Prison is not the place you would normally associate with comedic encounters, but Jersey’s prison governor begs to differ.
‘Porridge, that was the best ever,’ says Bill Millar, recalling the popular Seventies television sitcom of his youth. ‘They obviously spent a lot of time researching prisons because so much of that is real.
‘Some of those quips about prison life between prison staff and prisoners actually happen – and Ronnie Barker was terrific.’
The team at HMP La Moye would surely say the same about Mr Millar, who has not had a solitary day off sick throughout his ten-year tenure as governor at the prison and his 30 years working in the Scottish prison system.
The 63-year-old, who was made an MBE last year for his leadership of Jersey’s Prison Service, has an industrious team of 158 full-time prison staff under his charge, including engineers, support staff, nurses and educational trainers.
They help to oversee a prison population that has plunged since the Repatriation of Prisoners (Jersey) Law 2012 was introduced.
‘Five years ago our daily average prison population would have been in the 180s, today we have about 136 prisoners. That [decrease] was partly by design after some of the changes in legislation in regards to the transfer of prisoners back to the UK.’
Although the population of La Moye Prison is considerably smaller than the Scottish jails in which Mr Millar previously worked in, he says Jersey’s jail has unique challenges.
‘La Moye is a very complex prison because you’ve got every category of offender – juveniles, women, sex offenders – everyone the court sends. But it doesn’t matter what category of prisoner they are, they all have to have access to the gymnasium, to visits, to education classes, work opportunities and courses aimed at ending offending behaviour.
‘We have to make sure we timetable everything in a way that each population gets access to a reasonable quality of regime.’
Although the overall population of the prison has decreased, he says the number of sex offenders housed within the Vulnerable Protection Unit – J wing – has risen.
‘The percentage of sex offenders in the VPU has increased and that’s partly because of modern-day offenders – those who have downloaded inappropriate images of children. That’s a population that didn’t exist all that long ago.’
Two high-profile criminals who spent time behind bars in Jersey during Mr Millar’s time in charge were Damian Rzeszowski – the Polish national who killed six people including his family – and drugs baron Curtis Warren.
Warren, who was jailed for 13 years in 2009 over a £1m plot to smuggle cannabis into Jersey, was held at La Moye for more than three years while he was on remand. A former Liverpool bouncer who had previously killed a prisoner when serving time in Holland, he was alleged to have amassed a fortune of more than £200m.
In an interview with a national newspaper in 2014, Teresa Rodrigues – a former senior manager at La Moye who ran the drugs and alcohol counselling unit – claimed she had an affair with Warren in his Jersey cell over a two-year period. The claims made in the newspaper article by Ms Rodrigues, who resigned from the prison, were denied by Warren’s lawyer.
Mr Millar is rightly proud of the excellent safety record at the prison and during his tenure, the Jersey Prison Service won the Jersey CIPD Award for the Most Successful Change Management Programme – in 2012 – and he received a Certificate of Commendation from the Minister for Home Affairs in 2013 for outstanding leadership and service to the Island. His MBE followed last year.
He says the last two HMCIP inspector reports ‘have both been very good’ and ‘Jersey now has a prison to be proud of’, but adds: ‘This was a prison to be ashamed of back in 2008.’
Under Mr Millar’s leadership, rehabilitation has been his watchword. He has brought in a psychology team for the prisoners and overseen the creation of a learning and vocational training programme covering everything from horticulture to bricklaying.
He has even welcomed writers, poets and professional sportspeople to give talks to prisoners aimed at encouraging them to approach problems with a more positive mind-set.
‘Your primary role is always about ensuring safe and secure custody, but if you are going to address offending you have to address the issues with the individuals themselves. The harsh sharp-shock treatment simply doesn’t work.’
At the start of this year a report published by the national prisons inspector lauded La Moye for its high safety standards, cleanliness and the respect prisoners had for staff. Nonetheless, Ofsted [the educational standards authority] was critical of the level of qualifications the prison provided.
‘We have taken on board the chief inspector’s comments and we have started to run some higher-level courses, but there’s [only] a smaller number of prisoners capable of moving at that higher level [of educational training],’ insists Mr Millar. ‘Many of our courses are primarily geared towards the service and construction industries.’
One thing that will definitely be out of reach for every prisoner in Jersey soon is tobacco. The prison is introducing a blanket ban on the substance from January 2019 and inmates are currently being weaned off cigarettes.
In the UK, where a similar move has once again been mooted, some prison staff have raised safety concerns should inmates react badly to a cigarette ban. Mr Millar insists this will not be a problem at La Moye because ‘we’re not doing cold turkey here, we’re trying to gradually ween prisoners off tobacco by introducing the cigarette ban over the course of this year so it’s not such a shock.
‘We have the e-cigarettes in use as a pathway to stop smoking and I’ve been surprised at the level of uptake already by prisoners. We’re also running help-to-quit courses.’
For many governors of UK prisons, concern over cigarette use pales in comparison to the problem of illegal drugs. Not so here, according to Mr Millar.
‘Drugs will always be an issue in any prison, but here we drug test 20 per cent of our prison population every month – that’s twice the amount they test in the UK. On top of that 20 per cent we carry out targeted tests if we have grounds to suspect a particular prisoner.
‘Less than two per cent of the tests come back as positive for drugs and I don’t think there’s another closed prison in the UK that compares with that.’
A qualified electrician by trade, Mr Millar says his original plan was to join the prison service in his native Scotland as an electrician – ‘but being a young man money was important so I joined as a uniformed officer’.
During his 30 years north of the border he saw the good, the bad and the ugly side of prison life.
‘There were hostage takings and riots in the prisons early on in my career. One prisoner threatened to stab me and he did dig me in the ribs in a stabbing motion. We had previously found a knife with an eight-inch blade hidden within his ghetto blaster, but fortunately he didn’t have a knife when he punched me.
‘A prisoner unsuccessfully plotted to take me hostage too. Another once grabbed me by the throat and another prisoner threw the contents of his chamber pot at me.
‘And prisoners would try to intimidate you – they’d try to stare you down or stand in little groups, whisper at each other and stare back at you.
‘It was all psychological intimidation designed to wear the staff down. They were horrible times.’
He says the modern Sottish Prison Service is free from the problems of yesteryear, but believes some of those issues now blight prisons in England and Wales.
‘I think the Scottish system is today in a far better state than in England and Wales, where there are overcrowding problems.’
The situation could not be more different at La Moye, where most prisoners have a cell to themselves.
‘And the staff-prisoner relationships here are the best I’ve experienced in my career.’
Nick Cameron, who has headed up prisons in the UK as well as New Zealand and Australia, is waiting in the wings to take over as Head of Jersey Prison Service on Monday.
‘I think we’ve identified a good replacement in Nick who will do well here,’ adds Mr Millar, who is looking forward to a relaxing retirement in the UK – ‘my wife has her heart set on buying a property with a sea view’.
With his daughter and son doing well in their respective careers in Jersey, he envisions spending a little while longer in the Island, before making his retirement getaway from The Rock.