The consequences of whistleblowing: an interview with Kim Lennon

In 2014 prison officer Kim Lennon faced a disciplinary hearing for her conduct after she had spoken to the media about her concerns over staffing levels and violence at HMP Lewes. She was found guilty of bringing discredit upon the Prison Service and sacked. The interview here is Kim’s account of the process and contains allegations around her experiences, which exist as allegations, allegedly etc. Most of the material is already in the public domain.

It was a few years ago now that you lost your job for blowing the whistle about violence in prison, yet it seems now that everyone acknowledges the extent of the problem. It must be galling to see that what you lost your job for is now on the public agenda?

Yes, it’s been four years for in August since I stepped through the gates at HMP Lewes and just over two years since i was dismissed & lost my appeal. It’s very galling to have lost my much loved job for telling the truth about the mess our prison was in.

Naturally, I am elated that it is on the public agenda but dumbfounded & sad that the issues I raised have got much worse.

There have been two wings lost at HMP Lewes since my whistleblowing and violence has escalated.

Although on the public agenda, the same things are being reported but I see very little changing within the system and what little is changing is taking far too long.

The media has such a huge part to play in this in getting the real message out to the public about our prisons. Until public perceptions change and the general public take a real interest and a more sympathetic and understanding view then I believe this crisis will continue.

You were dismissed because you “brought discredit to the prison system”. It seems odd that as they say the messenger gets shot! Can you tell me a little about what your concerns were and how you raised them initially?

Having worked as a Prison Officer for ten years in the same establishment, I saw the deterioration and the negative effects to both staff & prisoners.

The frustration from both sides was evident

I’ve always been outspoken and shout loudly when something is wrong. This has been my stance throughout my career and I was well known for it by prisoners, staff & management. Some admired it as they said they may not like what I have to say but they knew where they stood.

Others (usually the ones who didn’t like home truths) disliked me for it but didn’t say that openly to my face…they would talk to others maliciously about me.

That’s how it is when you put your head above the parapet.

Initially my concerns were raised through the usual channels: me expressing and voicing my concerns to colleagues and management. It’s a usual thing that happens; it’s what staff who speak out do. We do it in the hope that someone will listen and change things but, it mostly falls on deaf ears. You become known as a moaner.

I have to say that doesn’t always happen. It depends on the culture in the establishment and the leadership. Between 2009-2013 we had a Number 1 Governor, Robin Eldridge, who would lead from the front. He was high profile, knew his staff, knew his prisoners and knew what was happening in his prison.

He had an open-door policy and I got so sick of middle management I would cut them out and go straight to him with any issues. He always dealt with them.

Also his deputy who had been there since 2007, Paul Laxton, another excellent leader who was approachable and very human to both staff & prisoners. Paul would have made an excellent Number 1 but was held back because he was straight-talking and had upset a few at the top during his career.

My approach did not do me any favours as far as middle management were concerned, and some of my colleagues. In my opinion, they made sure I suffered for it once Robin had left. There was/is a bit of an inner circle at HMP Lewes (mostly middle management) who have looked out for each other and covered each other’s arses.

This was less evident when Robin was there as he was no fool and kept people in check, especially his management team but when he left it reared its ugly head.

Anyway, my concerns were expressed at the end of 2013 (Robin no longer there). This was done through my line manager. Nothing changed. It was getting worse so I took steps to make my concerns known formally by e-mail to the head of residence and I cc’d health & safety. Neither replied nor spoke to me on the matter. The head of residence was also the named point of contact for wrongdoing.

My concerns were
1/Lack of staff
2/Lack of time to do things
3/Security issues
4/Prisoners’ frustrations
5/Fear of violence on staff because of prisoners’ frustrations.

This had all become more evident since ‘New ways of working’ had been introduced in September 2013.

So life went on, nothing was done and the wing got worse. Violence, Spice etc. Spice was a huge issue on my wing and throughout the prison. It was well known by staff and prisoners that the visits cameras were not and had not been working for some time. I have evidence of that.

This was a perfect route for drugs with prisoners knowing full-well they were out of action. We knew who the so called “players” were on the wing, the ones who were dealing the drugs.

It was noticeable that other prisoners were like bees around a honey pot when these players returned from visits. The wing was flooded with spice. The word around the prison was that the cameras would cost too much to fix, that was the rumour. One morning in June/July I spoke to the security Governor when bumping into him on the forecourt.

We had what we believed to be a deflection technique pass that morning on visits: One table with prisoner and visitors kicks off on purpose, with the set up that another table does the pass. The table that kicks off inevitably gets the attention of visits staff leaving the drugs to pass easily on the other table.

Without the cameras this is simple.

When someone is watching the cameras and sees a pass happening they can radio straight through to the visits staff via personal radios. These radios are set up to have their own channel on visits and are extremely effective. Nobody had the radio channel because nobody was watching the cameras because they were not working.

I asked the security Governor (who (Lennon alleges – Ed) lied under oath at my Tribunal and said this conversation did not happen) ‘when are the cameras going to get fixed’

He said, ‘do you know how much that will cost’?
I said, ‘the rumour is sixteen thousand’.
He said, ‘double that and even if that happened we would have nobody to watch them’. He then walked away chuckling.
I really was up against it and the stress of being ignored was taking Its toll mentally.

Why do you think the prison service is so intent on refusing to acknowledge its failings, leading people like you and Faith Spear to seek other means?

It has a culture of secrecy and denial, which is deeply embedded.

There are provisions in law for whistleblowers, so it seems that it was crucial for the prison service to deny your status as a whistleblower. How did they do that?

As I mentioned, the security cameras had not worked for some time and everyone knew it. In my disciplinary the Number 1 Governor, James Bourke, stated that I had breached security by disclosing to the media. He said that I had put the prison at risk and in danger.

I told him that it was them that had endangered the prison by not fixing them.

He also claimed that I did not use the official channels.

This is not true. The channels I had used had done nothing and I know to go further up the chain makes you a target and prone to being victimised. This I had previous experience of when reporting a previous number 1 Governor of (Lennon alleges – Ed) covering up a sexual assault on one female Officer by a male Officer.

I suffered greatly for reporting that and I’ve always had to watch my back because of it, these people always have connections and friends.

Your case was covered in newspapers, with the Guardian seeming sympathetic, but after the initial coverage, there’s been very little attention to your plight – what happened to your life after you left the service?

A long list and a long story. My mental health has suffered badly. I lost my home and was unable to afford another.

I have at times been suicidal and I’ve come very close. When you are in that darkness and you feel there is no way out this felt like my only option.

It’s an awful place to be.

The sense of injustice haunts you and that’s something that has not gone away. Luckily nearly four years on I have come through and although I still have many obstacles in my life, I’m up for it. This has not broken me, it’s made me stronger.

I am still jobless. This seems to be another obstacle. My passion is prisons and changing them for the better for all but I feel that I am not wanted in that field by the likes of the MOJ, even though I have lots of experience. I have broken their code. I’m an outsider and I’m sure some consider me a traitor.

Has the prison service changed since your case, especially in terms of acknowledging and responding to problems?

It continues to say that it is responding robustly to violence which is garbage. Usually they try to keep incidents out of the media, and when they do appear, they play them down. The Government regards prisoners as lower than vermin. The culture of secrecy to deeply-embedded but we live in hope.

In 2016 Lewes Prison faced riots. It was then placed in special measures.