KATE Donegan . . . the very name sounds Chandleresque, and indeed many

a thriller is built around Donegan's profession, but the problem is that

drama invariably gets it wrong. Donegan watched television's The

Governor, cringing throughout the series at all that unremitting

austerity: the slamming of cell doors, the oppressive air of people

being marched around and pushed about. An effectively run prison, she

says, doesn't resound with jangling keys. It has no need to operate like


But such is the public's poor regard for the offices of law and order

just now that ''an effectively run prison'' is perceived as a

contradiction. The Home Secretary would have us believe that draconian

punishments are the surest means of shrinking crime statistics.

In England, however, many prison officers, angered and demoralised by

Michael Howard's peremptory treatment of their former director-general,

Derek Lewis, see the Government's proposals as a time-bomb which would

be imposed at colossal cost to the taxpayer, only to be detonated by

inmate mutiny.

In Scotland, where the prison service has been radically restructured

since the riots and rooftop agitation of the late eighties, the

situation seems less fraught, less primed for confrontation. But

Donegan, formerly the deputy governor at Barlinnie in Glasgow, and now

No 3 at the Scottish Prisons Inspectorate, would be apprehensive about

any significant erosion of prisoners' privileges.

''Psychologically and emotionally, visits and the possibility of

remission are of tremendous importance,'' she says. Even the business of

anticipating that day's food plays a substantial part in maintaining a

jail's equilibrium.

There is a range of rights on both sides, she says, and prison

officers have to work positively towards gaining inmates' consent.

''They can only do that by understanding where the prisoner is coming

from. For our part we must never forget that our core purpose is custody

and order. We must keep secure all those who are sent to us but we must

try to do so in a way that promotes harmony and a safe environment all


Down south the problems between the Home Secretary and the prison

service, Donegan feels, are due to a failure of communication more than

irreconcilable differences. ''I think we all may be talking about the

same thing, really, but somehow the lines of discussion have become

confused. We all know about the expectations of society, but for us the

whole point of the exercise is not just to keep the bad guys locked away

but to try and rid them of a criminal mindset while they're with us. At

the end of the day that is what will lead to crime reduction.''

After 18 years of working in the service, which has included seven

years at the women's prison, Cornton Vale, and the deputy governorship

at Oscar Wilde's old slammer, Reading Jail, Kate Donegan is now the

senior woman in Scotland's prison service. It is a distinction she is

almost reluctant to acknowledge since she says she has never personally

experienced overt discrimination in the profession. What does dismay

her, however, is the near-invisibility of women in senior management

throughout Scotland.

''Generally we have the impression that the situation is getting

better but things are not moving as fast as they should. None of my

female colleagues, either inside or outside the service, is looking for

preferential treatment or a standard increase in the ratio of women to

men. But what they do seek is equal opportunity and that means opening

up recruitment systems in all careers so that the line of advancement

isn't only hierarchical.''

Open and transparent competition for jobs is what she has always

championed but that view became an active, clear-sighted credo between

1991 and 1994 when she was head of the Scottish Prison Service's

manpower planning, and later became a key figure in the service's

staffing structure review. This, says Donegan, produced a slimmer, more

robust organisation shaped to take on the growing challenge of

private-sector involvement in our jails.

''There is no such thing as an easy nick. Every one of them has its

special problems although in Scotland ours are undoubtedly less complex

than those of England where the prison population is around 57,000. And

because of its disparate nature -- the number of ethnic minorities, for

instance, and far more Category A prisoners -- the English prison

service has difficulty in developing a corporate identity.

''Here, our prison population stands at around 5000, and currently

there is no prisoner in the system whose behaviour is unmanageable,

though that certainly wasn't always the case.'' Since the public

perception is that more violent criminals exist today than previously,

what has caused this outbreak of docility within the pen? Could it be

that drug taking has subdued the most troublesome?

Donegan says it would be dishonest to suggest that the prevalence of

drugs in prison is not alarming the authorities, but she doesn't believe

there is a strong correlation between many drugs' taming effect and the

present manageability of prisoners. ''If you walk around a jail you do

not see zombies, for the simple reason that those on drugs inject,

ingest or smoke them at night.''

Most of the addicted hide the substances in their rectums, bringing

drugs into prison when they first arrive, or when they make outside

contact through visits or court appearances. The service, however, is

not permitted to search prisoners internally, and even if it were

Donegan feels that this duty might be unacceptably fraught, most

officers finding it inapproprate to have to hold down a reluctant,

screaming prisoner. There also is the question of whether such sensitive

examinations should belong to the medical sphere.

So what does account for the apparent calm? Donegan points to the fact

that officer-recruitment is now much more careful and targeted.

''I don't think the character of the prison population has altered. It

is fundamentally the same as it has always been but we are bringing in

to the service people who are much more prepared to be flexible in their

responses and who possess a whole range of inter-personal skills.

''Previously we weren't equipped with this kind of training, but the

rooftop troubles of the eighties were a catalyst for change. We knew we

had to take a hard look at ourselves and make sure the system worked

from both sides.''

What does worry her, though, is that the potential for disaster will

undoubtedly increase if longer prison services with no remission mean

overcrowded jails. ''I don't subscribe to the view that putting all

tough criminals together in one location is the road to hell. Instead it

is a challenge for us, and the service has certainly managed challenges


But neither does she believe in evil. ''I think we must see everybody

who steps over the threshold into prison as redeemable. If you believe

otherwise then you will eventually return to the community people who

are worse than when they came in.''

Donegan would like to see a data base compiled on ex-convicts'

successful re-entry into society as law-abiding citizens. ''At the

moment we only get the recidivist rate, but the other side of the story

would be most beneficial both to prisoners and officers.''

After so many years what still engrosses her about this necessarily

closed and disciplined world is the dynamic between custodian and

inmate. Her new job, which will probably last for a few years, is

clearly a career move designed to increase her working knowledge of

every Scottish prison, and some English institutions.

But her ultimate goal is to be appointed a governor on merit.

''Obviously there are senior jobs within the service that require

operational experience but I would far rather be in a prison.'' In fact

her only regret about her present inspecting role is that it has made

her remote from prison life.

''I actually do miss being with prisoners where the challenge,

different everyday, is to make all the disparate groups work together.

Now I only get to see the very good or the very bad prisoners, which is

a pity.''

Kate Donegan, daughter of a policeman, wife of a management

consultant, and mother of two sons, has only ever once been assaulted in

a jail and it happened when she was working in Perth.

''I ordered a cell search of someone who regarded himself as

all-powerful in prison culture.'' She had been on her rounds and felt

that this particular cell was a little over-furnished for security. ''He

felt affronted, and some time later -- I think it was in the laundry --

he threw a glass jar at my back which didn't actually do much damage but

it fell at my heels and cut me on the legs.''

The prisoner's actual aim was interesting. Did he choose Donegan's

back out of cowardice, or out of warped courtesy because he didn't wish

to maim a woman's face? She is statuesque, two inches off six feet,

assertive without being confrontational; someone who does not feel the

need to show who is the dominant one in any prison encounter.

Donegan says that the ideal prison officer must combine

self-confidence with teamwork and an ability for good banter and humour.

''And as there will be lots of vocal abuse, there is no room for

officers with chips on their shoulders, or for those who see prisoners

as enemies. What's needed is a lot of self-esteem.''

She downplays the tension and dangers which obviously do exist, and

finds personal distraction in a vibrant family life in Stirling, and her

part-time degree course in business studies and business law.

But striving wisely to improve the service for everyone's advantage is

very much a life-commitment, and you sense that throughout her career

those behind bars have sussed this out. When she was at Cornton Vale,

the women knitted in preparation for the birth of her sons. At Reading,

an illegal immigrant composed a poem for her; at Barlinnie another

inmate did the same.

And it was also there that the prisoners who worked in the garden

would bring Kate Donegan roses, without any awkwardness or guile. Small

virtues brightening up the sterile melancholy of jail.