Cross-examination: A conversation about life in the justice system with Tony Simpson, Justice Operations Director at Sodexo
The UK criminal justice system has long been under pressure, whether from public opinion, political ambition or front-line resources. But there are brilliant organisations and dedicated people working tirelessly to make things better.
To shine a light on the state of the system in 2022 and the motivations and ambitions of those who work in it, we’re interviewing stakeholders across justice organisations – from senior leaders to frontline staff.
We interviewed Tony Simpson, who has a career spanning 30 years in the prison system in England, Scotland and in the public and private sectors.
“There is certainly a lot of difficult stuff in a prison. But if you dig hard you will also find diamonds”.
1. What’s your involvement with the justice system?
I’m the Justice Operations Director for Sodexo Government. My main responsibilities are ensuring the contractual and operational delivery of five, soon to be six, prisons in the UK. Our clients are the Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and the Scottish Prison Service.
2. What was your first job in justice and what originally motivated you to work in the justice system?
I was working for Customs and Excise as it was known at the time and saw an opportunity to apply for the direct entrant Governor programme advertised by the Scottish Prison Service. I was at the very lower limits of the age range required, but it really appealed to me so I applied, went through the selection process and got in. I joined in 1992 as Assistant Governor at Peterhead Prison in North East Scotland.
Even though my dad was a prison officer, I confess that I had little concept of what it would be like. The prison had a long reputation for holding some very diffiicult and dangerous prisoners and it was a great place to learn the rudiments of prison management.
I had to gain the trust and respect of a group of older and much more experienced staff, as well as that of the prisoners. Bill Rattray was one of my first Governors In Charge and became a valued mentor. He gave me some good advice for how to gain the respect and trust of prisoners. For example, if you say you’re going to do something, make sure you do it. I made lots of mistakes as I was worked through various roles, but learned the value of listening, having a good “risk radar” and engaging with people on a human level.
3. What gives you most cause for optimism in your current role?
This links back to more good advice that Bill gave me – he told me never to be satisfied but always be optimistic. Bill knew how to do the job well. He understood what worked. He prepared me for the fact that in a job like this you can be overwhelmed at first, as everyone looks to you and wants you to prioritise their very real issues and assume responsibility for resolving them. He knew that you could never expect everything to be solved but you always had to be optimistic or you send out negative energy and that helps no-one. That was invaluable advice that I still heed to this day.
So there is plenty that keeps me optimistic despite the huge challenges we face every single day. Most recently the work we’re doing to support people into employment and education has been a huge source of positivity and optimism. Education and work can change people’s lives.
There are always people who give me great cause for optimism too. Across our prisons, we have the Insiders scheme where serving prisoners work alongside our staff teams to support newly admitted prisoners. I spent some time with the team in Peterborough prison recently and there was one woman who was so impressive and professional that if I hadn’t known differently I might have mistaken her for a social worker. She was so committed and invested in supporting others and making a difference to new prisoners, at what is a very difficult time for them.
I remain positive and optimistic because I know that what we do makes a difference even if that difference some days is just the absence of something negative.
4. If you could fix just one problem in the justice system, what would it be and why?
I’d make sure people have a decent place to live when they leave prison. Having good accommodation and a job make a big difference to how well people are able to integrate back into society and keep away away from crime.
5. Who or what has had the biggest influence on you and in what way?
There have been many people who were there at the right time for me and helped me. The right thing, said by the right person at the right time can make a big difference.
I’ve mentioned one of my mentors, Bill Rattray. He influenced me by example. He showed me the benefits of being out and about a lot in the prisons, walking about, listening and talking to people. For me this doesn’t feel like work. Interaction with the staff and prisoners energises me. It’s a chance to have a positive influence and do the small, everyday things that might make someone’s life easier and might make a difference. You have to look for the positives that may seem small.
There is certainly a lot of difficult stuff in a prison. But if you dig hard you will also find diamonds. I see that as part of my role. When you find the good stuff it’s worth it.
6. What’s the best advice you’ve ever had?
I’ve had lots of good advice. In my early days as a governor, a piece of advice that helped a lot was to start each day afresh no matter what had happened the day before. Sometimes that is not easy but it’s important to do for your own wellbeing and to enable you to do the job well.
The other good advice was that it was important to be aware of the risks but not be consumed by them. If you were too preoccupied by all the things that could happen in any moment you wouldn’t be able to function effectively.
7. What would you like to look back and say you’ve achieved in relation to justice?
I think it’s a cumulation of all the things that I’ve been involved in. I’ve been able to bring my experience of working in different prison cultures, in England and Scotland and in the public and private sectors. I’ve always tried to leave places in a slightly better situation than when I arrived.
If you want to make a difference, the capacity to do it in any prison is there. It comes down to you. It doesn’t matter what the prison is like or what your manager is like, you can still make a difference. You don’t need anyone to allow you to do it. I guess it’s that attitude that has helped me to keep trying to make a difference to people in prisons in my thirty years in the sector.