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Leading change in prisons – Experienced insights on challenges and innovation

31 January 2024

Leading change in prisons – experienced insights on challenges and innovation

Our blog sheds light on the complexities, challenges and innovations that shape modern prison services, viewed through the experienced eyes of a visionary leader who dedicated over 40 years to the field. As a retired Director of Prisons for the Northern Ireland Prison Service,  Austin Treacy, offers a personal perspective, providing insights into the challenges and innovative strategies and approaches, required for successfully navigating and reforming these complex establishments.

Facing modern challenges in prison leadership

Today’s custodial leaders are confronted with numerous challenges that necessitate adaptability and strategic foresight. Society’s expectations have changed and political landscapes are shifting significantly. This requires prisons to be more focused on community safety and rehabilitation.  These present a complex environment for leaders to navigate. More so, addressing issues like understaffing/retention, violence, drugs, self-harm, mental health and psychological needs, demands a collaborative leadership approach that exceeds the capabilities of any single senior manager.

While the adoption of technology in prisons has increased, the focus has traditionally been on security technology. The path towards digital transformation in prisons adds complexity. Leaders must balance enhancing and or maintaining security with the benefits of new technology, ensuring that organisational culture and operations align with these technologies.

A notable milestone during my tenure was the closure of several prisons under the broader Good Friday Agreement. This triggered a shift towards normalistion and a progressive approach to rehabilitation and modernisation. The transition from a sole focus on containment and security to a more balanced approach raised questions about the role of technology in enhancing safety, efficiency and supporting rehabilitation goals. This prompted me to engage with professionals in the field, including governors, senior staff, criminologists and charitable organisations, to learn how similar challenges were being addressed elsewhere.

Advancing through innovation

In government departments, there’s a significant push to adopt new technologies as rapidly and extensively as possible.  This strategy is aimed at improving operations, service delivery and achieving better value for money. However, ‘digital exclusion’ is a pressing societal issue affecting education, healthcare, employment and social connections, with profound implications in prisons, and preparing prisoners for their release.

As a traditionally risk-averse sector, prison systems worldwide are undergoing digital transitions at varying rates. Embracing innovative technology in various aspects of prison systems has been instrumental in driving real change, not just in operational efficiency and security, but also in promoting effective rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners into the community.

Leading several digital transformation projects has given me deep insight into the profound impact of technology in prisons. Introducing in-cell technology allowed prisoners to manage meal requests, tuckshop orders, requests, diary; fostering greater independence, reducing officer administrative burdens, and reducing “Rubbing Points”. This shift allowed staff to focus more on rehabilitation and expanding Dynamic Security.

Additionally, a biometric authentication solution enabled automated, unescorted prisoner movement to and from houseblock, to visits, gym, workshops, education etc. enhancing security and operational efficiency. These technological advancements have not only modernised the prison but created a more effective, and normalised prison environment. This system delivered effective and secure movement control, automated records and prisoner earnings, and freed staff from administrative tasks associated with internal movement.

Essence of effective leadership in prisons

Effective leadership in prisons demands a thorough understanding of the environment. This is achieved through the strategic use of data and regular engagement with prisoners and staff. Leaders must have a clear vision for improvement. And the ability to communicate this vision and priorities effectively to their team. To succeed, leaders must create opportunities for positive change, providing adequate support, resources and well-planned implementation strategies.

The commitment of staff is crucial; without it, achieving goals is greatly diminished. It’s important to realise that having a great idea is pointless if people don’t embrace the vision. Astute leaders understand that if the idea is to fly you must provide the means to take flight.

Fostering a rehabilitative culture

Successful prison leaders strive to develop a rehabilitative culture. Recognising that it’s not just the task of an individual or department but a comprehensive, prison-wide strategy. This therefore involves both staff and prisoners, each actively contributing to cultural assessment and improvement, acknowledging the vital interdependence of their wellbeing and development.

The focus is on creating a regime for prisoners that includes education, vocational training and mental health support. And one that promotes personal growth and successful reintegration into society. Simultaneously, staff engagement and development are critical, emphasising training and open communication to foster a commitment to this rehabilitative approach.

Astute leaders, contrary to mainstream rehabilitation activities in prisoner management, recognise the importance of maintaining and improving family connections to develop a rehabilitative culture. This holistic strategy, which includes family dynamics, aims to reduce recidivism and create a supportive environment that benefits everyone in prison.

My experiences working with local charities and my interest in intergenerational crime have enabled me to witness various innovations. These range from enhanced resources in visitor centers to parenting programs and special family-centered visits, along with customised training for prison staff.  All supporting family ties”.

Navigating the complexities of modern prison management requires a blend of visionary leadership, innovative strategies and a deep commitment to rehabilitation and reform.

As I reflect on my journey and the lessons learned, it becomes clear that effective change in prisons is not just about implementing new technologies or policies. It’s about creating an environment where every individual, whether staff or prisoner, can contribute to a culture of growth, rehabilitation and mutual respect. By embracing these principles, we pave the way for a more humane and effective prison system that benefits not just those within prison, but society as a whole.

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