Does prison work? “ I think that depends on who you are, what your life circumstances are [and] the reason that you’re involved in criminality,” says Pearson. “I think if you’ve got somebody who is generally violent and committing violent acts, and that’s the way they’re living their life, that’s very difficult to change just through a period of incarceration. There isn’t enough in terms of offending behaviour work [programmes that tackle aggression, violence or substance misuse] for people who go into prisons; not everybody gets the opportunity, the waiting lists are really long.”
At the same time, violence within prisons is rising. According to Government data, there were 22,319 assaults in prisons in the 12 months to March 2023, up 11 per cent year-on-year. As well as better staffing ratios, there used to be an inbuilt respect for women working in prisons (Pearson describes it as “old-fashioned values”) and, generally, she felt safe from the threat of male violence. Not any longer.
“There was a really different attitude to women – almost a hierarchy of respect based on your gender. In the very early days, there was more respect for governors than there was for [prison] staff,” she says. “But I think over time, that probably shifted… by the last five years I was working as a governor, that landscape had changed.”
In 2018, Pearson herself made headlines when she was governor of Long Lartin prison and was attacked by a male inmate, who punched her in the face and broke her jaw in two places. The inmate was sentenced to another 10 years and Pearson was transferred to a different prison.
“That was a really difficult period of time for me and for my partner and my family to cope with,” she says. Out of “self-preservation” she has tried to look at it logically. “That individual took the opportunity to assault the most significant person in authority, so I am pretty confident that it was around an assault on authority, rather than an assault on me personally.”
There has also been a shift in the length of sentences that has had a significant impact. “When I went to Whitemoor around 2002 or 2003, the first men were being sentenced to around 30 years on a life sentence,” says Pearson. “That was unheard of before then. By the time I left high-security [prisons], men were getting 40-year tariffs… there were always whole-life tariffs, but they were rarely used.”
What does she make of the news that one in five prisons is set to release prisoners early to ease overcrowding? The numbers proposed are reasonably small, she says – a “drop in the ocean” of the 88,000-strong prison population. “One of the significant points of prison is that it’s there to protect the public… So if we have used such a significant punishment as prison in the first place, we’ve got to be confident that we can mitigate that risk to the public,” she says. She argues that prison isn’t always the answer: “If the risk can be managed in the community, the question I would ask is why aren’t we doing that in the first place?”