Obituary: Peter Withers, prison governor

Peter Withers
Peter Withers
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Born: 18 September, 1946, in Oldbury, Worcestershire. Died: 31 August, 2012, in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, aged 65.

When Peter Withers embarked on his career as a talented young engineer a successful path stretched ahead in the Royal Air Force.

He had excelled during his training and was assured of a bright future in the service. But by the time he retired he had spent 40 years in an entirely different field – mostly within the walls of Scottish prisons – where he devoted his life’s work to serving and safeguarding the public.

It was an extraordinary turnaround, sparked by his own harrowing experience, but it exemplified his zest for life.

Born in Oldbury, Worcestershire, he was educated at Oldbury Grammar School and, in 1965, was awarded a coveted scholarship to RAF College Cranwell in Lincolnshire. There he won the Royal United Services Institute prize and graduated with a BSc in aeronautical engineering.

Although he had hoped to become a pilot his eyesight let him down but, for a working-class boy, a glittering RAF career still beckoned. It began in 1970 when he became an aeronautical engineer at RAF Leconfield in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where he fell in love with a young Scottish WRAF pilot officer, Helen McLaren.

But within only a few months the personal and professional tragedy that would define the rest of his working life left him utterly bereft. Helen, then just 21, was killed along with three other air crew, when the rescue helicopter in which she was a passenger crashed in atrocious weather, near their air base, in November 1970.

Withers, then 24, accompanied her body back to Scotland, where she is buried at Logie Kirk, Stirlingshire. He never recovered from her death and left the RAF 18 months later, perceiving that there had been a cover-up in the circumstances surrounding the accident, which happened when a young Canadian pilot on an exchange placement was at the controls.

Throwing away an RAF career had been a difficult decision to make as he knew he had achieved the dream of many a working-class boy in reaching and succeeding at Cranwell.

But it marked the start of an obsession with accuracy, equity, fairness and transparency – his way of somehow making amends.

He knew he wanted to work in the public sector as a means of giving something back. He also knew he wanted to work in Scotland to be near Helen. And in September 1972, just after turning 26, he joined the Scottish Prison Service (SPS).

He became a career governor and in 1989 was appointed the youngest governor to take charge of Glasgow’s notorious Barlinnie Prison – Europe’s busiest jail.

Barlinnie was his first posting, followed by stints at Polmont, then known as a borstal, Noranside and Dumfries prisons as a junior governor before going, in 1983, to the Prison Service staff college in Wakefield as a tutor.

It was a role he enjoyed and prompted his interest in training, coaching, mentoring and personal development. This led to a greater interest in human resources and personnel management and, ultimately, to becoming a Fellow of the Institute of Personnel Management.

After Wakefield he was appointed head of staff inspection and central recruitment at the Scottish Prison Service headquarters, where he project managed a major restructuring package.

In 1988 he became deputy governor at Shotts Prison and the following year was appointed Barlinnie governor, aged 42.

Scottish prisons were experiencing a period of serious unrest. There were dirty protests and a series of riots and the SAS had been called in to crack a siege at Peterhead and rescue a warder taken hostage by inmates.

Withers played his part in the management of many of these difficult situations, acting as incident commander or HQ controller in 15 major incidents.

In the early 1990s he led a team that reviewed the service’s staff structure and produced a report, Shaping the Future of the Scottish Prison Service, and in 1995 he was appointed to the board of the SPS. Over the next 11 years he served in various roles – as director of custody, area director and later as commissioning director in his capacity as director of Prison Services.

A man of vision and courage, who was as at ease bantering with prisoners as he was debating with governors, he remained committed to change. During his career he led a total of three national structural and organisational reviews, scrutinising security arrangements, new staff attendance systems, and delivering efficiencies and savings to make the service more competitive.

He undoubtedly made a huge impact on the SPS, where he was responsible for commissioning, monitoring and managing all major private sector contracts for custodial and prisoner escort, including the first private sector prison in Kilmarnock in 1999.

And his retiral, aged 60, did not mark the end of his involvement with it or his contribution to public service. He continued to work with offenders and on some operational investigations and gave evidence to the Billy Wright inquiry into the shooting of the Loyalist Volunteer Force leader by republican inmates in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison.

He also took on non-executive roles as a director of Tayside NHS board, chairing various committees including the audit committee and was vice-chair of the medical research ethic committee; the Risk Management Authority which oversees the management of lifelong restriction orders for the most serious offenders, and the Independent Safeguarding Authority which helps prevent unsuitable individuals working with the vulnerable.

Outwith his professional life he was an accomplished chess and Sudoku player and a sports enthusiast, particularly fond of tennis, football and golf. He played tennis for many years, once winning the men’s single, doubles and mixed doubles trophies all in the same year at the former BP Tennis Club in Grangemouth.

Having come from a family with a history of premature deaths, he knew time was precious and was all too aware of the need to live life to the full. But when he was confined to hospital for a couple of weeks earlier this year he brushed off his illness, seeing the positive in his stay.

“Patient experience informs board contributions,” he told a friend, and continued to his work, travelling around the UK making himself useful.

After he took ill in Buckinghamshire, while visiting his long-term love and fiancée Pheona, his final altruistic act was to donate his organs.

Divorced from his first wife, he is survived by Pheona, whom he had been due to marry in 
December.

ALISON SHAW