Five minutes with…Phil Copple, Director General of Prisons

Five minutes with…Phil Copple, Director General of Prisons
Published: 10 March 2022

In our latest edition of ‘Five minutes with…’ Richard Guest, Associate Partner and Head of the Procurement practice at Berwick Partners talks with Phil Copple, Director General of Prisons about his career within the prison service, the record period of investment, and the fantastic opening he currently has in his team.

Tell me a little bit about your career to date?

I joined the Prison Service in 1990 straight from university on our accelerated promotion scheme, with a view to gaining experience on the path to become a Prison Governor.  I was motivated by a public service ethic and then drawn to the Prison Service’s mission. Our statement of purpose captured our responsibility to carry out the orders of the courts, our duty to look after prisoners with humanity, and to help them lead useful and law-abiding lives. Having joined as a serving Prison Officer, I progressed through the service in a range of managerial posts at different prisons, as well as headquarters. I took my first Governor post in 2000 at HMYOI Deerbolt, before moving to HMP Frankland as Governor and have subsequently undertaken a number of regional and national senior civil servant roles.

I joined HM Prison and Probation Service at its creation in April 2017 as Executive Director of Prisons, the Agency’s Head of Profession for prisons, with operational responsibility for all prisons in England. I assumed my current role as Director General of Prisons upon its creation as part of a restructure in 2019.  

Is there a role in your career which has been pivotal to your success?

Being a Prison Governor at HMP Frankland – a challenging, high security prison – equipped me more than any other singular role; this gave me a platform for more senior roles in the future with the vital operational command that I remain tethered to. However, all the roles I have undertaken have, in isolation, added to my experience and broader skillset, even right back to my very first role as a prison officer over 30 years ago.

My operational background has given me important insights into the staff that I lead and the people that we work with.

How has the Prison Service changed over the past 30 years?

I’ve witnessed first-hand the enormous change which has taken place over the past 30 years. The physical conditions in which we hold people, whilst not perfect, are substantially better than they were at the very start of my career. We are also far more secure in terms of our first duty to the public, carrying out the order of the court and ensuring people are held securely in prison. In recent years we’ve had very few escapes (in some years none) from the closed prison estate, and only rarely from escorts of prisoners outside a prison (such as to hospital or court). 

We’ve also become more effective at working with a range of partner organisations to try and deliver our other objectives in relation to substance misuse, rehabilitative work, and linking with probation colleagues on working with individuals following release from prison. We help with resettlement, including some of the big issues around employment, housing, and continuity of treatment. If someone is receiving treatment for substance misuse and wider health services in general, we need to be involved in the solution and part of a much broader landscape of public services than we did 30 years ago.

In 1994 we also saw the first prison to be operated by the private sector, which has expanded to 13 privately run prisons, with several new prisons in the pipeline. In recent years this has accounted for roughly a fifth of all prison places, which will broadly increase in the coming years under an expanded prison system.

What is the best piece of advice you have received, and how has it shaped you both as a leader and a person?

Two areas spring to mind concerning the values in which we operate: the services we deliver, and the values we try and lead by.

I recall being a very young, inexperienced prison officer and having a more senior colleague tell me a long-standing principle for our service; “people are sent to prison as a punishment not for punishment.” The punishment has been decided by the court, and our fundamental duty is to deliver that sentence, but we’re not there to make that sentence more arduous or more punitive. Rather, it is important that we undertake it in a lawful, fair, and legitimate manner, which treats people with respect and humanity. This is the right thing to do and what the law requires. It is also about modelling the sort of citizens we want people to be in the future. This is critical. This principle has always been part of the way I operate, and I still reflect on that conversation from time to time.

Secondly, having made the transition to a managerial position, I can clearly recall a conversation I had around the ‘covenant’ we have with our staff. This recognises the expectations we place on our people – it can be a very challenging role, emotionally demanding, requiring high levels of resilience, and both physical and moral courage, but it is very rewarding. We demand a high professional standard from our people, and we do so unapologetically – it is what the environment demands. The flip side is that as leaders we must also demonstrate proper care and support for our staff. We must communicate and engage with them effectively and provide support in practical ways. If we get this right, people will follow when they are led with integrity and care, and feel supported.

What is the strategic direction for HMPPS within the next 3-5 years?

There are several challenges to grapple with as well as a number of opportunities to grasp. Like everyone, we have the very near-term issue about how we recover from the pandemic effects of the past two years.

The cliché around ‘building back better’ is relevant around things we have learnt and that we want to incorporate on an ongoing basis – some of which will be driven by technology.

On the prison side, we will have to rise to the challenge of projections for a rising prison population and therefore a major expansion of the prison system with 20,000 more prison places to be delivered in the next few years. Consequently, there is a huge series of infrastructure projects that my colleagues are busy working on which lead into operationalising the new capacity, ensuring we can rise to the challenge of expansion of our workforce and our services in general, against the backdrop of a challenging and competitive labour market.

There is also a very strong policy commitment from government about doing better in our rehabilitation ambitions, ensuring we are doing the right thing while people are in prison and upon release, with the goal of reducing re-offending rates. The recent Prisons Strategy White Paper sets out a lot of specific commitments and longer-term ambitions around this area, and we can point to the fact that there is a real game-changing level of investment to underpin this over this spending review period of the next three years (£550m).

Tell me a little bit about the Executive Director for Custodial Contracts vacancy in your team.

The role, which reports into me and forms part of my senior leadership team, is a vital one for our service; one which has lead responsibility for effective delivery across a significant proportion of the expanding prison system. We have responsibility for managing the private sector contracts and maximising value for the taxpayer. We require a leader with strong commercial acumen to drive delivery with our contract partners. There is a wide range of contracts in addition to those for the prison establishments, notably for prisoner escorts and for education services within prisons, which is one of the main areas of focus and priority within the White paper. The role is pivotal in the delivery of this key government objective.

The role involves managing a team of operational contract managers dispersed across the country, and the successful individual will be tasked with building the expertise and capability of the function. We require someone who has a passion for moving towards best practice and seen as a real pace setter within Whitehall.

For more information, please contact Richard Guest is an Associate Partner in our Procurement and Supply Chain practice.

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