Role of the Prison Officer - Justice Committee Contents


The prison officer as a key figure in reducing re-offending

1.  This inquiry was, in part, inspired by our concerns over the difficulties in negotiating a rapidly changing and increasingly complex criminal justice landscape for the people administering sentences and endeavouring to reduce re-offending on an everyday basis. In addition, an e-consultation we held in another inquiry, into the overall allocation of resources across the criminal justice system, and other evidence showed us that individuals can have enormous influence on whether particular offenders go on achieve a law-abiding lifestyle.[1] Prison officers, in day-to-day contact with those in custody, have the opportunity and potential to exert this kind of influence.

2.  This report focuses on the uniformed officers who have day-to-day contact with prisoners, from the 'residential' or 'landing' prison officer to the uniformed grades with line management responsibilities, senior and principal officers. We sought the views of officers 'on the wings' as well as their colleagues through an e-consultation to which they could contribute independently and anonymously. Details of the e-consultation are set out in an annex to this report.

3.  We also considered this inquiry timely in view of the changes proposed by the Government to working practices amongst prison staff. The "Workforce Modernisation" programme is a fundamental reform of all existing working practices, terms and conditions and pay and grading of posts within the Prison Service. The overall aim of the project is to deliver greater efficiencies and productivity, one of its key aims being to tackle the Service's biggest cost expenditure—its pay bill. Following the collapse of negotiations with the unions in February 2009, the National Offender Management Service has announced its intention of implementing the proposals in a limited form for all staff joining the Service from September 2009.

4.  During our inquiry the Government announced the abandonment of its proposals to introduce the high-capacity prisons known as "Titans" and instead build a number of 1,500 place prisons. We have already welcomed the abandonment of the Titan prison proposals while expressing our concern that the Government appears prepared to pursue policies likely to lead to the highest prison population in Western Europe.[2] We consider the implications of the new proposals for institutional structures, both new prisons and clustering of existing institutions below.

A system under pressure

5.  The number of prisoners in England and Wales has increased by 30% in the ten years from 1997 to 2007,[3] from approximately 60,000 to over 84,000 today.[4] While we consider it essential to have a safe and effective prison service, with adequate places and modern facilities, there is plenty of evidence that in a significant number of cases the result of the prison experience is to "make bad people worse" and increase the likelihood of re-offending. It is therefore vital to concentrate the use of prison resources on (a) holding only those who pose an actual danger to the public and (b) the rehabilitation of such offenders so that by the time of release they pose less of a threat to the public.

6.  Despite the building of over 20,000 prison places since 1997, the system remains overcrowded, and has been since 1994.[5] Ministry of Justice figures for 2007-08 show the rate of overcrowding was 24.6%.[6] Overcrowding leads to two specific concerns. First, it undermines the effectiveness of rehabilitation work with prisoners and curtails key engagement such as education and work programmes and, secondly, it undermines standards of safety and security. In February 2008, the number of prisoners exceeded even the 'safe overcrowding' limit,[7] despite the introduction in June 2007 of an early release scheme allowing low-risk prisoners to be released 18 days early. This scheme, in turn, has been attacked in the media for reducing public confidence in the criminal justice system.[8]

7.  While the number of prisoners has spiralled there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of prison officers. The total full-time equivalent staff at officer grade employed throughout the prison estate in 2000 was 24,272, rising to 26,474 at the beginning of 2006, an increase of 9%. Over the same period the prison population has increased by 24%.[9]

8.  The total cost of the prison estate in 2007-08 was £3.841 billion. Some of our witnesses asserted the need to take account of the wider social costs of imprisonment arising, for example, from the need to make provision for the children of women given custodial sentences.[10] The direct average annual cost of an individual prison place is around £39,000.[11] The cost of the Crown Court process of imposing a prison sentence has been estimated by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit to be roughly £30,500, made up of court and other legal costs.[12]

9.  Despite the rising prison population, the Ministry of Justice is required to make savings of approximately £900 million by 2011. Of the Prison Service budget, 72% goes on staff; inevitably, therefore, the ratio of prison officers to prisoners will be reduced. In this report, we will therefore consider a potential way forward for the role of the prison officer. In doing so, we make a series of recommendations which can be divided into two categories; firstly, those which take into account the current, unfavourable, economic climate and the pressures of an increasing population and, secondly, those which identify opportunities for prudent investment to improve the role of the prison officer in the event of a manageable prison population and improved economic circumstances.

The history of the role of the prison officer

10.  Historically, the prison officer was simply a turnkey, required to keep prisoners securely and ensure they behaved in a more or less orderly fashion. From the late nineteenth century onwards, the function of imprisonment explicitly evolved from simple punishment to a process of moral reformation. The role of the prison officer within this process, however, has remained undefined. In 1935 prison staff training was introduced, although it primarily focused on security aspects of the role rather than reformative or rehabilitative elements.

11.   The most significant review of the Prison Service in recent times resulted in the 1991 report by Lord Woolf, then Lord Chief Justice, following the riots in HMP Strangeways. Professor Andrew Coyle, of the International Centre for Prison Studies, King's College, London, told us that Lord Woolf identified a malaise at the heart of the work of the Prison Service; his findings included:

the high calibre and deep commitment of the majority of Prison Service staff at all levels. They have an immense sense of loyalty. They have a warm sense of camaraderie with their colleagues. They want to see improvements within the prison system; and

the dissension, division and distrust which exist between all levels of Prison Service staff. They labour under a blanket of depression. They lack confidence in the value of what they do. They harbour a deep sense of frustration that the effort which they are devoting to the Service is not appreciated.[13]

12.   Since the recommendations of the Woolf report there have been a number of changes to the work done by prison officers. Professor Alison Liebling of the Institute of Criminology, Cambridge University, summarised the changes as follows:

In some ways I think the role has professionalised. One of the important things that has happened is that there is a better alignment between the aims of the prison and the inclinations of prison officers, so I think officers have become quite comfortable with the public protection framework, and in that sense there is less role conflict in the prison officer, they have found a way of combine their two security and care roles. But the other thing that has obviously happened is the population has grown exponentially, the population has changed, and prison sentences are more complicated, so what prisoners need from prison officers has become much more demanding, so the knowledge base of prison officers is getting a bit out of date. There is also, as you know, private sector competition which means there are experiments with how low you can set the threshold for staff numbers, pay, remuneration, those sorts of things. So in lots of ways the role has become more demanding, power has shifted upwards so managers manage staff much more closely, there are targets and performance indicators, there is more transparency about the performance of a prison, so I think prison officers feel more closely monitored, visible, to external management.[14]

13.   The past two decades have also seen a growth in formal courses undertaken by prisoners to address the reasons for offending behaviour, an increase in the number of outside specialists coming into prisons to work with prisoners, the introduction of an independent disciplinary system for prisoners and the creation of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) bringing together prison and probation. All these changes have been piecemeal with no obvious consideration of their impact on the role of the prison officer. In our view, and particularly in light of the Workforce Modernisation programme and the plans for the largest prisons ever seen in the UK, a comprehensive review of the role of the prison officer is long overdue.

14.  Lord Woolf's analysis does not fully capture the sense that a significant proportion of prison officers join the service out of a real sense of vocation and have a genuine commitment to developing constructive relationships with prisoners. As the results of our e-consultation demonstrated, many officers want to play a positive role in helping prisoners to develop a sense of self-worth and take advantage of prison as an opportunity for education and training. The evidence of the impact of such attitudes is anecdotal but significant—we heard examples of life-changing made decisions while in prison—and we are not convinced that the positive motivation of prison officers is being fully harnessed as a force for good. While acknowledging the value and strengths of the high-quality individual officer, the organisational systems of the Prison Service (now NOMS), the top-down nature of Workforce Modernisation and the leadership style within the Prison Officers Association, all appear to be trapped in structures, whereas each prison is a community in which the collective environment and individual relationships are enormously important. More needs to be done to learn from management styles developed in other aspects of public service which have faced similar challenges in respect of organisation, motivation and collective performance, including environments as disparate as schools, hospitals, the police and the armed services.

A varied workplace

15.  There are currently almost 26,000 prison officers working in 128 public sector prisons, with at least another 2,600 "prison custody officers" working in the private sector.[15] They work with a prison population of over 84,000[16] in a system with only 74,700 places that have 'normal' access to offending behaviour work, employment, education, hygiene exercise and kitchen facilities.[17] Prison size varies from around 98 to 1,173 places although the need to utilize "safe level of overcrowding"[18] capacity—required to hold the current prison population—increases those figures to 100 and 1,475 respectively.[19] Prisons are spread across the country, in rural and urban districts, from HMP Acklington and HMYOI Castington in Northumberland, to HMP Birmingham and HMP Belmarsh in London, down to HMP Dartmoor in Devon. Prisoners can be held in any prison of the right security category in England and Wales, regardless of their family or community ties.[20]

16.  Prisons can be dedicated to specific security categories, juveniles, young offenders, women, foreign nationals, resettlement, sex offenders, receiving the 'local' prisoners from the surrounding courts, or long-term prisoners requiring high security conditions. Nevertheless certain problems characterise the prison population across these divisions.

  • 72% of male and 70% of female sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more mental health disorders.[21]
  • In 2007, there were 22,459 recorded incidents of self-harm in prison and 83 apparently self-inflicted deaths.[22]
  • 75% of prisoners have a dual diagnosis (mental health problems combined with alcohol or drug misuse).
  • 20-30% of offenders have learning disabilities or other difficulties that interfere with their ability to cope with the criminal justice system.[23]
  • 48% of prisoners have a literacy level below that expected of 11 year olds, rising to 65% for numeracy. [24]
  • Before entering custody, a third of prisoners were of no fixed abode, 67% were unemployed and 66% of female and 59% of male prisoners cared for children under 18.[25]
  • For 85% of the mothers in custody their first night in prison was the first time they had spent any significant time away from their children.[26]
  • 27% of the prison population are from a minority ethnic group despite these groups making up only around 8% of the general population.[27]
  • Finally, the number of sentenced prisoners aged 60 and over rose by 149% between 1996 and 2006 making this the fastest growing age group in the prison system.[28]

17.  Each of these characteristics is significant, and deserving of separate study, recommendations and action. Some have been the subject to significant examination in recent times (for example within the Corston report on women in prison). Others have not yet been addressed within the structures and policies of the Prison Service or the Ministry of Justice although the statistics quoted are neither new nor surprising. It can be argued that none of these have been tackled sufficiently to enable prison officers to focus on rehabilitation as well as security as a day-to-day priority. We will return to this list in due course but, in relation to the role of the prison officer, it demonstrates the complex range of factors that prison officers have to cope with and the need for specialist intervention and support to enable them to fulfil their role adequately.

1   E-consultation Allocation of resources for the reduction of re-offending: Justice Reinvestment Back

2   Press Notice No. 27 of Session 2008-09 Back

3   Ministry of Justice (2008) Offender Management Caseload Statistics 2007 Back

4   Ministry of Justice Prison Population and Accommodation Briefing, 16 October 2009  Back

5   Home Office, Digest 4: Information on the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales, 1999. Back

6   Evidence from the Ministry of Justice [not printed]. Back

7 Back

8   For example, Back

9   HC Deb, 20 March 2007, col 790W, Home Office, Offender Management Caseload Statistics, 2005, and NOMS, Prison Population and Accommodation Briefing for 30 March 2007. In 1997 the officer:prisoner ratio was 1:2.4, by 2002 it was 1:2.7 and in 2009 it had increased to 1:2.9. these, of course, are total figures and do not reflect officer: prisoner ratios during the working day or night. Back

10   The new economic foundation has estimated that the imprisonment of mothers for non-violent offences carries a cost to children and the state of more than £17 billion over ten years Back

11   HC Deb, 17 December 2008, col 852W  Back

12   Reducing Re-offending by Ex-Prisoners', Social Exclusion Unit, 2002; p 3 Back

13   Prison Disturbances : April 1990, Report of an Inquiry, paragraph 12.1 Back

14   Q 1 Back

15   Ev 114  Back

16   Prison Population and Accommodation Briefing- 16th October 2009 (NOMS) Back

17   74,700 is 'certified normal accommodation', places which are sufficiently resourced. Figures from Ministry of Justice Population in Custody monthly tables, May 2009. Page 1 states overcrowding therefore running at 111%  Back

18   "Operational capacity" is the 'safe level of overcrowding' defined by NOMS as the total number of prisoners that an establishment can hold taking into account control, security and the proper operation of the planned regime. It is determined by area managers on the basis of operational judgement and experience. Back

19   HMP East Sutton Park certified normal accommodation 98, operational capacity 100; HMP Wormwood Scrubs certified normal accommodation 1,173 operational capacity 1,265; HMP Wandsworth certified normal accommodation 996, operational capacity 1,475. HC Deb, 27 February 2008, col 1717W.  Back

20   Prison Act 1952 section 12 provides "a prisoner…may be lawfully confined in any prison." Back

21   Bromley Briefing (June 2009), Prison Reform Trust, p 37 Back

22   HC Deb, 5 March 2008, col 2628W: Annual Report Prison and Probation Ombudsman 2007-08, page 5 Back

23   Loucks, N. (2007) No One Knows: Offenders with Learning Difficulties and Learning Disabilities. Review of prevalence and associated needs, London: Prison Reform Trust Back

24   Bromley Briefing (June 2009), Prison Reform Trust, p 16 Back

25   Home Office Research Study 208, and HC Deb, 28 April 2003, col 283 Back

26   Home Office Research Study 162 (1997), Imprisoned Women and Mothers, Home Office: London Back

27   2001 census Back

28   NOMS, Safer Custody News, January/February 2008 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 3 November 2009