Veronica O'Dea

Doctor of Laws

15 July 2008 – Orator: Professor Rod Morgan

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, Veronica O'Dea

Anyone who has had the task of inspecting custodial institutions knows that much can immediately be learned about the leadership and culture of a prison from the way one is received by the Governor. It is not a good sign: if, as you go round, the prisoners ask the Governor as well as you, the visitor, who you are; or the Governor wants to stay with you all day, apparently unwilling to let you speak to staff out of her hearing; or wants you to see the architecture rather than speak to the inmates; or if, in a young offenders institution, the only prisoners to whom you are presented are about to take their A levels or have just raised £10,000 for charity by running a marathon. It’s great to take pride in such achievements. But everyone knows they’re not typical. Prisons are difficult places to manage well and they are mostly occupied by multiply disadvantaged inmates struggling with their lack of achievement, their social exclusion, their fractured lives, their anger, frustration or depression. It takes skill and care to bring many of them out of themselves.

If anyone here today had visited Ashfield Young Offenders Institution, just north of Bristol, between late 2002 and April of this year they would have been received by Vicky, as she is universally known, the Governor. You might, given her Irish name, initially have been thrown by her South Wales accent. You would certainly have been thrown by her whirlwind introductions, not just to senior management colleagues but every officer at every electronic gate, in every corridor and every office through which you passed: there would have been first name greetings and small asides indicating first-hand knowledge. But you would absolutely have been thrown to witness this first-hand knowledge replicated in almost every contact with the young prisoners: “Have you heard about your parole yet?”, “Did you speak to your Auntie yesterday?”, “How’s that baby of yours doing – did she come on the visit?”  And after a quick tour to let you get your bearings, a straight question: “Right, what do you want to do? Who do you want to speak to or want to see?” Whatever your request, it would almost certainly have been met. You would get to meet difficult prisoners as well as shining achievers, and they would equally have been treated with respect.

Vicky O’Dea is an outstanding prison governor and nationally recognised as such. She has recently been appointed to a senior executive position within the private security company for which she works and which manages Ashfield.

In 2000 she was made Governor of Swansea Prison, the youngest ever woman governor of a local prison. She was given the toughest of briefs.  She was told to turn round a prison that was failing, expensive to run, with high staff sickness rates and a militant staff resistant to change. She was required to cut costs yet deliver a more positive regime. She recalls her first meeting with the union representatives. “We’re delighted you’re Welsh Ma’m. But why a woman, here?”

Two years later Swansea had been transformed. Vicky had, for the first time in the history of the Prison Service, herself called in ACAS to resolve the disputes between her and her uniformed staff. There was a Drug Rehabilitation Unit, the first of its kind in a local prison where, it had previously been argued, it was inappropriate to provide such facilities for high turnover remand prisoners. The totally inadequate juvenile unit where, tragically, Philip Knight, aged 15, had taken his own life in 1990, had been closed. By 2002 the Director General of the Prison Service recognised Vicky as a Governor who could make dramatic progress in the most unpromising circumstances.

Recognition of success in large organisations often leads, ironically, to added pressures and difficult decisions. Vicky had transferred her Welsh juvenile prisoners to Ashfield, a purpose-built juvenile institution controversially opened in 1999 under commercial management.  Ashfield was in difficulties, said by the inspectorate to be unsafe for its inmates and taken back temporarily under Prison Service management. The Director General asked Vicky if she would consider taking on the task. She was also approached by Serco, the company with the contract.

Vicky did not object to contracting out prisons to commercial management. She considered it most important that prisoners be treated positively whoever was in charge. But she had no wish to leave the Prison Service or take on an establishment said to be a basket case. But she was eventually persuaded to take a look at Ashfield. She found the staff on the gate rude. When she toured the institution she found the staff to be self deprecating and lacking in confidence: nobody wants to work here, they said. The situation at Ashfield was worse than she had been told. But the thought began to enter her head that Ashfield could be transformed by good leadership. She joined Serco. And when she took up the appointment of Governor the Prison Service relinquished their management of the institution.

Four years later the Chief Inspector of Prisons described Ashfield as ‘having many areas of good and innovative practice... [its] managers were to be congratulated.... [the establishment] was a model of what ought to be expected and available to all 15-18 year olds.’ I was Chair of the Youth Justice Board at the time and can testify that it had indeed become a model establishment, despite being asked to take more prisoners than was reasonable.

What qualities did Vicky bring so successfully to bear? The source of her leadership may lie in her experience at this University, from which she graduated in Economics and Economic History in 1984.

Vicky went to school in Merthyr Tydfil. She did well there and chose to come to Bristol on seeing this building during a visit to Bristol to go to a rock concert. She thought the Wills Memorial Building looked grand. But her first year here was not happy. She felt like a fish out of water. She was overawed by the predominantly plummy, southern English accents. She thought the University showed insensitivity when her mother’s death interrupted her first year exams. She took every opportunity to take the bus back to Aberdare.

But she had a supportive tutor who encouraged her to be more assertive when doing seminar presentations. Over time she found her English fellow students sought her advice with essays. And in her final year she had a choice of jobs. But prayers for prisoners one Sunday in the Catholic Church she attended changed the course of her life. She was intrigued. She wrote to nearby Pucklechurch Remand Centre and Bristol Prison asking if she could make visits. She was impolitely rebuffed by Pucklechurch and encouraged by Bristol Prison. When she graduated she joined the Prison Service as a fast track governor trainee though, because of her young age, she started her career on the shop floor, as a uniformed officer.

Vicky’s philosophy is based on understanding her world from the ground upwards. She believes in teamwork. She has the capacity to defuse conflict with humour. She wins over her colleagues and prisoners because she transparently cares for them as individuals.

There is a coda to this story. Pucklechurch Remand Centre was burned down by its prisoners in the prison riots of 1990. Ashfield was built on the old Pucklechurch site. Ashfield was the phoenix that grew out of the ashes. Vicky gave it flight.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Veronica O’Dea as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Edit this page