In the course of writing this blog there are many people I might just happen to bump into and decide it would be good to interview, but the Governor of HMP Shrewsbury isn’t one of them. Getting in to see him is a complicated business, not something I might do upon a whim. In order to get behind those massive gates, I need to write to Governor Gerry Hendry asking please may I come in to interview you, then a whole series of hoops have to be jumped through including being photographed, showing my passport, being issued with a visitor's pass, buzzing on doors, having my credentials checked and handing over my mobile phone because not even the Governors of Her Majesty’s Prisons are allowed to take in mobile phones. It’s a chargeable offence.
Finally I’m escorted out of the prison gatehouse and across the yard to a Georgian building behind which looms the great bulk of the Dana, which is the name by which the old Victorian prison is more usually known. A door is open a crack and a slice of face peers out at me. I’m ushered in and the door is locked behind me. By the time I’ve made it from the street outside the prison gates into the Governor’s office I’ve already forgotten how many locked doors have I’ve been through.
Governor Gerry Hendry’s office is large and light with conference tables, desk and a mantelpiece packed full of cards. Pictures hang on walls and a white-board is covered in writing. Whilst the Governor and a colleague lean over his computer trying to sort out a problem, my eyes scan down the board. ‘There’s a fine line between confidence and conceit’ I read, followed by, ‘Going to church does not make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.’ There’s more as well. It’s all interesting stuff. I wish I could remember the rest, but I’m afraid I can’t.
‘You may well have questions that I won’t be allowed to answer,’ the Governor warns me when his computer’s sorted and his colleague has departed. I have indeed, but I’ve been expecting this, so we start by talking instead about the cards on the Governor’s mantelpiece. He shows them to me and later shows me some of the letters he’s received. ‘Thank you for your thoughtfulness,’ I read in one. ‘What can I say about a Governor like you?’ I read in another. ‘I will stay out when I do get out. It’s taken a hard journey and a change of lifestyle. Thank you for helping me get there.’
Shrewsbury Prison is rated amongst the best in the country, but it’s being closed because it’s not considered to be financially viable. It’s a local prison - a community prison you could say, in that the majority of its inmates over the years have been released into local Shropshire and West-Midland communities where they live cheek by jowl with not only other ex-prisoners but staff as well. What sets aside Shrewsbury’s inmates, the Governor says – and this is something recognized in the Prison Service - is the respect that staff and prisoners have had for each other. It’s the Shrewsbury way.
This is something I see in practice when Governor Hendry takes me onto ‘A’ Wing. By now there are only twenty-five prisoners left out of a prison housing three hundred and fifty, but it’s surprising the number of them that come up and want to shake the Governor’s hand and share with him news of when they’ll be shipped out.
The sense of occasion is palpable. One man even shakes my hand. ‘Remember me,’ he says proudly. ‘There’s been a prison in this town for five hundred years and when I leave next week I will be the last prisoner. My name is Patrick Jackson. Don't forget it.’ I assure him that I won't.
‘A’ Wing is immaculately clean. We look into cells, and even go into one with a heavy studded door left over from the early days of the Dana’s history. It’s small, with toilet, basin, table, chair, bunk beds and telly packed in tight, its walls and floors bare and its tiny window grilled of course. Like everywhere else on ‘A’ Wing it’s as clean as a new whistle.
Not as clean though, the prisoners say, as the wing would once have been, because with closure imminent the cleaners have been laid off. But keeping ‘A’ Wing spruce, even without cleaners, is a matter of decency and personal pride. This is their home, one of the prisoners says. It’s all about treating it, and themselves, with respect.
During my morning in Shrewsbury Prison, I hear much about respect. It’s plain that there’s a lot of it about. I watch inmates coming up to run through departure information with Governor Hendry or just standing about plainly upset. Again, as with the cards and letters in Governor Hendry’s office, their manner attests to the good work done by him and his staff and the mutual respect that has been built up.
This is exactly the sort of prison you would expect the government to want to keep, and to put some money into. It’s certainly what Governor Hendry has been working for from the day he arrived back in March 2005. ‘Prisons are only as good as the staff who run them,’ he said on that occasion, addressing his full staff. ‘We must work to achieve a well-ordered and controlled prison…. Reform and rehabilitation are not things we ‘do’ to prisoners… we have an absolute obligation to do everything we can to encourage reform… we have a duty to help our prisoners… the decency agenda is about building relationships with prisoners based on knowing them and respecting them… It is about preserving the dignity of prisoners… It is about embodying the values of integrity, honesty, confidence, conviction, good judgment and flexibility…’
Now the very people who have worked to this agenda, developing and maintaining it and seeing its results, are having to preside over its dismantling. In fact, by the time this article is posted HMP Shrewsbury, the Dana, will be empty of all inmates, and all that awaits it is to be decommission by Order of Parliament.
We are getting dangerously close to the sorts of subjects to which the only reply the Governor of one of Her Majesty’s Prisons can give is ‘no comment’. But if it’s prison welfare I want to know about, and the effectiveness of the new privately-run prisons that are taking over from public sector ones like Shrewsbury, I don’t have to go far. Only a few weeks ago the Birmingham Chronicle reported that one hundred and seventeen emergency call outs had been made to private prison, Oakwood, in one month. I ask Governor Hendry how many call-outs Shrewsbury has had. One, he says. In the last few years.
This leads me to wonder about the effectiveness of private prisons, like the super-prison the Government intends to build, housing upward of 2,000 inmates, to replace prisons such as Shrewsbury’s Dana. The Prison Governors’ Association, whilst acknowledge the need for future investment in prison places, have expressed concern regarding privatization, particularly given the public sector’s high performance in reducing costs and its rates for reducing re-offending. As to the scale of some of these private sector prisons, ‘All the evidence suggests,’ they say, ‘that smaller establishments meet the aims of the Government’s rehabilitation revolution agenda.’
I’d like to know what Governor Gerry Hendry thinks about this, but when it comes to discussing government policy, there’s nothing he can say. But David Cameron can. Listen to this gem, which I dug up before visiting the prison: ‘The idea that big is beautiful when it comes to prisons is wrong.’ And listen to Nick Herbert, until recently Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice: ‘Huge prison warehouses are wrong. What’s needed is a network of smaller local prisons with better integration with the local community and more focus on reducing reoffending.’
Unfortunately, Cameron’s words were spoken in 2009, before he became Prime Minister of the Coalition Government, and Nick Herbert’s in 2008, when he was Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, speaking out against the Labour government’s plans to set up titan prisons.
For a non-politically biased view, however, here’s what Professor Alison Liebling, Director of the Prison Research Centre, has to say in an Evaluation carried out by herself and colleagues from Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology:
‘Private sector prisons are not necessarily better or worse than public sector prisons. When they get it right they can provide decent and positive environments. But when they get it wrong, which seems to be more likely [but not inevitably] if they are run cheaply, they can be chaotic and dangerous places…
‘There are real risks in privatizing prisons ‘on the cheap’ and in re-conceiving public sector prisons on the cheapest private sector model…
‘At least two poorly performing private sector prisons in the UK have been returned to the public sector…’
A prison officer comes into the Governor’s office to say goodbye. It’s the end of twenty-four years in Shrewsbury Prison. He’s off now to Stoke Heath. Governor Hendry leaps up to pound his hand. He’s not to forget what he’s learned at Shrewsbury, or drop his values to fit in. He’s seen how things can be done. What he’s witnessed at first hand about the effects of treating people with decency and respect mustn’t ever be let go.
I swear to God the officer’s eyes are moist. Both he and the Governor are big men, but they’re both visibly moved. The officer shakes hands with the prison chaplains, who’ve come in to talk to me about prisoner rehabilitation. As the officer leaves, one of them gives him a bear-hug.
The chaplains, David Farley and Bob Wiltshire, are here to tell me about Fresh Start New Beginnings, the charity set up within the prison to work with problems of homelessness, unemployment, lack of education and lack of support, which are the four root causes of prisoner re-offending. The private sector has had some success in this area because its pilot schemes have received funding, but Shrewsbury Prison, by means of this charity, has funded this work itself.
There’s also been a high rate of community involvement in this process here in Shrewsbury, encouraged by Governor Hendry. David Farley tells me that when he first came to work at Shrewsbury Prison, the walls were high in terms of working relationship between prison and community, but that now they were low. Mentors, trained by Fresh Start New Beginnings, have been coming in to help in the process of preparing prisoners for release, and have continued to support those prisoners once they’ve returned into the community.
Another FSNB project is the SORI scheme, helping prisoners recognize the effects of their crimes and their impact on their victims. SORI is an intense one-week course that prisoners have been able to choose to opt into involving interaction with community, including victims of crimes, aiming not only to ensure that prisoners fully understand what they’ve done in all its ramifications, but find the means to come to terms with it and learn and move on.
This is a truly innovative scheme, at the forefront of work towards prisoner rehabilitation. Now, however, it has been stopped. The prisoners have gone, the prison is about to close, even FSNB has closed. In other words, like Governor Hendry, the chaplains are in the unenviable position of having to dismantle all that they’ve put in place and built up. There is no doubt how upset they are, as indeed is everybody I have met.
Chaplain David Farley will take his expertise to Featherstone, where he hopes restorative work will carry on. Chaplain Bob Wiltshire will retire. Governor Hendry will retire. A week or so ago they held the last service in the prison chapel, which was packed with inmates and volunteers. ‘We Are Shrewsbury’ was their watchword, and they can say that with pride. They leave behind a record of low re-offending that attests to all the good work that has been done here in Shrewsbury Prison.
One story that Governor Hendry is particularly proud of telling relates to a prisoner he describes as being responsible for ninety percent of burglaries in the Telford area. When, after leaving prison, that particular ex-offender married, it was the prison chaplain who was invited to preside over the ceremony, and it was Governor Hendry who read the lesson.
It’s hard to know what’s most remarkable about this, that the offender would have wanted to ask, that the Governor agreed - or that this one-man crime wave, as he once was, hasn’t re-offended now in over five years. Governor Hendry’s attitude to the men in his care is impressive. He’s the sort of hands-on Governor who’ll go into a man’s cell and sort out problems face to face. He’s full of stories of prisoners he’s interacted with, and the cards and letters around his office attest to how valued he is.
‘Many years ago,’ he says, ‘when I was a prison officer in another part of the country, I sat in the cell of a particularly disturbed prisoner who’d been giving everybody a lot of trouble. We talked for a long time and at the end he thanked me for listening to him. That was the trouble, he said. The prison authorities didn’t listen to the inmates. The whole system was wrong. Well, I shook his hand and promised him that when I became a Governor, I would make a difference. And though that prisoner is now dead, I’ve never forgotten that promise. And here in Shrewsbury I have made a difference.’
The Cambridge Institute of Criminology Evaluation talks about the public sector having underestimated strengths in the use of authority, security, safety, stability and ‘professionalism’, and I’m seeing all of that here. ‘We have found Shrewsbury Prison to be significantly better than its comparator prisons on everything,’ said Professor Liebling in her 2011 *Perrie Lecture. ‘It is possible that small is beautiful – or at least less cumbersome, complex and resistant. Our smaller, older prisons may have hidden strengths – relationships trump buildings in prisons like Swansea and Shrewsbury.’
By the time I publish this article, all the prisoners will be gone and a small town within our greater town effectively have ceased to be. There’s no turning back the clock on government policy, but Professor Liebling has gone some way towards re-enforcing what I’ve already said, which is that the Government should be trumpeting Shrewsbury Prison’s achievements, not closing it down.
Before I leave, I ask Governor Hendry if he has anything he wants to say to the people of Shrewsbury. The town has had the legacy of a gaol for over five hundred years, he says, and this is a sad farewell. However the building is listed and will return to the care of the council tax payers. He hoped it would be taken care of because it has served the community well. He hoped, too, that in the future, and in an entirely different capacity, it would continue to serve.
It’s time to go. We’re standing at the door. On the wall hangs a board containing the names of all the prison governors back to beyond the time when the Dana became a public prison. The last name is Governor Gerry Hendry’s. He shakes my hand. Earlier I shook the hand of the last prisoner in Shrewsbury Prison, and now I have shaken the hand of the last Governor. But if I’m here watching history being made, it’s on your behalf as well as my own, especially those of you who are residents of Shrewsbury. It’s for you too that I’m here today, getting behind yet another of our town’s closed doors.
When the prison is decommissioned at the end of the month there are certain things we people of Shrewsbury need to do. One of these is to thank Governor Hendry and all his staff for the work they’ve done. Another is to thank the army of volunteers who’ve come into the prison to work alongside its inmates, preparing them for rehabilitation in the wider world. And a third is to make sure not only that the Dana finds a new way of serving the community, but that that historic board containing the names of all the Dana’s Governors doesn’t get lost.
My suggestion is that it belongs in the new Shrewsbury Museum, to be opened later this year. I'd also like to suggest that some of the remarkable photographs I've seen, including some truly stunning portraits of inmates, should be made available too. A few of these photographs are shown below, courtesy of Governor Hendry.
Prison wardens by day, policemen by night, 1920
Old-style prison activity - sewing mailbags, 1964
The building of the railway bridge with Shrewsbury Prison in the background
A crowd outside Shrewsbury Prison awaiting news of the last hanging in 1961
Shrewsbury Prison from the air
Santa Podmore comes to the Dana...
...and distributes sweets [Mr Podmore was a Poll Tax objector, famous for spraying
council offices with muck and nailing himself to a tree by his ears
The original plan for the 1793 John Howard-inspired prison at the Dana.
council offices with muck and nailing himself to a tree by his ears
The original plan for the 1793 John Howard-inspired prison at the Dana.
*The Perrie Lectures is an annual event for the purpose of stimulating dialogue between criminal justice organisations, the voluntary sector and anybody with academic, legal or practical concerns for offenders and their families. From 2012 its lectures have been made available on its own YouTube channel.