Why female leaders are essential role models in prisons

Samantha Pariser
About the author : Samantha Pariser, Director of HMP Northumberland
Published on : 5/11/22
  • Through 70 years of leadership, The Queen has inspired us all. Sodexo features in the only official book marking the Platinum Jubilee pageant in recognition of how we champion women in leadership. To celebrate this honour, we spoke to Samantha Pariser, Director of HMP Northumberland about her experiences, challenges and the guidance she’d give to others who might want to follow in her footsteps.

    Platinum Jubilee sponsorship logoSamantha Pariser is Director of HMP Northumberland, a Category C prison with more than 1,300 male prisoners. She’s not the first woman to run a male prison, but she’s likely to be one of very few to have a female deputy too. Samantha explains why she’s passionate about equal representation, and that it’s not just for equity’s sake: she believes female role models are vital to turning lives around.


    A man’s world

    I first set foot inside a prison on day one of my job at HMP Chelmsford. It was 2001, and I’d left a career in banking for one with HM Prison Service. I was on the accelerated promotion scheme, and staring back at me were experienced male officers who knew I’d likely become their boss. As first days go, let’s just say it was full of learning opportunities.

    The prison was also full of male prisoners, and they inspired the career I’ve built since. They taught me that even small actions can have an immeasurable impact on people’s lives, and the lives of those around them. Don’t get me wrong, running a prison is hard work. On some days, I think it’s the hardest work there is. But it’s rewarded me in a way banking never could.

    Positive role models


    I joined Sodexo in 2016 to become Deputy Director at HMP Northumberland. I was appointed Director three years later, 20 years after this role in this prison was last done by a woman. Since then, I’ve worked hard to increase the number of female staff at all levels, which is both a personal and professional mission.

    Many of our prisoners have low expectations and they’ve often been let down by the people around them. The presence of strong, positive role models in their lives – both men and women – is an absolute pre-requisite to raising those expectations and enabling better outcomes when they leave. That’s why I treat our prisoners like I’d want my dad or my brother to be treated if they were here. And I want them to treat all women they meet in future with the same respect they’ve learned to give our female colleagues who work with them.

    Authority in many forms 


    Some tasks need to be done for men, by men, so I don’t need more women per se. I need balance. We have both male and female officers who are credits to the profession, and when you listen to their varied perspectives and watch their different approaches in action, it makes me all the more committed to this path.

    There’s authority in vulnerability as well as strength, and what might previously have been dismissed as weakness can actually be the perfect release valve when the pressure builds up.

    I’m a big believer in leaders being honest about how they feel. If I’m second-guessing a decision, why not say so? I don’t see the benefit in pretending. It’s not common behaviour in this sector, and I honestly can’t say if I do it because of my gender, my personality, or both. But when you’re focused on making this community a safer place to live and work – which I’m proud to say we have – I need every last drop of commitment and every single idea my team can find. I don’t want them to expect that I have all the answers, because I don’t. It’s a team effort from the shop floor to our senior leaders. 

    Encouraging change


    There’s a lot we do to encourage more women to join us and to progress. Strengths-based recruitment, for example. We don’t just explore someone’s practical experience, we look at empathy and emotional intelligence too. But whoever you are, resilience is key. 

    Prisons are unpredictable communities, and your confidence will definitely take some knocks. You have to believe that change is possible, and it is. I’ve seen it. You’ll need to be tenacious, but you’ll also get the right support.

    Sodexo was my first experience of a privately-run prison, and it wasn’t what I expected. There was genuine care for the prisoners and a real commitment to having the right leaders there for them. ‘Challenge with humility’ is one of our company managerial behaviours, and it chimes so well with my role and my style. I still try to live by it every day.

    A promising outlook


    I’m optimistic about the future of female leaders in the justice sector. My Deputy Director Lindsay Blackmore, who joined HMP Northumberland in July 2021, is a case in point. She took some convincing because her experience is in probation and therefore community based, but I can’t think of a better skillset to add. We’re trying to steady lives that have gone off course, so in many ways she’s the missing piece of the puzzle: she knows what happens next.

    Samantha Pariser is director of HMP Northumberland, one of five Sodexo prisons. 

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