as long as you know your truth you will have a significant number of people who will accept that. Whatever the obstacles whatever the challenges you just keep going.
I decided to probe a little deeper too.
FS: What makes you laugh?
EJ: You will be amazed how many people in prison laugh, it’s a funny thing in jail you laugh at the most banal things.
FS: But what makes you laugh now?
EJ: My great granddaughter she makes me laugh. “Grandad, grandad look at the chickens” she chases chickens and I run after her and I’m laughing like hell and then she catches a chicken. Then she chases the ducks.
I do laugh but I am a very serious thinker, but I laugh when she laughs, its infectious. I feel safe to laugh with my great granddaughter.
FS: Is that because you are not being judged?
EJ: In the public if I am laughing, I feel awful because there are people grieving because of me. Even in jail I was scared to laugh sometimes because it looked like I didn’t care about anything.
FS: What makes you cry, do you cry?
EJ: I cried a long time ago in prison when I came to terms with what I had done with the effects on victims’ families of my crimes. I didn’t cry before that.
What makes me cry now? A good drama where there’s an amazing writer who brings the human condition into our living rooms and shows us how weak, strong, dominant, how we are as humans.
That makes me cry.
My final question was about what others say.
FS: What is one of the most memorable statements about yourself?
EJ: The best thing that’s been said of me, that I am really proud of, I do school talks. I was in a school in Southampton a few years ago, the Headmaster said afterwards:
“It was one of the best talks we have had all year and, for some, will be an abiding memory of school.”
It was time to switch my recorder off, I took in a last view of this amazing gallery and headed outside for some air. After a refreshing drink we said goodbye and I headed for the tube.
What an interesting conversation.
Erwin James is editor-in-chief of ‘Inside Time’, the national newspaper for people in prison and the author of ‘Redeemable: A Memoir of Darkness and Hope’.
Photos: Copyright © FM Spear. All rights reserved.