Scotsman Obituaries, Kate Donegan, prison governor whose reforms influenced institutions across Scotland
Kate Donegan grew up with an ambition to become a marine biologist. The nearest she got was joining the Royal Navy. Then, after a spell as an education Wren, she joined the Civil Service and it was there she learned of a route into prison management. The discovery of a direct entry scheme was the catalyst for a distinguished career that saw her rewarded with the service’s top operational jobs, receive the OBE and the respect of a swathe of society, colleagues and prisoners.
Compassion and kindness were Kate’s watchwords – repaid on occasion by inmates’ gifts of roses from the prison garden, hand-knitted baby clothes for the arrival of her sons, even poems.
It was a tough and challenging career choice, working in a predominantly male environment and notoriously troubled establishments – notably Glasgow’s HMP Barlinnie and Stirling’s women-only HMP and Young Offenders’ Institution Cornton Vale, the latter dubbed the “Vale of Death” after a spate of suicides among inmates. On becoming governor she immediately introduced a compassionate ethos and, during her tenure, halted the tragedy of those taking their own life. She passionately believed that everyone was redeemable.
Kate’s determination was influenced by her upbringing and her hardworking, strict disciplinarian father James Fargie, a police superintendent with Fife Constabulary. Born in Newport-on-Tay, she moved around the area as her father was promoted, attending schools including Kirkcaldy’s Dysart Prep School, Valley and Fair Isle primaries, Castle Hill Primary in Cupar and Kirkcaldy and Glenrothes High Schools.
A bright pupil who was nevertheless disinclined to go to university, she reluctantly enrolled at Aberdeen University studying English, Psychology and Moral Philosophy, but made a deal with her father that if she passed her first-year exams she could leave to join the Royal Navy. She duly passed with flying colours and left.
Following the Navy, she worked initially in the Civil Service in Social Work Services in Edinburgh. On moving to the Prisons Division, in HR she began analysing data for the Prison Service. After developing a fascination for the field Kate sat the direct entry exam and began her career at Cornton Vale, where she was assistant governor for seven years. Although there were few women leaders in the service that fact did not blunt her ambition and she successfully took on posts in male establishments. In 1989 she went south of the Border to HMP Reading as deputy governor.
She preferred being hands-on but was also aware of her corporate responsibilities and, in the 1990s, went on to head the Operational Manpower Planning unit at Scottish Prison Service (SPS) HQ and become deputy head of the Staffing Structure Review, a role which resulted in some of the most radical changes in SPS history.
After working as deputy chief inspector of prisons she was posted to Cornton Vale as governor, at the time of numerous suicides. Her appointment in 1996 was hailed a turning point by her boss at the inspectorate, Clive Fairweather. She proved him right by introducing fundamental changes in the ethos, regime and operation of the prison which had a significant effect internally and a positive impact on public opinion and among her colleagues across criminal justice, academia and politics.
Meanwhile, in the late 1990s she studied part-time at Stirling University obtaining a degree in Business Studies and Management. However, her greatest professional achievement was yet to come.
Her colleague Teresa Medhurst, now chief executive of the SPS, said: “Kate was successful in 2001 in achieving what she considered to be the pinnacle of her career on being promoted to the most senior operational grade in the SPS which resulted in her governing HMP Perth, HMP Glenochil, HMP Polmont and subsequently a return to Cornton Vale. But success as a woman in what remained a predominantly male organisation was something Kate also encouraged and supported other women to aspire to.”
Her own inspiration was her first governor at Cornton Vale, the formidable pioneer and visionary Lady Martha Bruce, with whom she shared an enlightened approach to managing women in custody. The two remained friends for the rest of their lives.
A wife and mother throughout the high-flying years of her career, Kate was also a role model and mentor to many, instilling confidence that being a woman, showing compassion and kindness as a leader, would not hold them back. Today the organisation has more women senior leaders in operational posts than men, an achievement she undoubtedly influenced.
She returned to Cornton Vale, following a further stint as deputy chief inspector of prisons and a spell as governor of Polmont, and led a project team developing a new strategy for women in custody. Her work laid the foundation for the new HMP and YOI Stirling which would eventually replace Cornton Vale as Scotland’s sole women-only prison. During that time she was made an OBE for services to the criminal justice system and last year visited the newly opened Stirling facility, which was everything she had envisaged.
By that time her health was failing but her positivity about life remained. Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in 2023 she faced it with her usual pragmatism, strength and dignity, accepting her life was limited but determined to live each day as fully as possible. She had previously jumped out of planes for charity and been an excellent swimmer. In retirement she enjoyed cycling and was an avid collector with a keen eye for antiques and a cache of Rupert the Bear memorabilia.
Despite the emotional rollercoaster of her illness, Kate never lost her sharp wit and sense of humour and insisted on looking her best to the end, buried in the dress she wore to her investiture at the Palace.
She is survived by her husband Chris, who she wed in 1982, sons Paul and Simon, and grandchildren Cal, Isla and Connie.
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