'Prison governors must be extremely resilient. There is no requirement to be tough'

A huge diversity of people and roles make up the modern civil service. Nicola Marfleet has worked in prisons for 22 years and is currently in charge of HMP Woodhill

By Civil Service World

02 Aug 2022

Nicola Marfleet, prison governor, Milton Keynes

When and why did you join the civil service?

I joined in 2000, as a prison officer in Kent. It wasn’t a career I’d even considered, but I’d had an introduction to being “behind the walls” when I’d been invited into Maidstone prison a couple of years earlier.

It was one of those pivotal life moments that you don’t see coming. I was talking to a man in the chapel, and it wasn’t till he walked away that I realised he was a prisoner. In that moment, all my misconceptions about prison were shattered. He was “so normal” and not what I had thought a prisoner would be like. I continued to volunteer for three years until I joined HM Prison and Probation Service.

What did you do before?

I joined straight from university and a variety of short temping jobs, including working in a strawberry factory and for a sorting office in Royal Mail. The experience in both these basic level jobs taught me who I wanted to be as an employee, a teammate and a leader.

I made an early commitment to work hard, to use every experience to learn, and to be kind to others. Instead of seeing setbacks as something to feel discouraged about, I’ve intentionally used every moment as an opportunity to grow. Even now, as governor at HMP Woodhill, I am still using things I learnt back then.

Tell us what you do and how it helps citizens?

I am responsible for looking after an enclosed community of 1,000 people. Every day is about keeping people safe, caring for them “with humanity” (I love that it is written in our Statement of Purpose on my ID badge!), and helping people grow positively.

How we do that is different for someone serving two years or two decades, but at the heart of everything I do is a passion to make prison a transformative experience. Each day is different: incident management, making difficult decisions and, on the good days, celebrating achievements. Ultimately, it is about reducing the number of future victims.

“I remember when I first joined, a prison officer said: ‘She won’t last two weeks.’ That spurred me on”

How did your role change during the pandemic?

The past two years have been the most challenging of my career. Woodhill managed to keep Covid completely out for 18 months, but in that time, we had to literally lock down, and most days the regime felt like one of those “eat, sleep, repeat” t-shirts you can buy.

With 22 years’ experience of working in prisons, I couldn’t have believed that we could keep the prison stable in that environment, but I am deeply grateful that it was. Now the challenge has shifted – we have a huge proportion of our staff who joined during Covid and so have never seen how the prison operated before. I have an enduring respect for those who have stayed working alongside us showing grit and courage.

There’s a stereotype that prison governors have to be extremely tough. Do you think that’s accurate? What other attributes are important to do the job well?

Prison governors must be extremely resilient. There is no requirement to be tough. As a woman in frontline prison leadership, I have most often had people mistake kindness I’ve shown for weakness.

I remember when I first joined, a prison officer said “she won’t last two weeks”. That spurred me on. I did my advanced tornado (riot) training and was actively deployed to incidents over four years.

At one stage, I became the only female governor leading a high security prison. Grit, determination, compassion and empathy are essential attributes. And overall, it’s having the integrity and humility to keep turning up, learning from your mistakes and going again.

This profile is part of a series looking at the huge diversity of people and roles that make up the modern civil service. Read more here

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