PUPiL Blog: Academic Symposium 2018: An interview with Phil Novis, Governor of HMP Leicester

The feedback from prisoners, staff, the DMU students, totally makes the work worth it.

Phil Novis is the Governor at HMP Leicester. He joined the prison in February 2016, following a difficult inspection for the prison. A recent HMIP inspection showed improvement in all areas of the healthy prisons test and in Ofsted ratings, and Phil maintains that a big part of that positive change is due to the prison's partnership with De Montfort University. The partnership has earned De Montfort the position of finalist for the Guardian University Award in the 'social and community impact' category (results announced on the 24th April!).

Ahead of speaking at our symposium on Friday, Phil kindly took time out of his schedule to talk to Rosie, our PUPil blog coordinator, about that partnership.

(If reading this makes you wish you'd booked a place at the (sold out!) symposium, do not fret! We will be livestreaming the event on our Facebook page).

I had this idea of what the VC of a University would be like – old and crusty – but I have to say Dominic was amazing

How did the partnership between HMP Leicester and De Montfort University come about?

“After I joined the prison I was contacted by the Vice-Chancellor of De Montfort University, Dominic Shellard. I hadn't been to university myself at the time at I had this idea of what the VC of a University would be like – old and crusty – but I have to say Dominic was amazing and dynamic, he called me because he had seen the bad press that the prison was receiving and he wanted to know what the uni could do to help. I had to say at that point that I didn't know, and it was Dominic who said that the first thing to do was something for the staff, to improve morale.”

Students from DMU at HMP Leicester

So what do the projects look like?

“DMU have a programme called Square Mile, which is all about connecting the university and the local community, and the first project we did was with that. We had some unused green space on the prison estate that was in need of some attention. Students came in from DMU and pitched ideas for designs of how we can use the space, and working with these they completely renovated this unkempt bit of green into a gorgeous memorial garden.

We were out in the exercise yard, and I could see at first the staff thought what on earth? But as soon as the choir started you could see arms unfolding, then feet tapping, and by the end people were up and dancing.

Since then we've had all sorts -  DMU have a gospel choir who perform at Leicester city home games, and they came in to perform for the staff. It was one of those days when everything lined up. The weather was perfect. We were out in the exercise yard, and I could see at first the staff thought what on earth? But as soon as the choir started you could see arms unfolding, then feet tapping, and by the end people were up and dancing.

We need to bottle some of that positive feeling because, let's be realistic, some days in prison are shit. We aren't always singing and dancing. But if we can bottle some of that magic that gave the staff a boost on that day we can have it to sprinkle about when things are more difficult.

 

We've had a 44 piece orchestra come in from DMU to play to the prisoners - playing contemporary music but using classical instruments. The prisoners really appreciated the skill that took, many of them would never have been to see an orchestra outside.

But if we can bottle some of that magic that gave the staff a boost on that day we can have it to sprinkle about when things are more difficult. 

DMU design students got involved in redesigning the visits hall. They brought back designs to pitch, and we selected the winning designs. We obtained some funding with support from DMU and other charities and the visits hall has been transformed – it was this austere space and now it's bright, welcoming, and we call it the Gateway. I've had mothers tell me that they wouldn't have brought their children into the space as it was before, and now they can – that kind of feedback is amazing.”

Ross Little and Phil Novis

What about education partnerships?

“That we've done both ways. I've gone out to DMU and other universities to talk about the challenges of management in the prison service, and I personally give tours to visiting students – which I love to do because I'm proud of this prison.

 

We've also had Learning Together projects here, run by Ross Little, a passionate criminology lecturer from the university. We've done two with students from DMU and our prisoners, and one with prison staff. The syllabus for this is decided collaboratively – Ross will give the students a selection of topics and they choose which ones from those they want to study. The readings are sent out based on that so that both groups of students have some ownership of what they're studying.

The feedback from the men was that they felt listened to, they thought it would be patronising but they had a voice, they were able to interact with the students and with Ross as equals.”

What is your advice for other governors looking for some of that university-partnership-magic to sprinkle?

"I think what's made this partnership so successful is that it's driven by the prison governor and the VC of the uni is totally behind it. His team all know that this has his stamp. If you're going to do this you need the senior buy in, it can't be handed down. That's why I do the tours for the students, the lectures at the university etc. So my advice for other governors is contact the VC of your local university and find out what collaborations could happen, top down.

The feedback from prisoners, staff, the DMU students, totally makes the work worth it.”

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This is part of the PUPiL blog series. If you would like to respond to the points and issues raised in this blog, or to contribute to the blog yourself, please contact Morwenna