Ian Dunbar: Prison governor whose humane values earned him wide respect

Ian Dunbar was of that impressive and distinctively English lineage of prison governors who blended an unwavering humane respect for their charges with organisational realism and managerial flair. The penal landscape is a bleak and testing workplace at the best of times, and for a substantial portion of Dunbar's career was made even more dismal by the keenness of political parties to use crime and punishment for electoral advantage – and in consequence to embrace ill-considered and short-term policies.

Throughout this period of penal pessimism, Dunbar was one of a group of senior prison figures who preserved and propagated civilised values in the face of great difficulties, practical and political. He would undoubtedly have taken a deal of comfort and satisfaction from the recent speech by Kenneth Clarke, the Lord Chancellor and Minister of Justice, momentously announcing his Government's intention to detach itself from the futile rhetoric that has led penal policy for much of the past three decades.

Born in Hackney, Ian Malcolm Dunbar came to the Prison Service in 1959, joining as an assistant governor. This had followed a degree in politics and economics at Keele University and a period at Reed College, Oregon. While in the United States his keen and lifelong interest in ideas and social issues, his innate sense of fairness and identification with the underdog, led to contacts with the Civil Rights Movement and to meetings with Martin Luther King and Paul Robeson. In later years a friendship with Norval Morris, the distinguished criminologist, revived his American ties.

Dunbar's abilities and commitment were recognised at an early stage in his career. His postings spanned the range of establishments, from the flagship open prison at Leyhill, Gloucestershire, to high-security establishments such as Long Lartin, Worcestershire, as well as Wakefield and Wormwood Scrubs. His success in the direct management of prisons carried him to more senior appointments at national level. He became regional manager for the South West and then, from 1990 until retirement in 1994, director of inmate administration at Prison Service headquarters.

Personality as well as intellect particularly suited Dunbar to his life's work. He was unfailingly modest in manner, approachable, humorous, positive and always completely attentive to the individuals with whom he was engaged: it would be utterly impossible to imagine him being disrespectful or dismissive to a prisoner or a colleague. Perceiving this supportive interest, people opened and warmed to him – even the most truculent and abrasive of his charges. His career attested, nevertheless, that this was a man who made shrewd judgements and could say no in all the necessary ways when he had to do so.

For those with a rapidly advancing Prison Service career, postings are frequent and apt to be spread diagonally across the country. As with many other Service families, the Dunbars acquired a family base to which Ian returned at weekends and while on leave. This was in the Somerset Levels and here he and Sally (whom he had married in 1966) raised two sons and a daughter and participated in community affairs. The attractive personality, which had won him so many friends and supporters throughout his career, made him an equally valued member of the Levels' community. He retained a keen and current interest in penal affairs (and public matters generally) until the end, always anchored in humane values and drawing on a well-considered but unobtrusive framework of ethics. His service as a sentence review commissioner in Northern Ireland, dealing with releases under the Good Friday Agreement, was a late but particularly apt appointment.

Seán McConville

Ian Malcolm Dunbar, prison governor: born Hackney 6 January 1934; married 1966 Sally Hendrickson (two sons, one daughter); died Muchelney, Somerset 21 May 2010.

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