Governor of The Scrubs

In the 1990s, Dubliner Gary Monaghan applied for a job in the UK’s prison service ‘for the interview practice’. Now he runsone of its toughest prisons: London’s Wormwood Scrubs

Inside job: Gary Monaghan, the Dublin-born Governor of Wormwood Scrubs prison. ‘You can’t be a pessimist in this role.’ Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

Inside job: Gary Monaghan, the Dublin-born Governor of Wormwood Scrubs prison. ‘You can’t be a pessimist in this role.’ Photograph: Joanne O’Brien


You can hear prisoners calling to each other through an open window as Gary Monaghan sits at a desk, musing about the journey that brought him from Dublin to Wormwood Scrubs, the 19th-century prison in Hammersmith, in west London.

Now in his mid-40s, Monaghan, who was born and raised in Artane, in north Dublin, has spent 23 years working in British prisons. Last November he became governor of the Scrubs.

The prison holds nearly 1,300 inmates. Up to half at any one time are held on remand. A third have less than six months to serve. Two out of five are foreign; a fraction of them will have English as their first language. Social problems are rife, literacy is low, depression is high. Spending curbs have cut deep.

In a documentary broadcast four years ago, one of Monaghan’s predecessors described Wormwood Scrubs “as a smouldering or erupting volcano” where prisoners boasted about their ability to get drugs. Eighteen months later it was given an “improving” mark by Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, who said it had become “a safer and more decent place than in the past”, though serious problems still existed.

Today conditions have improved again, even though it has lost a fifth of the staff it had then. “We had large cuts in staff last year. We have had to change things dramatically. It is very lean now,” says Monaghan.

Nevertheless, he says that the organisation is “light years ahead” of the one that he joined when he was in his early 20s.

“I left Ireland when I was 19, like many other people,” he says, listing a series of jobs he had after he arrived. “I ran a couple of bars, I worked for Dunlop; they had a motor-sport division then. I worked selling ads for Yellow Pages, all that sort of stuff.

Joining the prison service was never part of the plan. “I had thought about going back to university or, perhaps, emigrating again.” Relations in Australia “had a job waiting for me there”, and friends who had moved to the US were ready to greet him if he went there.

In the meantime he applied for the prison service. “I really only did so for interview practice. I got the interview. I put it into the background and pretty much forgot about it, to be honest.”

But he got a job offer. In the early 1990s security vetting was slow; the British police checked on his background with the Garda.

His first prison, in 1991, was the then newly-opened high-security Belmarsh. “I think I was quite fortunate. Because it was quite new, not many of us knew what we were doing at the time. But it gave fantastic opportunities to do lots of different work with prisoners.”

Monaghan focused on working with inmates with drug addictions.

“We tried to prepare prisoners for release, as well as working on the landing. You could do stuff that you mightn’t have been able to do in any of the other prisons at that time.

Accelerated promotion
Although he was enjoying his time, Monaghan had not decided to stay; then he applied for a chance to compete for accelerated promotion alongside university graduates. “I decided that I would give it a crack. If that didn’t work I’d give it a year or two, and probably leave and go back to plan A.”

It did work out. A succession of moves followed: a year in the Scrubs as a junior manager; time at headquarters; a senior management job at Pentonville, in north London. By the time he got to Full Sutton, a high-security prison outside York, Monaghan was deputy governor. Then he was given charge of the category-C Everthorpe, in Yorkshire.

Later he moved back to Pentonville, which, like Wormwood Scrubs, is a Victorian-era building trying to cope with 21st-century challenges. This time Monaghan was governor.

He came to the Scrubs last November; he has already met prisoners from Pentonville, back inside for another term. Little of it bears a resemblance to the 1970s BBC comedy series Porridge , in which Ronnie Barker played Norman Fletcher, one of the inmates.

“The humour is the truest thing about Porridge . It gets people through some tough days, that bit of banter.” The characters in the series, though, “are parodies”, he says. “There is no Fletcher – not many of those about these days.”

Monaghan says one has to be an optimist to be a prison governor. “You can’t be a pessimist in this role. My glass is always half-full – it has to be. If you are going to be a pessimist all you will do is warehouse people. You have to believe that you can change people.”

He knows people from his childhood who went on to spend time in jail.

“I was very lucky. I had good parents, a good upbringing, but I knew people growing up who were not that lucky. When a child is born they are innocent. There are things that we can do. Yes, there are a small number of individuals I have come across in high security who were very dangerous people, quite psychopathic. But the majority you can change.”

He cites the example of a Pentonville prisoner who eventually became a professor of criminology.

“He came in here recently. He got involved in crime when young, did a few stretches. In Pentonville he realised that he did not want to do it any more.”

The prison’s education officer “got him hooked on education. He had a reasonably lengthy sentence, so he had time for a degree. When he came out he got sponsored by a university, did a master’s and a doctorate. It does happen. Other lads I have bumped into managed to settle down, get a job.”

What was it like to be Irish in the prison service in the early 1990s, a time when London suffered a series of IRA attacks? Monaghan mulls his answer. “There were moments when it was an issue, but that was a long time ago.”

The prisoners were never a problem. “There were Irish in prison, there were Irish in the community, along with Jamaicans, Poles, Russians, so it wasn’t an issue being Irish with prisoners. But there were a few, a small few staff, for whom being Irish was an issue.”

Inclusive organisation
Today the situation in HM Prison Service, if not perfect, is very different. “It is a very open, inclusive organisation, so if you have got the determination, and if you are prepared to develop, anybody can become governor.”

In its report three years ago HM Inspectorate of Prisons reported that one in 10 prisoners in the Scrubs tested positive for drugs, “which was still too high, but significantly reduced”.

Twenty years ago prisoners in Belmarsh deeply distrusted prison officers. Today officers there are working as drugs counsellors, says Monaghan.

Wormwood Scrubs itself is getting better, and has already improved services to those it has inside its walls for lengthier sentences. “We have to do better with those on shorter sentences,” he says. “We have got less time to work with those people. They might only have a few months in here, and they might have a court case to deal with during that.

“Sometimes a short sentence can muck up your circumstances. [People] can be in custody long enough to have issues with housing, family members or work. Currently, they don’t get supervised when they are released. We just don’t have enough time to effect changes that we have effected with longer-term prisoners.”

Despite the problems, Monaghan argues that conditions and standards in British prisons are significantly better than they were when he first joined. “Some of the other prisons were so badly run. We had lots of escapes in the 1990s; summer riots, issues with respect and dignity. I think it is pretty transformed from where it was 20 years ago. It has been quite some time since we have had prison riots and mutinies.”

Under proposed changes to the probation service – deeply controversial ones, because they involve partial privatisation of the service – prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months will be supervised by probation officers after they are released. Currently, only those serving sentences longer than that are monitored by probation officers after they are released.

Monaghan stays out of the debate about the merits of the changes. “That is the method that government has decided. I am a public servant. I am here to make it work.”

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