Obituary: John Marriott

Francis Masserick
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:30

THE ART of being a good governor of a sensitive long-term maximum security prison is not easily defined. The role demands a fine touch, and a demonstrable care for individuals.

During John Marriott's five years at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight (1990-95), some of England's most difficult and demanding prisoners were routinely held there. That this period was marked neither by significant disorder, nor by serious assault, is a tribute to the quality of leadership he displayed. He understood that managing long-term imprisonment requires that prisoners should have the opportuny to anticipate and reflect upon events, to have milestones of achievement providing meaning and structure within a long sentence.

No one who met Marriott, whether staff member or prisoner, ever felt they were taken lightly or dismissively. This capacity to engage with people of all backgrounds and to make them feel fundamentally important was a great skill and no artifice. Marriott loved people, and related emotionally and instinctively to them. Prisoners and staff both recognised the integrity of the man with whom they dealt. Perhaps it is a weakness in such as Marriott that they assume that those above them in the hierarchy will display similar qualities.

It was the escape of three top security prisoners from Parkhurst on 3 January 1995 which led to Marriott's suspension shortly afterwards, and ultimately to the sacking in October that year of Derek Lewis, then Director- General of the Prison Service, by the Home Secretary Michael Howard. It led too to a welter of claim and counter-claim by each of these about the responsibility for decision-making in the Prison Service; in this case, who had responsibility for deciding whether Marriott should be moved out of Parkhurst. And so a man hitherto almost universally regarded as conscientious, caring, thoughtful and committed, found himself to be in the eye of a storm, or at least a House of Commons debate.

Once he was safely gone from the job, the decision was taken to remove the establishment from the maximum security estate - tacit acknowledgement at least that Marriott alone was not culpable for the break-out.

Marriott was born in Wiltshire in 1947, and, after taking a degree in Physics at Hull University, joined the Prison Service in 1970 as an assistant governor. He was posted initially to Gaynes Hall Open Borstal and then to Eastchurch Prison on the Isle of Sheppey. He briefly left the Prison Service to work in residential social work in Birmingham, and on his return in 1975 served at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham. He moved on promotion in 1978 to Hull top security prison and then as governor to Nottingham in 1983 and Lewes in 1985. His report from Lewes at the time of industrial action by prison staff, when a police response was slow in coming, makes for frightening reading. He was keeping ahead, just, of a rolling riot.

After a period at Prison Service Headquarters, Marriott was further promoted to Class 1 governor and posted to take charge of Parkhurst. It is rare for anyone to have been promoted to that rank so young. Although not an islander by birth there was a real sense of someone having come home. There was a job, a house, an environment in a community which he fully embraced.

Like many reaching adulthood in the Sixties, Marriott felt strongly that treating people decently could and would make a difference. He not only practised this art, but proved it could work, in the most challenging and least propitious of environments.

After leaving the Prison Service, when it was clear that his prospects of ever governing again were remote, he joined the NHS Community Health Trust on the Isle of Wight as Head of Mental Health Care. Marriott's first marriage, to Terry Spelman, ended in painful divorce in 1988. Like many prison governors, he remained wedded to the Prison Service. When that "marriage" too went sour he relied much upon his second wife, Marianne, whom he had married in 1992.

The competitive edge which Marriott had displayed earlier in life playing rugby, squash and badminton, was gradually replaced by sailing and the earlier restless energy to some extent was absorbed in the kitchen garden of his Isle of Wight home.

My shock of hearing that John Marriott had died was the shock of incredulity: that this man who was above all so very full of life could now be dead. It is a minor irony that had he been just a little luckier, and continued to be what he had been hitherto, a successful, imaginative, creative prison governor, he would never have come to public attention and never have warranted a broadsheet obituary. This irony would not have been lost on him. He found humour in the bleakest of times, and in the direst of situations.

Francis Masserick

John Randolph Marriott, prison officer: born 4 January 1947; Governor, Parkhurst Prison 1990-95; Head of Mental Health Care, Isle of Wight NHS Community Health Trust 1995-98; twice married (three daughters); died Brighstone, Isle of Wight 11 June 1998.

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