Monday, 8 August 2016

Penny Wise Pound Foolish

An anonymous prison officer writes in the Guardian about the crisis in the prison service, largely brought about by the government of course:-

The prison service has been cut to the bone and we struggle to keep control

Today I dragged someone out of a burning room and extinguished a fire. I saved a heart attack victim’s life, talked someone out of killing themselves and intervened in a stabbing. But I am not a member of the emergency services.

I am a prison officer and the only time you’ll hear about my job is when things go wrong. And things are going wrong at the moment. Violence, self-harm and suicides are rising. Assaults on staff are at an all-time high. You will have seen stories about prisoners being allowed mobile phones and all the drugs they want.

Often the implication is that staff are lazy and incompetent. This hurts us. We joined Her Majesty’s Prison Service out of a sense of duty to protect people and we’re just as outraged by those stories as you are.

I’ve been a prison officer for a little over four years and I’ve already seen huge changes. I joined just before former justice secretary Chris Grayling brought in benchmarking, which saw public prisons costed to compete against the private sector. It resulted in huge numbers of officers taking voluntary redundancy overnight.

The prison service then recruited new staff on cheaper contracts and it’s since been a struggle to retain staff. Some new officers have only lasted a shift before quitting when they realise what it’s like.

When I first joined Her Majesty’s Prison Service, an experienced officer took me under his wing and explained that a prison has to be run with the consent of the majority of it’s population (we’re outnumbered by prisoners 30 to one). He said to me: “Prisoners will tolerate a lot. Prison isn’t and shouldn’t be soft. You can be strict, as long as you’re consistent and fair.”

But over the last couple of years the service has been cut to the bone. We used to run a wing of 300 prisoners with 15 staff – now we’re down to eight. When there was an incident and we pressed the alarm bell the wing would be flooded with staff responding from other areas of the jail. I felt safe and in control.

Now when the alarm is raised, we’re lucky if four staff are available to respond. The effect of this on the wing is that we struggle to maintain a safe environment. The lack of consistency leads to frustration and friction between prisoners and staff. We don’t have the time to build positive relationships with prisoners. We can’t do it in the pressure cooker our prisons have become.

The powers that be would have you believe all the problems are down to the psychoactive substance, spice, a former legal high, which has recently been banned. It does undoubtedly play a huge part – it is hard to detect and cheap enough that those who want to supply it can afford to throw 10 packages over the prison wall.

A person high on spice is indescribable. I’ve seen people still smashing up cells and smearing themselves in faeces four days after taking it, with the strength to fight off four officers in riot gear. But if the prison was running well, spice wouldn’t get into the establishment, or be so widely available.

I remember the first time I went to a cell when a prisoner cut his wrists while I could only look on. It takes three officers to safely restrain a violent prisoner and there wasn’t enough staff on the wing for me to safely open his cell door. I called the code for a medical emergency involving cutting over the radio and had to wait for other staff to arrive before I could open his door to stop the bleeding.

It’s a harrowing experience, but the reasons for having to wait are very real: past incidents have shown that prisoners may use such emergencies as a way to attack staff once the door is open. It’s why we also have strict protocols for cell fires.

Having to work in this environment takes it’s toll – I know that post-traumatic stress disorder is rife in the prison service. A prison is like a whole society, isolated from the outside world. I have to be every authority figure, every emergency service, every public service to that society. And I have less and less time to do a good job. I spend my time reacting to incidents rather than being able to put in the work to prevent them.

I used to succeed in turning an inmate’s behaviour around every now and then, but now I’m just crisis-managing. Doing just enough to keep the lid on. Staying just about in control.

I’d like the government to listen to me, but I can’t strike – it’s against the law. And I’m writing this anonymously for fear of disciplinary action. I just don’t want the public I serve to believe I’m putting anybody at risk through a lack of effort.


This from the Independent concerning the attack on a prison governor last week:-

Prison governor so badly wounded he 'needed facial reconstruction surgery' following 'attack by inmate'

A prison governor was so badly wounded in a brutal attack by an inmate that he had to undergo reconstructive surgery on his face, it has been reported.

Paul Cawkwell was reportedly violently assaulted in the canteen at Wayland prison Norfolk earlier this week. A spokesperson for the prison confirmed to local media that an incident had occurred and is currently being investigated by police, before declining to give further details.

A source reportedly told The Sunday Times the extent of his injuries was such that he had to undergo facial reconstructive surgery after suffering a collapsed eye socket, fractured cheekbone and broken nose. The source said: “The extent of the damage to Paul’s face is very concerning. The surgeons had to make a large incision around his temple to fit a titanium plate over his eye socket.

“His nose was very badly damaged, literally bent the other way. He’s got external and internal stitches, including several inside his mouth. He can’t feel a thing on the left side of his face. It could be months before he fully recovers, even with all the antibiotics and painkillers he’s been given.”

In April, analysis of prison data by The Independent found violence inside UK prisons has rocketed since the coalition government instigated reforms in 2010. The number of violent attacks involving knives has increased from 212 in 2010 to 491 in 2015. Sexual violence inside prisons has increased from 137 in 2010 to 300 in 2015. Campaigners and prison reform advocates have argued that staffing cuts are putting increased strain on prison environments.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said they were aware of the incident but cannot comment while investigations are underway: “This incident is now being investigated by police, therefore we cannot comment.”


  1. The injuries to the governor sound serious and I hope he recovers in full. This assault, though, is getting a lot of coverage across the media and I wonder if similar coverage would have occurred if the victim had been a prison officer, many of whom have suffered serious injuries. The increasing industrial action on this issue by the POA reflects deep concerns about staff safety. It's the old story – 'efficiency drives' to save money by cutting jobs, justified by the lie that it will herald new innovative working practices. But the outcome, as all frontline staff know, is that the job becomes more problematic, morale sinks as staff are undervalued and the working environment becomes increasingly unsafe. The politicians probably needs a few deaths before they see that the lives of staff need to be factored into their benchmarking exercises.

  2. In my 30+ years I have met some real divvies in prison uniforms, but in the main, they have been decent, hardworking, well intended human beings, who, in their way try to gain some insight into those over whom they are custodians; to offer them options for the future and keep the rest of us safe. I remain of the opinion that we send far too many people to prison, and as spite, vengeance and intolerance is sweeping through the Judiciary, it is not going to improve any time soon. To all injured HMP colleagues, get well soon.

  3. I am an offender who was part-way through a bulky prison sentence when Chris Grayling was let loose upon the CJS. The changes he made to the daily prison regime had a serious impact which seemed to happen overnight. The new ‘core day’ (described as “Our New Way” in all the relevant literature in the prison I was in at the time) essentially took staff away from prison wings. In larger wings, security was monitored via CCTV, and officers were rarely seen. Staff contact became dependent on the application system. Staff cutbacks led to more ‘lock down’ periods, when insufficient staffing levels led to certain activities which many inmates deem important to their routine (gym, library, even religious services occasionally) were curtailed. Everybody knows it’s failing, but I can attest to the slump in mood, amongst prisoners and staff alike, was immediate. I met some prison staff who are consummately professional, polite, respectful and approachable, and these people have my sympathy when having to work under these conditions – the officer who wrote the above post could well have been one of these people. I must however add that not for each officer with this attitude, there was an officer who was the polar opposite. Not all acts of violence upon staff are unprovoked, and an act of violence against staff is usually returned tenfold in the segregation unit, but that’s another discussion entirely.

    It’s a source of irritation to me how the media, when focusing on the very real crisis that the UK prison system finds itself in, pays the highest attention to the wrong detail. Had I not had the experience of prison to refer to I too would assume that these places were hotbeds of violent psychopaths running around high on spice, or whatever. Drugs, and violence, have always been present in UK prisons. Yet post-Grayling I’ve been in a prison where I couldn’t get toilet roll and was advised by staff to use a newspaper to wipe my arse on. In a local Victorian prison I wore the same trousers for six weeks because there wasn’t any spare kit or functioning laundry facility. Healthcare access is way below the standard people imagine it to be, HMP Healthcare would be worth an article in itself. OMU backlogs are a source of serious frustration to ISPs and determinate prisoners alike. The complaints system is utterly broken and Legal Aid has been removed. The IMB is well-meaning but toothless. The excellent Nick Hardwick was routinely ignored and summarily dismissed. The IEP system has been dismantled, completely removing any incentive for good behaviour and prisoner co-operation and compliance, the punitive Entry level is particularly pernicious and penalises those who are on remand, and therefore innocent in the eyes of the law. When Grayling pushed through all of these insane measures the media ignored the impact of removing Legal Aid to prisoners and instead focused entirely on the book ban, a policy which actually had zero material impact on most prisoners and staff but offended the liberal sensibilities of many writers-in-residence who were able to articulate an argument against it. In reality, the prison system as a whole was poisoned in 2012 and it’s taken a rising number of assaults on staff to draw public attention to the fact that prisons are not places of therapeutic growth, but are increasingly becoming hate factories. It isn’t just staff, or even inmates, who are being failed, but communities and therefore the wider society are not being served by a system that isn’t fit for purpose at present. So long as media headlines only speak of a rise in legal highs and statistics regarding assaults on staff, thus suggesting the only real problems within UK prisons are ones of good order and discipline, the prison system will continue to fail those within it, as it has been since 2012.


    It appears that the claims made about the rip-roaring success of the Troubled Families' Programme - claims that it was turning around 98% of families was untrue. It has been a 1.3bn failure.

  5. Terrible to hear the above but good that the officer has spoken out! We all need to speak out to uncover these appalling failures. More in the news about medway secure unit and troubled families. Mp's need to be held to account for there knee jerk reactions. They come out with their supposed ligh bulb moments without any proper consultation. We do not need these so called quick fixes we need proper funding of existing organisations, police, prison, probation and social services.also should listen to the grassroots staff when making decisions about services.

  6. Thank you for publishing this. I had not seen the article in the Guardian. As a Probation Officer, I am (now) ashamed to say that I have often been disappointed if an allocated Offender Supervisor is prison staff rather than Probation. On the whole, I have found them harder to get hold of and having different skills of assessment. When busy (always) it can be easy to become frustrated with prison colleagues. This article has been a useful read and has encouraged me to try and be more understanding about some of the difficult situations that prison officers have to deal with.

  7. What a heartfelt and eloquent description of day to day working life on the coal face by our prison colleague. This is what Noms fails to appreciate - the day to day nitty gritty, the intolerable stresses on both prison and probation staff who are doing their best to turn around the lives of offenders and reduce the likelihood of future victims. But what does the government do? Nothing but chivvy staff to the bare bones and privatise, making it someone else's problem. When things go terribly wrong as inevitably they do, well just blame the staff. For god sake when will the government sit up and take notice of what is going on in our prisons and probation. Is there no one out there listening?

  8. I agree a very interesting article in the guardian.Brave officer, extremely well written.
    We thought Grayling had caused us problems......