Role of the Prison Officer - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Number 220-239)


5 MAY 2009

  Q220  Alun Michael: As you know, the subject we are dealing with is the role of the prison officer. Especially given your professional as well as your academic background, can I ask you what you think we should expect from prison officers and, once you have done that, could you tell us whether you think the expectations of the Ministry of Justice and/or the Prison Service management are the same as your expectations?

  Professor Coyle: Yes. I think to answer that question one needs to place the theme of your inquiry in context. In order to properly understand what the role of the prison officer should be, we need to know what the role of prisons are and what the place of prisons within the criminal justice system is. 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. Perhaps I might illustrate that by giving you two personal examples. In the late 1980s I was Governor of Peterhead Prison in Scotland. Peterhead Prison held prisoners who had been identified as being the most difficult and dangerous in the Scottish prison system. In Peterhead the task was very difficult but it was quite simple in that all of the prisoners who were in Peterhead had committed serious offences; they were required to be in prison for the protection of the public and as punishment for the serious offences they had committed. As I say, the task of governing the prison and being a prison officer there was complex but it was straightforward. In the early 1990s I was Governor of Brixton Prison in London. The task was quite difficult; quite different. There were around, at that time, 1,200 prisoners of whom 60 or 70 had been assessed as high risk, similar to those who were at Peterhead, and clearly needed to be there. The remainder were best described, I suppose, as being a very motley crew. For example, over 300 of them had been remanded for psychiatric reports. Many of them were deeply psychiatrically disturbed and clearly should have been in hospital. We did a great deal then, working with psychiatrists, working with police, working with the Crown Prosecution Service, to deal with that issue and the situation improved dramatically but then changed politically. Since then we have had a number of reports about the position of mentally disturbed offenders in prisons, only last week, Lord Bradley's, which your Chairman welcomed. We all welcome it, but Bradley said what many similar reports have been saying for years. Take the issue of women. We all welcomed the reports of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, of the Prison Reform Trust, Baroness Corston's report on women in prison. Next week the Fawcett Society will publish a report on women in prison, an inquiry again chaired by Baroness Corston. It will say virtually the same thing. 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.

  Q221  Alun Michael: Let us go back and ask you quickly to summarise what you believe the purpose of the prison is and, therefore, what the purpose of the prison officer should be?

  Professor Coyle: 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.

  Q222  Alun Michael: If we have got that variety, you would expect the role of the prison officer to be?

  Professor Coyle: First of all, the prison officer's job—it is a triple job—is to maintain security, to make sure that those particularly who present a real threat to the public do not escape, to make sure that, inside, prisons are places of good order and that they are not places of violence of anarchy, that those who are in prison—prisoners, prison staff and visitors—are safe, and, thirdly, it is to encourage the prisoner to use their time in prison to rehabilitate him or herself and to create a bridge over which the prisoner can cross when he or she is released and be reintegrated into society.

  Q223  Mr Hogg: Professor, can I suggest that in fact your own experience at Peterhead and Brixton highlights a point which you have not really addressed, which is this. The role of the prison officer depends slightly, or indeed largely, on the prison in which he or she is serving. In the case of Peterhead, of which I have no actual experience, you are dealing with long-term prisoners, by listening to what you were saying, whose prospects of coming out in the near future are very small and, therefore, in a sense, the role is essentially a custodial one. If you are dealing with Brixton, which is a local prison and people do come out quite smartly, very often, or they are recapitalised down, the role of the prison officer involves quite a lot of rehabilitative work, or at least enabling others to do rehabilitative work, whether it be PREPS or work or whether it be education, and those functions are different depending on the nature of the prison and, therefore, the function of the prison officer varies in accordance with the nature of the prison in which he or she is serving.

  Professor Coyle: I agree with you entirely. In passing, let me say that the function of the prison officer in a place like Peterhead is to be much more than a custodian, because the person will be there for a very long period of time and needs to have some positive purpose, and even there the prisoners are likely to be released in due course. Similarly, in Brixton the task of simply getting through the day is what keeps prison officers occupied most of the time, and their opportunity for facilitating the rehabilitative work that you describe is made much more difficult, particularly when the prison is so overcrowded and there is such a turnover of prisoners. The substantive point you make is a very important one. The prison system is one of the very few, if not the only, major organs of our society which is totally run, managed by central government. All other large institutions are managed either locally or by a combination of central policy control, audit and local delivery. The Prison Service stands almost alone in being a national prison system. I imagine we will come on shortly to prison officer training. The issue of saying that a prison officer can work similarly in Peterhead or Brixton, in Holloway or Styal, in Feltham or in Thorn Cross after eight weeks' training puts an unrealistic pressure both on the prison officer and the system. This is not what you are interested in in this inquiry, but I think at some point we are going to have to look at the whole question of whether we can be much better served by much more local prison systems rather than a unitary national prison system.

  Q224  Dr Whitehead: When we talk about the three roles of the prison officer, certainly a number of people who have given evidence to us and, I think, some prison officers who we have talked to on some of our visits have stressed the question of culture in a prison and particularly, perhaps, the view, which may be the dominant view, that the role of the prison officer in a particular prison may be the first two and not the third and that the prison officer who looks to the question of making the prisoners' life as positive as possible in prison is perhaps, as I think was described on one occasion, characterised as a "welfare screw" and, therefore, ostracised as a member of the team thereafter. We did hear reports that that kind of negative culture is difficult to turn around from a management point of view. How, in your view and experience, might that happen?

  Professor Coyle: The whole issue of culture is a very important one because in some ways prisons, for all that they have changed in recent years, remain the last great secret institutions of our society. The walls are there not just to keep the prisoners in but also to keep the public out, and the public very often wants to be kept out, is not terribly interested in what happens in prison until something goes wrong. The issue of culture, of course, goes far beyond the prison officer. You will have the culture of a prison, you will indeed have the culture of the Prison Service, and 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. Being anecdotal again, I remember on my first day as Governor of Peterhead I was summoned to see the Secretary of State for Scotland and he said, "Governor, I have got one instruction for you. Get Peterhead off the front pages". Someone talked about a sense of de«ja" vu earlier. When I went to be Governor of Brixton Prison I was sent for by the Home Secretary and was told, "I have only got one instruction for you, Governor. There must be no more escapes." That was in 1991. Given that context, it is not surprising that that is the way that staff respond. How do you deal with that? One can deal with that. Certainly throughout the system I think management has to be much more trusting of staff than it is at the moment. There is a culture where the worst thing is to do something wrong rather than to do something that is right. The task of management, whether it is at a local level, at the prison governor level, or at an institutional level, at a national level, is to set parameters to say, "This is what we want to do." You then allow staff to deal with the how. You allow staff to deliver within the parameters. That means trusting staff. At the various levels of the Prison Service going from the ministers, through the senior civil servants, down through prison governors to prison officers, there is a tendency not to trust the people who are below, and the experience of the best run prisons, I think, is where trust exists, where we allow people to make mistakes on occasion, provided it is within the parameters, and the task of management is to make sure that those parameters are there. The parameter, for example, in a high security prison would be: there must be no escape at all—that is not negotiable—and the prison staff will find a way to deliver. That parameter might not be the same in an open prison. So the issue of culture is a crucial one, but it can be dealt with.

  Q225  Dr Whitehead: You mentioned the fact that the Prison Service is one of the last national services, but the question of recruitment has, as it were, gone local. Particularly in terms of perhaps dealing with the cultural problem, do you think a return to national recruitment might be appropriate?

  Professor Coyle: As I have suggested before, I would tend to go the other way. I think we need to have much more localism as a whole. I think the Prison Service would serve the public better were there much more local emphasis on delivery. I suspect you may have touched on some of these issues in your Justice Reinvestment Inquiry. Prisons should be much more accountable to their local communities, they should be much more accountable to their local courts. It is within living memory that the prison governor had a chair in the Assize Court and received the prisoners from the judge as they were sentenced. There was almost an umbilical cord between the court and the prison. I think those are the strands which we need to reinforce. Within that context, there certainly would be a place for local recruitment. There is a real problem, of course, as long as you have a national service, in the location of many of our prisons. There is a problem in the inner city prisons, as I know from my own time at Brixton, that recruiting people from the local community to work in prisons sometimes can be very difficult. Some prisons, on the other hand, are in relatively remote locations and it may equally be difficult to recruit staff. Similarly, there needs to be consideration about the particular skills required to work in a women's prison or to work in a juvenile prison. I think taking the issue of local recruitment of staff on its own is probably not helpful: what one needs to look at is the whole issue of local accountability of prisons.

  Q226  Dr Whitehead: Do you consider, in addition to what you mentioned about local recruitment and what have you, that there are other issues that might be considered in terms of recruitment practice for the future, such as the question of qualifications? Some people have suggested even a graduate profession for prison officers in the future, some have suggested perhaps a return to targeting ex-service men and women for the Prison Service, others have commented on the minimum age requirements. Do you have any views on whether there should be any particular and enhanced guidelines as far as recruitment is concerned in respect of the issues we have discussed?

  Professor Coyle: Absolutely. It is a cliche«, but nevertheless true, to say that the key to a well run prison is the relationship between prisoners and first-line staff, and that means that it is crucial, first of all, to recruit the appropriate people and, secondly, having recruited them, to train them properly. A few years ago, in 2005, the Select Committee on Education and Skills for the first time looked at prison education. I was a specialist adviser to that committee and, as its inquiry went on, it became increasingly concerned about prison officer training, which its report finally described as being totally inadequate. If one looks, for example, at the Ministry of Justice website at the recruiting section for prison staff, it is very unclear as to what sort of person it is actually trying to recruit. It makes a long list of requirements about dealing with suicide prevention, dealing with proper admission of prisoners, dealing with high security, making sure that prisoners' property is in the right place and ends up, rather weakly, by saying, "It is a very challenging and complex role", without actually specifying what the role is. The reality at the moment is that in England and Wales there are very few requirements. The few requirements that there were previously, academic and other, have been removed. Most of the requirements now are negative ones, such as having a clean criminal record. That contrasts with the situation in many other countries. Going through the door, as it were, the first thing is recruiting the right people, and I think that is an issue in this country. The next thing is, having recruited them, how do you train them, particularly those who are beginning their service? I have to say, the situation in this country, in this jurisdiction, is abysmal at the moment, with eight weeks' initial training.

  Q227  Mr Hogg: Following on from Dr Whitehead's question, you have been in the Prison Service 25 years, I know. You entered as a governor grade. I know that we abolished that in the latter part of the 1980s, because I was in the Home Office when they did it. Did the abolition of the governor grade entry affect the quality of the people who subsequently became governors?

  Professor Coyle: No, I do not think it did. There was a proper debate about the extent to which the role of the prison governor is different from the role of the prison officer, and, indeed, it is different, I do not think there is any doubt about that. Linked to that, to what extent does one have to have experience of the work of the prison officer in order to be able to be a good governor? At that time the thinking, as you would remember, Mr Hogg, was largely to go down the police road of bringing in people at the bottom, at the first level, but having what was called accelerated promotion pushing people through the ranks very quickly. I do not think that that change made a significant difference. What has changed, I think, is the role of the prison governor as leader of men and women, and the balance between that role and the role of being a good manager is quite a delicate one and one needs to have both of them in balance. I suspect that in some areas what is now called "managerialism" has taken over; actually ticking the boxes has become much more important than leading and directing.

  Q228  Mrs Riordan: What impact can local Prison Officers' Association branches have on the relationships between senior management and the prison officers?

  Professor Coyle: It should be a very positive one. Most people who join the Prison Service do so still out of some sense of public service; they actually want to do a form of public service. In terms of the Prison Officers' Association in particular, in 1991 Sir Raymond Lygo carried out an inquiry into the Prison Service and he pinpointed this issue, which was put him, as it is put to many inquiries, the issue of the POA, and one of his interesting comments was: difficult unions fill the vacuum left by ineffective management, and I think that is germane to the prison system. You need to know the history of the POA, which was set up as a clandestine organisation, which was forbidden for many, many years, through its developments. That is one side of it. The other side was, for example, in 1963 the POA produced the memorandum on the role of the modern prison officer. They did it long before the Home Office did. There is this symbiosis between central, top-down control and the need for a local operational directive, and a good prison governor, or director general, or minister of justice will get the staff on board, because you need the staff to work with you. Can I comment briefly on one question I was asked which came up, I noticed, in previous sessions about initial qualifications of prison officers and whether they should be recruited solely from those with degrees? I do not think that is necessarily a good thing. The Canadian Prison Service went down that road in the early 1980s. They stuck with it for a couple of years. In order to become a prison officer, or correctional officer, as they call them, all new recruits had to have university degrees. They gave that up because actually those alone are not the skills that are necessarily required, the maturity and the experiences which are required, for a prison officer. You will get good university graduates who will make good prison officers, but being a university graduate will not necessarily make you a good prison officer.

  Q229  Mrs Riordan: Talking to the Prison Officers' Association and meeting the prison officers when we went on the visit, I agree that you need a good mixture of all-rounders there. You have already touched on my next question. Taking into account the many roles prison officers have to fulfil in a day, they are not getting the necessary training and support that they need within prisons. Sometimes they do get that training but then there are not enough prison officers on duty on the day to fulfil that role.

  Professor Coyle: The fact that prison officers do the job that they do is, in many respects, quite amazing. If one stands back, you are recruiting men and women who, in theory at least, have no qualifications. Some of them will have qualifications but they are not required. Giving them, if they are lucky, eight weeks' training, sometimes within a prison, not in a prison college, and then sending them off to a dispersal prison, or to a local prison, or to a women's prison, or to a young offenders' prison and expecting them to know what to do and how to do it is really quite wrong, and the fact that the officers do what they do is surprising, but that does not absolve us. I think, particularly if you look at the level of training in other countries, which varies from three years, in the case of Germany, to two years, to one year, for us to offer eight weeks' training, as the Select Committee on Education said, is totally inadequate.

  Q230  Julie Morgan: The Government has abandoned the Titan prisons. The proposal now is for five prisons of 1,500 each, which is still very big.

  Professor Coyle: Yes.

  Q231  Julie Morgan: How do you think that is going to affect the role of prison officers?

  Professor Coyle: The sadly called Titan prisons: that proposal had no merit and little intellectual basis, and, sadly, as a result, 18 months have been wasted which would not otherwise have been, and we have ended up, as you say, with the proposal that there should be five prisons for 1,500. The conspiracy theorists among us might think that that was the plan all along, to build prisons of 1,500, because had that been the course at the start there would have been an equal outcry that 1,500 is far too large. You can run a prison of 1,500 as a conveyor belt, but you cannot run it as any from of rehabilitative place.

  Q232  Mr Hogg: Why is that?

  Professor Coyle: Simply to get through the day, having, let us say, 1,000 visitors coming in. One of the suggestions of the Titan prisons was that the first one would be in the south-east of England and, of 2,500 prisoners, 1,000 prisoners should be remand prisoners. That really did take me back to Brixton in 1991 where we had 200 prisoners each day going out to the courts, coming back in each night, needing to have access to lawyers, needing to have social visits, and so on. You have to feed three meals a day for 1,500 people. The conveyor belt of getting through the day's business actually takes up all of the time.

  Q233  Julie Morgan: Do you think there will be any likelihood that there will be a smaller ratio of prison officers to prisoners in these plans?

  Professor Coyle: The Government, despite the rise in prison numbers, is requiring the Prison Service, along with all government bodies, to have year on year reductions in cost. Given that something between 70-75% of the running of a prison is staff costs, the only place that one can reduce is the numbers of prison officers. There is an argument for saying that they are already too low, but I fear, if the pressure remains to reduce costs, that will be an inevitable consequence.

  Q234  Julie Morgan: You are no more optimistic about these five prisons than about the Titan prisons?

  Professor Coyle: Except I do not think they will happen, to be honest. The Titan prisons were never going to happen. We all knew that they were not going to happen. At the moment what the Government is saying, and it is very difficult sometimes to read between the lines of the Ministry of Justice announcement, but my understanding at the moment is that there is a commitment to build two of them and the other three perhaps. One of the sad things was that of the Carter reports, which led to these proposals, the 2003 Carter Report said that the prison population should be planning for 80,000 places. Four years later, in 2007, Patrick Carter said we need to plan for 96,000, an extra 16,000. He gave no justification at all as to why, intellectually, he moved from the need for 80,000 to 96,000. If we continue down the road that we are going, we will have to build more and more prisons, they will cost more and more and the resources will be more and more restricted. That is in direct contrast, by the way, to what has been happening in Scotland, where the Prisons Commission Report came out in terms and said there needed to be a significant reduction in the number of people in prison.

  Q235  Julie Morgan: We did visit Scotland and met Henry McLeish and discussed it with him. Finally, prisons are being clustered now, and we did visit prisons that were clustered. What impact has that had?

  Professor Coyle: All the evidence is that the best operating and delivering prisons in terms of public safety and value for public money are small, locally accountable prisons. The Chief Inspector says that, the National Audit Office says that: it is a given almost. The issues of construction and cost are driving the Government to larger and bigger prisons. You can play around the edges by putting together the management and administrative structure, which is what was done on the Isle of Sheppey, which is what I understand has been happening in the Isle of Wight. Out of interest's sake, this afternoon I looked on the Prison Service website. I wanted to look something up about Albany Prison. They have a list of all prisons. Albany Prison is not there any more, Camp Hill Prison is not there any more, Parkhurst Prison is not there any more. Well, it is, but not really. What is there is "Isle of Wight (Albany)", "Isle of Wight (Parkhurst)", "Isle of Wight (Camp Hill)". They go on as they have always done. You play around the edges, as I understand it, by putting together some of the central services, but the prisons themselves continue, and have to continue, as unitary entities.

  Q236  Mr Heath: I do hope I am not asking you something you have already responded to while I had to go out of the room. Some of our witnesses earlier in this inquiry have suggested that there is a difference between private and publicly run prisons; not in a pejorative sense, simply that there are advantages and disadvantages perceived in the management styles of both. I wonder if you would agree that those differences are there and, if so, what effect they may have on the role of prison officers in the two categories?

  Professor Coyle: The differences are there in the same way that there are differences between all prisons. I think the issue is not per se between public prisons and private prisons. The National Audit Office, for example, in its 2003 report, said the best private prisons are better than many of the best public prisons, but the worst private prisons are down there with the worst of the public prisons. What it said was privatisation is neither a guarantee of success nor the cause of inevitable failure, and I think that remains the case. You have to take account of the fact that all private prisons are new prisons. None of the private prisons are old prisons. When private companies were given the opportunity to take over Brixton Prison, no-one would put their hands up. If you look at the league tables for best performing prisons, the private prisons, marginally, are doing worse than the public prisons. I do not think that is a terribly helpful comparison. What you also find is that it depends on the contract. It also depends on the company. Some private companies are doing better than other private companies, and I think that does reflect both on the contract and on the resources which are included in the contract. In terms of learning across the board, one of the consequences, of course, of what is called contestability is that it leads to what is called "commercial in-confidence issues", and that actually militates against sharing good experience across the board. If the public sector is going to be competing with the private sector, then it is not going to show all its cards, and certainly the private sector is not going to show all its cards to competitive private companies, let alone to the public sector. So, sadly, and the Chief Inspector has said this, there has been relatively little learnt from the experience since 1992.

  Q237  Mr Hogg: You responded to Julie Morgan by saying that the ideal prison was a small locally connected prison. There are lots of categories of prison. There are the local prisons, training prisons, and this and that. It would be quite helpful to know what, in your view, category by category, is the ideal size of a prison?

  Professor Coyle: Regardless of the category, I think the experience is that it is very difficult to deal with prisoners as individuals if the prison is beyond 500. Even at 500, I think one is pushing it. I know that the Chief Inspector of prisons, Ann Owers, has said that when she took up post a large prison which was one which was holding 500 or more. Now we have, I think, a dozen or more—

  Q238  Mr Hogg: Five hundred is your maximum optimal level?

  Professor Coyle: Yes, and that would be for, as it were, what one might call a "run of the mill" prison. I think if you are looking at specialised prisons, for example, for young offenders or for women, one of the clear conclusions of Baroness Corston's Report was that we needed small, but taking 600 of the most disturbed and vulnerable women in the south of England putting them behind the walls of Holloway really was a recipe for disaster. She was very clear in saying that what was the needed for them was small dedicated units. The same thing applies. To draw a line from the Serpent to the Wash and take 600 of the most disturbed youngsters and put them all in one institution in Feltham, you are really not going to achieve a great deal of rehabilitation.

  Q239  Alun Michael: Professor Coyle, thank you very much indeed for your evidence. We have actually ranged quite widely today. If there are any aspects which you feel you have not had an opportunity to answer fully, given that you have come to us with both academic and practical experience, perhaps you would be kind enough to supplement in a note which the clerk can provide to the members of the committee, but thank you very much indeed for your responses to the questioning this afternoon.

  Professor Coyle: Thank you.

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