Role of the Prison Officer - Justice Committee Contents

1  What is prison for?

18.  During the inquiry it became very clear to us that a definition of the role of the prison officers is contingent upon the wider and deeper question of the aim(s) and purpose(s) of prison within the wider criminal justice system. Professor Andrew Coyle told us that the role of the prison officer could only be understood if the purpose of imprisonment was clear, and that remained a matter of debate: "In general terms, we are fairly clear about the purpose of most of the large institutions in our society: the school, for example, is there to educate young people, the hospital is there to heal people who are sick. There is no similar clarity about the role of the prison."[29]

19.  This is a problem within the criminal justice system more generally, as we have pointed out on a number of occasions, most recently in relation to the work of the Crown Prosecution Service and in relation to the proposed Sentencing Council. There is an urgent need for clarity of purpose for the criminal justice system as a whole in order for there to be clarity of purpose for different institutions within it and clarity about how they should relate to each other. Nowhere is this more urgent than in relation to the role of prison.

The view of the Ministry of Justice

20.   The Prison Service's statement of purpose reads:

Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release.[30]

21.  Rt Hon David Hanson MP, then Minister of State for Prisons, Ministry of Justice, elaborated on the statement of purpose in oral evidence to the Committee:

I believe that the purpose of imprisonment is threefold. First of all, it is to provide an element of punishment, which involves the deprivation of liberty and all the consequences that has for the prisoner. It also, in my view, has to be about rehabilitation for the individual, so that when they leave our care in prison, as they will do, for the vast majority of prisoners, at some point in their lives, they return to society as better individuals. That means that we have to—which is my third point—equip them for the challenges in outside life and help them to potentially look at some of the issues that have arisen in their criminal behaviour to date. That might be drugs, it might be alcohol, it might be a mental health issue, it might be perpetual criminality. We need to, in my view, use the prison system to punish, to reform, to challenge some of the assumptions that have led to that criminal behaviour, whatever they may be, and ultimately, to rehabilitate and reintegrate back into society.[31]

22.   Maria Eagle MP, Mr Hanson's successor as Prisons Minister,[32] appeared to give security a greater prominence:

The…nature of the business that the Prison Service is engaged in…is primarily keeping the public safe from some very serious offenders and making sure that the sentences of the courts to loss of liberty are carried out. Obviously there are other purposes and tasks which the Service also has to carry out, for example primarily trying to reduce re-offending and tackle the factors which have led individuals into the system that they find themselves in, but they are there to carry out the sentences of the courts, to protect the public from sometimes dangerous offenders…[33]

23.  Phil Wheatley, Director-General of NOMS, said it was important to maintain public confidence in the Prison Service. Making punishment one of the purposes of prison did not, in his view, impact on the work of prison officers, but public opinion, as to what constitutes punishment, did.[34]

…there is a difficult line that governors have to take account of that really is for Ministers to set the tone on, and that is something for Ministers and Parliament, but we need to pay attention to the fact that prison has to be seen as a punishment...while at the same time we must treat people decently, we must get them through their imprisonment, and reform and rehabilitation lies at the heart of what we do, and we have to make sure that it stays at the heart of what we do.[35]

This reflected the views of a number of witnesses that a punitive public attitude has an impact on the prison officers' view of their role.

The implications of the Ministry of Justice's view

24.  We asked a number of witnesses what they believed the Ministry of Justice wanted from its prison officers. Dame Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons, told us:

I think that is the right question to answer. I think it is also a difficult question to answer. It is very clear that the purpose and aims of the Prison Service are about rehabilitation, about making a difference. It is also obviously clear, as your committee has picked up, that security is a prerequisite in prisons. It is clearly important because if a prison is not safe and secure, then nothing else will be able to happen in the prison and also the public outside will not have any confidence in prisons if prisons are not secure places. So security is obviously a prerequisite for things going at all well or going at all in prisons, but so too is the notion of a prison where things that are positive can happen. I am sure that this is at the root of what the Ministry of Justice wants, but I think it could be articulated more strongly…[36]

25.  Stephen Shaw, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman noted: "What the MoJ wants is a mix, is it not, of security, of control, of leadership, of care and of compassion … what I would add to it from my perspective is that it may want a different mix in different sorts of establishments."[37]

26.  The Chief Inspector of Prisons cited a telling example of the potential clash between the perceived needs of security and discipline and rehabilitative work:

I remember going into a women's prison where one of the young women said to me, "We are taken off and we are given assertiveness training", which is quite important for women, very often, in prison, "but when we go back to the wings they nick us for it."[38]

Dame Anne concluded: "The lessons [to be learnt from that example] are that the whole prison needs to be engaged in the task of the whole prison; that resettlement, rehabilitation is the job of the whole prison."[39] Many of the witnesses agreed with the Chief Inspector on this issue and identified an over-emphasis on security and paperwork that hindered this approach.

27.  Paddy Scriven, General-Secretary of the Prison Governors Association, told us:

The Ministry of Justice wants a prison officer to be multi-skilled, it wants them to be a custodian, it wants them to be a carer, it wants them to contribute to risk assessments for release, but it also wants them to protect the Ministry of Justice by ensuring they keep audit trails of everything that they do. It wants them to contribute to and to understand and to fill in the paperwork for targets that it wishes the Prison Service to reach and it wants them to put increasing work into the hours that they have.[40]

28.  Lord Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, told us that prioritising security above all else was damaging to the more complex aspects of the prison officer's role:

If you have security as the number one priority, that is the be all and end all—as Michael Howard once said, "Security, security, security." People will focus on that and they forget about all the other things they have to do… [41]

29.  Professor Coyle, who had 25 years' experience in senior management in the UK's prison services, explained in oral evidence the reasons for the focus on security:

…one of the consequences of having a national prison system, of course, is that when things go badly wrong, then they land directly at the door of the Secretary of State in a way that tends not to happen in many other large institutions and, therefore, it is not surprising that there is pressure on the first two of the three roles, on the security and the safety. In many ways success in the Prison Service is still measured by absence of failure: make sure nothing goes wrong.[42]

30.  We heard from both the Ministry of Justice and witnesses working with the Ministry on the way in which it conveys its ideas on the aim of imprisonment. In our view the Ministry of Justice has failed to articulate the strong, clear focus on rehabilitation required to achieve a long-term reduction in re-offending.

31.  Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, told the Committee:

the [Prison] Service has been under substantive pressure because of rising numbers, because it is essentially a reactive service; unlike other professional services it cannot control who comes through its doors, insofar as it can stop people escaping but it cannot prevent people entering; they are sent by the courts and they have to be accepted. That dynamic affects the way the Service operates, and unlike a college or a school which can exclude students, or a hospital which can refuse to admit patients, prisons accept who comes and that is by definition what they have to do. They are a disciplined service but they are not a service that plans or looks ahead very much. They cope and react and do that well, but I think that dynamic has infected the service in a way that has militated against constructive planning about the role and development of prison officers, and that has affected other things too such as succession planning.[43]

32.  The stated aims of the Prison Service, keeping prisoners securely, treating them with humanity and rehabilitating them to live law-abiding lives within prison and after release are challenging, at the best of times. These challenges have the potential to become overwhelming in the face of an overcrowded system with a demanding population, leading to an emphasis on security at the expense of rehabilitation.

33.  In 2007 Baroness Corston was commissioned by the Government to review the experience of women within the criminal justice system. One of the review's conclusions was that women prisoners were better held in smaller units closer to their home communities. This is supported by other research which suggests that smaller custodial units with a geographical distribution allowing for the maintenance of prisoners' family and other community relationships have better outcomes in terms of resettlement and rehabilitation than other custodial models.[44] We note the Secretary of State's plea that getting planning permission for a few large prisons would be easier than for lots of small ones.[45] However, we are not convinced that this should be allowed to drive policy, especially in view of other evidence that prisons can make good neighbours and be a welcome addition to the economy of the local community.

34.  On 27 April 2009 the Rt. Hon Jack Straw MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, announced the building of five 1,500 place prisons to meet the demands of the growing prison population. The Prisons Minister, Maria Eagle MP, told us that this decision was made, after consultation on Titans, to achieve a better balance between value-for-money and effectiveness in reducing re-offending.[46]

35.  The Government's own research on prison size concludes that smaller units have greater success in reducing re-offending rates. We believe the conflict between the Government's own research on prison size and the new prison building programme increases the lack of clarity in the Ministry of Justice's view of the purpose of imprisonment.

Impact on prison officers

36.  The impact of the Ministry of Justice's lack of clarity over the purpose of imprisonment was summed up by Professor Coyle. He told us that a large amount of research had been done on the reasons for offending and how to tackle them but putting those solutions into practice was impossible with the Ministry of Justice's current approach:

We know what the problems are, we know what the solutions are, but until such time as there is much greater clarity on the part of the Ministry of Justice, we are unlikely to deal with that problem with all these issues. That complicates the role of the prison officer, because until the prison officer is clear what is required of him or her, it is very difficult to deliver their objectives.[47]

37.  This confusion over the prison officer's objectives was reflected by a number of contributors to our e-consultation on the role of the prison officer.[48] The e-consultation was set up so that we could hear the opinions of people with experience of custody, including both prison officers and other staff working 'on the ground' in day-to-day contact with prisoners. A principal officer working in the public sector posted the following:

The statement of purpose is two fold to keep offenders in custody AND to lead law abiding lives on release. Most officers are proud of the first part, but in my experience of 16 years AND running an offender management function as a principal officer (whose primary role was to manage risk) it is clear that the second part of our role is not fully understood or believed to be 'part of the job'.[49]

38.  Another contributor commented:

I have 25 years experience as a prison officer, I have lived and survived, through fresh start, 'de-militarisation' of staff attitudes, austere regimes, decency agenda, the emergence of a "blame and claim" culture, too many reports and inquiries to list and at the end of all that, the bottom line is that we still lock up people that the courts deem fit to send to prison, only now there are more of them.[50]

39.  Colin Moses, Chairman of the Prison Officers Association, told us that it was simply unclear exactly what a prison officer's role was. This inevitably affected on recruitment, training and the development of the prison officer's role. He said: "What we have to do is come to a common understanding of [who] we are going to recruit and how we are going to develop. I do not believe that exists currently between ourselves and Prison Service management or the Ministry of Justice."[51]

What the role of imprisonment should be

40.  Before making recommendations as to the future development of the role of the prison officer it was clear we would need to draw some conclusion as to the aim of imprisonment. Professor Andrew Coyle told the Committee:

The purpose of prison, primarily, very simply, is to deprive people of their liberty. I find it quite useful to differentiate between what one might call the act of imprisonment, that is what the judge, the sentencing person, does in sending someone to prison, and, on the other hand, the experience of imprisonment: what happens inside a prison. The act of imprisonment: the judge in sending someone to prison should send someone to prison when the offence is so serious than that no other disposal is appropriate or the protection of the public requires it. The judge should not send someone to prison for training, or for drug treatment, or for mental health problems to be dealt with. However, once the person goes through the gates of the prison, then it behoves the Prison Service to do everything within its power to deal with all the other issues, to make the experience of imprisonment as positive as possible, so that the person will come out of prison least harmed by the experience and, hopefully, having had some of his or her personal issues dealt with.[52]

41.  In a speech to the Legal Action Group, in November 2008, Lord Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, commented on the Prison Service's statement of purpose:

[Some people think prison]…should provide retribution or be a deterrent. I do not think there is any evidence that prison works as a deterrent…I have always thought that it is better to look at a more practical view of what prisons should do, and I found the solution was actually there staring at us in the statement of purpose given to the Prison Service: It is our duty to keep securely those committed by the courts, to treat them with humanity and help them to live useful and law-abiding lives in prison and on release. The only argument I have with those words is that, as a soldier, I was taught you should have only one aim, and there are three aims in that. So, I would suggest it might be better to say: It is our duty to help those committed by the courts to live useful and law-abiding lives in prison and on release, with the qualification that they must not be allowed to escape and they must be treated with humanity. I suggest that if the aim had been put in that way, security would have its proper place and not be considered the number one priority, as opposed to doing things with and for prisoners which is what I believe prisons ought to do.[53]

We agree. The aim of imprisonment should be to reduce re-offending, while treating prisoners with humanity and keeping them appropriately secure.

42.  Throughout our three recent inquiries into aspects of the criminal justice system, Towards Effective Sentencing, Justice Reinvestment and Role of the Prison Officer, we have repeatedly been told that prison has become the fallback option for dealing with vulnerable offenders for whom there is a lack of practical community alternatives. In our report Towards Effective Sentencing, we recommended that: "more emphasis must be placed on ensuring that those vulnerable people who [do not pose a danger to the community] are not sentenced to custody for want of practical community alternatives."[54]

43.  In this inquiry we have considered the impact of this lack on prison, and the work that can be done with offenders in prison, when alternatives to custody are not available for people with mental illnesses, substance-misusers, people with learning difficulties (who are frequently not identified as such until after arriving in custody) or vulnerable women with particular needs. Prisons cannot take the place of hospitals, community support or alcohol and drug rehabilitation centres, and they should not be expected to. Removing such offenders from custody would both free resources for use elsewhere and allow prison staff to focus on offenders with whom they have the unique skills and knowledge to work.

44.  In Towards Effective Sentencing we concluded:

There is a contradiction in stating that prison should be reserved for serious and dangerous offenders while not providing the resources necessary to fund more appropriate options for other offenders who then end up back in prison. Unless this contradiction is resolved we fear that the twin aims of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 will not be realised.[55]

45.  The twin aims of the 2003 Act were (a) to reform criminal court proceedings to provide a more efficient and robust system and (b) to reform sentencing to provide a clearer and more flexible sentencing framework setting out the purposes of sentencing and including a new sentencing guidelines council, a single community sentencing order (with a range of possible requirements), the replacement of custodial sentences of less than 12 months by 'custody plus', extension of supervision in other cases, tougher sentences for serious, violent and sexual offenders and a number of "intermediate" sanctions for less serous offenders.

46.  We urge the Government to redistribute resources in the criminal justice system to ensure that prison can be reserved for serious and dangerous offenders which will allow prison officers to focus on offenders who present a significant risk to society.

What is required from a prison officer

47.  Every day prison officers are expected to balance the competing demands of rehabilitation, security and the decency agenda, in a system under pressures over which they have no control and which contains not only some of the most difficult and dangerous people in society, but also some of the saddest and most vulnerable. Preventing violent confrontations from arising, as well as defusing those that are inevitable, is an integral part of an officer's role, requiring teamwork and judgment. The Prison Governors Association described how the best prison officers have a set of skills and abilities called "jail craft."[56] In a written submission to the inquiry, Professor Alison Liebling, of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, explained the perceptions and realities of "jail craft" as follows:

Skilled prison work is regarded [by prison officers] as 'common sense'. It is not. It is learned, knowledgeable work. It depends on experience and fine judgments made almost without thinking about the demeanour, tone, language and feeling of prisoners. Outstanding prison officer work is difficult to measure because it often results in the absence of trouble. Prison officers often operate at their best when they under-use the formal power at their disposal without abdicating their authority. This balancing act (avoiding both laxity and rigid over-enforcement) requires the development of exceptionally good informal working strategies.[57]

48.  We believe that this articulation of jail craft encapsulates some important truths about the role of the prison officer and should be embedded in the work of both policy-makers and senior prison management in seeking to equip and deploy prison officers most effectively.

49.  Both Professor Liebling and Professor Coyle told us that it was almost a "cliché" that the defining feature of prison is the relationship between prison officers and the prisoners with whom they work. Professor Coyle described the context in which relationships work:

The uniformed staff unlock prisoners in the morning and lock them up last thing at night. In between these two key moments of each day, officers deal with prisoners when they are at their best and at their worst, at their strongest and at their weakest. There is a relationship of mutual dependency between prisoners and prison staff… On a day to day basis what makes prison life either tolerable or unbearable for prisoners is their relationship with staff.[58]

50.  For officers to have a positive impact on prisoners it will be necessary for officers genuinely to engage with prisoners over time, and across different exhibited behaviours, while maintaining their authority and their boundaries (as many prisoners will seek to manipulate officers to achieve their ends). This is not simple. Prisoners will have diverse and multiple needs and each should ideally be approached on a case by case basis; one size is unlikely to fit all. The focus within prison must be on rehabilitation. Jason Grant, who spent time in a number of custodial institutions, told us:

No-one in life is one person, we have different times when we have good days or bad days. For me, prison officers need to understand their role is to help people like me to rehabilitate and come back out into life. If that is their main focus then people will stop going to prison.[59]

Mr Grant echoed both the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman when he told us that a focus on rehabilitation required a mix of both discipline and compassion:

I…spent time in Portland, which was a young offenders' institution, which was heavily run by the military, they had us running up and down and we had to make our things into bedpacks, scrub the floors, proper drill basically. That was in 1996 and taught me discipline. What was missing was compassion and treating me like a human as well. The ideal prison officer to me would be someone who shows you discipline but also in a compassionate way.[60]

51.  A relevant issue in the building of positive relationships is the potential gap Professor Liebling identified between policymakers/senior management, who develop standards and rules, and prison officers who have to implement them. Professor Liebling characterised the policymakers as legalistic when making rules (which apply to the whole prison population or a group within it, for example, drug addicts or prisoners who self-harm). Prison officers, in contrast, are required to actually implement these rules 'on the wings', in other words, in real-life situations. Effective officers are able to use discretion in how they apply rules to individuals, while ensuring consistency and fairness by staying within lines drawn by the recognition of broad principles. A good officer's broad principles will include considering the individual circumstances before imposing a sanction, sometimes, therefore, resulting in the 'under-use' of power identified by Professor Liebling.

52.  To maximise the "pro-social"[61] work of prison officers it will, ideally, be complemented by formal offending behaviour and educational work. It will also be given time, engaging an offender with potentially a whole battery of diagnosed and undiagnosed problems cannot be done in a few minutes each week. Bobby Cummines, Chief Executive of UNLOCK, described the impact of short-staffing:

You might have an officer who might be really caring about that prisoner and all of a sudden you are in a course, halfway through the course, and then you have got movement and they take that prison officer out of that room, out of that course, because they need him on the yard because there is prisoner movement. He has really got his work cut out to be able to focus on his prisoners and be able to say, "We are going to get this" because he does not know where he is going to be on the next shift.[62]

53.  None of the above is new. As the Ministry of Justice's own submission to this inquiry records that "dynamic security," "engaging prisoners individually" and "gaining both a material and an intuitive insight into the operation of the prison" were all concepts first articulated in 1985.[63]

54.  Despite the pedigree of the concept of "dynamic security" and the potential benefits of engaging prisoners individually and gaining both material and intuitive insights into the operation of the prison, it is evident to us that the current situation in the prison system militates against this approach. The Government's plans for prison-building and prison workforce modernisation will further frustrate development of effective officer-prisoner relationships. These relationships often yield dividends during the handling of stressful prison incidents, as well as contributing to long-term behavioural reform. The chasm between the insights provided by our witnesses and the approach adopted by NOMS is disturbing and potentially dangerous.

29   Q 220 Back

30 Back

31   Q 259 Back

32   Ms Eagle replaced Mr Hanson in this role in May 2009.  Back

33   Q 269 Back

34   Q 261 Back

35   Q 261 Back

36   Q 158 Back

37   Q 158 Back

38   Q 159 Back

39   Q 160 Back

40   Q 122 Back

41   Q 241 Back

42   Q 224 Back

43   Q 54 Back

44   Chief Inspector's Thematic Review on Prison Performance (January 2009); Resettlement Outcomes on Release from Prison, Niven and Stewart (2003); Factors linked to re-offending, May, Sharma and Stewart, (2005) (on importance of maintenance of family ties). Back

45   See HC 425-ii (13 May 2008), Session 2007-08, Q 51 Back

46   Q 302 Back

47   Q 220 Back

48   See annex to this report. Back

49   25 March 2009 Back

50   31 March 2009 Back

51   Q 104 Back

52   Q 221 Back

53   Lord Ramsbotham, speech the Legal Action Group Annual General Meeting, January 2008, Back

54   Towards Effective Sentencing, Fifth Report, Session 2007-08, HC 184, para 178 Back

55   Ibid. para 118 Back

56   Ev 144 Back

57   Ev 80 Back

58   Ev 109 Back

59   Q 191 Back

60   Q 189 Back

61   "Pro-social modelling" is based around "setting a good example" and refers to a process by which an authority figure acts as a motivational role model in order to bring out the best in managed staff or clients- actively encouraging pro-social behaviours and attitudes and discouraging anti-social behaviours and attitudes. Key areas include; developing honest and empathetic relationships with staff or clients which demonstrate a genuine concern for the person combined with persistence and optimism about their capacity to change;demonstrating and encouraging pro-social behaviour; showing ways of challenging and confronting undesired values responding to individual need and diversity; and, setting clear objectives and monitoring progress. Back

62   Q 196 Back

63   Dunbar I (1985), A Sense of Direction, London: Prison Service Back

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