February 23, 2024

Where do we start if we want to change the culture of a prison? 

Dr Rachel Gibson
Chartered and Registered Forensic Psychologist
Insights Team, HMPPS
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How prisons operate, how people in them relate to each other, and what happens inside them have a huge impact on the people living or working there, and for the public. These wide ranging and serious impacts are the reasons why we should pay close attention to the culture of prisons. 

Dr Rachel Gibson talks us through her recent work with Flora Fitzalan Howard, and Dr Helen Wakeling to better understand how to change prison culture.  


Evidence suggests that the culture of a prison influences the people in them, and their outcomes, for example:  

  • safety and stability 
  • wellbeing 
  • attracting and retaining a skilled and committed workforce 
  • productivity 
  • rehabilitation 
  • job satisfaction 
  • reoffending  

We know culture is important and we know the kind of culture we want, but we know less about how to change it. To fill this knowledge gap, we have been trying to better understand how to change prison culture in HMPPS and we have recently published research about how one prison did this effectively.  

We spent 2 weeks at the prison, talking to staff and prisoners about their experiences of: 

  • what the prison was like two years ago 
  • what the prison is like ‘now’ (at the time of the research)  
  • and what they think were the enablers to the change in culture  

We also looked at reports and data and spoke to people who supported the prison including the Prison Group Director.  

People’s experiences were varied. But overall, their description of what the prison was like 2 years ago was fairly consistent. They said it:   

  • was unsafe 
  • had poor staff retention and high sickness levels 
  • lacked sufficient training and support for staff 
  • lacked visibility and engagement from senior leaders 
  • had poor relationships between prisoners and staff 
  • was somewhat chaotic and unstable 

Their experiences of what the prison was like now were a little more mixed, although, generally they said it was: 

  • safer 
  • calmer 
  • cleaner 

Staff felt more cared about and supported, and there were improved: 

  • staffing levels 
  • training  
  • development opportunities.  

So, how did the prison manage to make these changes?  

For some people we spoke to, this was tricky to answer. However, having reviewed what they said, and the wider evidence base on how organisations and people change, we developed an early model to identify the change-enabling conditions and the mechanisms of change.  

The change-enabling conditions included: 

  • readiness and desire for change and improvement 
  • a sense of togetherness in the face of adversity 
  • people-focussed leadership 
  • the impact of changes during the Covid 19 pandemic including: 
    • regime reduction 
    • population stability  
    • the easing of central demands and scrutiny 
  • receiving additional investment 

The mechanisms of change included: 

  • clarity of vision and priorities 
  • active and collaborative senior leadership 
  • empowering and fostering autonomy 
  • raising and clarifying expectations and accountability 
  • recognising and valuing people and progress 
  • maximising and using people’s potential 
  • encouraging voice and engagement 
  • caring about and for people 
  • being learning focussed 
  • building momentum for change  

You can read more about this model in our research report: Understanding Culture Change - A case study of an English Prison (publishing.service.gov.uk).  This flow chart from our research report summarises the model: 

View a full size version of the flowchart in a new window.

So, what does this mean for people trying to develop positive culture in prisons?  

Well, we know that culture change isn’t easy and it can take a long time. It can be easy to give up when we don’t see the change we want happening, as we feel disheartened and demotivated.  

Whilst we need to do more work to develop and test our early model, we hope this research will help people who are trying to do culture development work at other prisons.  

To read the full research including our recommendations go to: Understanding Culture Change - A case study of an English Prison (publishing.service.gov.uk).

For more information or questions contact us at: evidence@justice.gov.uk.

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