Role of the prison officer report published

03 November 2009

A report published today by the Justice Committee, on the role of the prison officer, says that the positive work done by uniformed prison officers is undermined by a crisis in the prison system which will be further undermined by planned changes. The result will be more victims, more crime, more fear of crime, and poor value from an already very costly prison system.

Committee Chairman, Sir Alan Beith MP, said:

"Prison officers are undervalued, and their contribution to making ex-prisoners less likely to commit crimes is constantly undermined. It is the uniformed prison officer who is often the only positive role-model a prisoner sees.

"Good officers use their skills and experience to build constructive relationships with prisoners so as to maintain security and to encourage them to change their lives. This becomes impossible when prisons are overcrowded, staff time with inmates is cut and prisoners are constantly shunted around between different prisons.

"Prison officers in England and Wales also receive far less training than their counterparts in many other countries and officers get fewer opportunities to develop their education than prisoners.

"Efficiency savings, some aspects of the Workforce Modernisation Programme and the proposed 1500-place prisons all look like making things far worse."

Despite a rising prison population, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is required to make savings of approximately £900 million by 2011. Half of the Ministry's budget is for the new National Offender Management Service (NOMS), half of NOMS' budget is for prisons and 72 per cent of the Prison Service's budget goes on staff.

It seems inevitable, therefore, that the MoJ is looking for a significant cut in funding for prison officers further reducing the ratio of prison officers to prisoners. This is a change the Committee says will damage efforts to reduce re-offending rates over the longer term.

Evidence to the Committee highlighted, not only the potential that prison officers have to challenge prisoners’ offending behaviour, but also the difficulties the former face in trying to have a positive impact in the current prison system.

The first problem identified by the MPs is the short and shallow training course provided for new prison officer recruits, who may be as young as 18 years old, which is supposed to equip them to deal with the very wide range of offenders in prison.

Added to this, the Committee says over-crowding, staff shortages and the high proportion of prisoners with unaddressed mental health, drug or alcohol problems, mean the system is constantly at crisis point.

This leaves little or no time to build productive relationships with prisoners which are crucial, not only for rehabilitation but also for maintaining mutual respect and, ultimately, good order and security in prisons. This also limits the resources available for effective on-the-job training or mentoring to fill gaps in the knowledge and skills of new officers.

While the number of prisoners has spiralled, there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of prison officers. In total 24,272 uniformed officers were employed throughout the prison estate in 2000, rising to 26,474 by the beginning of 2006, an increase of 9 per cent.

Over the same period, the prison population has increased by 24 per cent. The Committee also says that the Government’s policies on 1,500 place prisons, clustering and prison workforce modernisation are likely further to deskill the prison officer’s role to that of a 'turnkey'.

The implications of the Government's prison workforce modernisation programme (WMP) for staff and managers run counter to much of the evidence the Committee heard on what would make a strong and effective Prison Service.

Technology, such as cameras and automated locking, cannot replace the positive example-setting, engagement and the challenging of prisoners' behaviour which are the most valuable parts of the prison officer’s role. The Committee says the WMP, as currently proposed, represents a missed opportunity to develop the right Prison Service for the twenty-first century.

Sir Alan concluded:

"The evidence we have received over several inquiries, in particular via the e-consultations we have run, suggests strongly that prison officers have a core contribution to make to the rehabilitation of offenders, which they themselves recognise and are proud of.

"To avoid prison being 'an expensive way of making bad people worse' we need to maximise the influence of such officers, and other prison staff, over whether a particular offender goes on achieve a law-abiding lifestyle.

"Proper training, on-the-job support from senior colleagues and, at the end of the day, more time to work with prisoners are all vital elements in this. There are resource implications for governors but the long-term payback will be significant."

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