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Interview with Chris Duffin

Chris DuffinChris Duffin was the First Woman Governor Grade at HMP Strangeways, the notorious, category-B male prison.  She talks to First Women about what she learnt on the job from prisoners, peers and the public reaction to her posting.

‘When I started at Strangeways, my Mentor was the wonderful Peter Pope. I was very lucky as he was one of the most rebellious governors I have ever met. He always said, its easier to obtain forgiveness than permission’ whenever I got anxious about procedure. Peter also taught me that humour becomes your best armoury in awkward situations.

John Marriott was one of my senior governors and I modeled my managerial style on his. His trademark was, treat everyone – all prisoners – with respect until they change the rules. John was fair-minded, moral, kind and caring. Whatever anyone has done, make respect your starting point.

Count to 10. I’ve learnt not to say or do anything without taking time to assimilate first. If you’re shocked or feel the need to have a big reaction in the moment, become a good actor and learn to hide it, fast. Never reveal your hand until you had time to think.

The problem with an all-male environment such as prison is that testosterone triggers testosterone. So if there are only male prison officers and governors, things can escalate quickly. The introduction of female staff into prisons changed the dynamic as well as the culture, and there were superb advantages. Women deal with men differently. If you send a woman into a difficult, all-male prison situation you change the dynamic – plus men don’t like being seen misbehaving by women.  No male colleagues that I know would go back to how it was before. By the same token, in female prisons, every 28 days the number of incidents goes up. Prison officers and prisoners alike trigger each other.  And male staff tempers that.

If something bad happens, the best place to be is amongst your own. Because they can relate, so they can hold the space and you can laugh and talk it through. If there has been a very disturbing incident you shouldn’t go home and offload; one’s home is no place for that sort of thing. When I got home the first thing I did was take off my suit and hang it up so that ‘prison’ was now in the cupboard and I became Chris, at home in my jumper and jeans.

Listen for what is not being said.  This is a female trait that lends itself to the prison service. I once had a Strangeways inmate apply for unsupervised day release to take his son to his new school. The male officers said, ‘no way! If you let him go, you’ll never see him again.’ But I listened carefully to his story, weighed it up and decided to give permission. My peers accused me of being soft. But the inmate came back – two hours before he was due to. He said to me, ‘I thought if I came back early you would give another inmate a chance like you’ve given me.’

Rules are not a good way to manage people.  Rather than stick to them rigidly, you need to ask yourself : ‘can what is happening be successfully dealt with in the moment  – even if that means breaking the rules?’ For example, if someone has acted in good faith, there is room for you to be understanding.  The phrase, ‘well, we have never done it like that before…’ is ridiculous. Let’s change a rule if it doesn’t work.

Watch your tone of voice and treat people with respect in order to cultivate a situation that feels safe for the truth to come out. If you give people the space to be honest first, you can save a lot of time.

I deeply respect men for their skills and sense of humour. And in all fairness, I never felt marginalized by the prison service senior management. The ones against women in men’s prisons were just fearful in case I softened the macho culture and put up floral curtains.

If you make a decision, stick to it and don’t begrudge the outcome. I was accepted into the service, mainly because I always said ‘yes’ and did what I had agreed to with a good grace. I regularly took on the things no one else wanted to do because you can never tell where it might take you. I believe that whether the path is smooth or rough, you’ll always end up with a gift.

Interview by Deborah Willimott

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