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Protecting the profession of the prison officer

Howard League/Community report finds that prison officers are under-valued and under-paid and the profession is at breaking point.

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Action on staffing levels, rates of pay, and officer development is urgently required in English and Welsh prisons, according to new research by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the justice sector trade union, Community, published earlier this week (Monday 13 November 2017).

Dangerously low staffing levels, a poorly-defined job description, insufficient training and a perceived lack of decision-making power have left officers feeling ignored, ineffective and unable to achieve their aims. Morale is low among staff in private prisons and few see a long-term future for themselves in the service.

Low staffing levels

The concerns are raised in The role of the prison officer, a joint report by the Howard League and Community, the trade union representing staff across the justice sector. The report presents the findings of focus groups and surveys with 27 prison officers working in the private sector for a range of companies. A number of officers working in public-sector prisons also gave evidence to the project.

Prison officers said that they were enthusiastic for change and wanted to play a role in helping people to turn their lives around. They want systemic change so that they are able to continue to develop their skills and receive the support that they need to succeed in their roles.

The report calls on private companies, ministers and officials to demonstrate that they value prison officers. They must recognise their staff as professionals, fulfil their potential and ensure that officers are able to build rewarding careers.

All who participated in the project said that there were not enough officers working in their prisons. In some, there were staff shortages and prisons were recruiting. Other prisons were technically fully staffed, but the staffing levels were so low that they did not have enough people to achieve the basics of keeping people safe and delivering a full regime.

One officer said:

[T]here are two officers on a spur of 61 men…when everyone is back for lunch, one has to supervise medication and the other has to go and collect the food from the kitchen. This means there is nobody else on the spur, the model incorporates completely unsupervised association time and with all the other tasks we have to do it really means that one officer is alone all morning and another in the afternoon.

Another officer said:

[O]n our house block we have 60-odd on a wing and I work it by myself. I work 0715 to 2000 and I might only see and speak to another officer a couple of times a day…I cover two floors and so might not know about an incident in a cell until the following day.

“We had a murder a few months ago. There wasn’t enough staff on at night and nobody came when the alarm was rung. They thought one experienced staff member could run the house block on their own.”

The right staff

Many of the officers working in private prisons felt that their companies were not sufficiently focused on recruiting people who understood and had the right skills. Several reported that new officers sometimes arrived without a full understanding of the realities of being a prison officer and as a result quickly left. This high turnover put enormous strain on longer-serving officers.

“We’re at rock bottom and it’s going to take a lot to get that back.”

In the prisons that the officers worked in, basic training ranged between seven and nine weeks in length. Officers viewed this as being far too short for the difficult and complex role they were carrying out.

One officer said that training at his prison

“is death by PowerPoint…there’s a mandatory five-day course on control and restraint (CNR). It’s not a pass or fail – just an idea of what happens. You are told that CNR can only be enforced by a three-officer team, but there are never three on a wing – most of the time you would be on your own. I think it’s too detached from reality. There’s no training for what to do when you’re on your own”.


The report makes five key recommendations:

  1. Private companies, ministers and officials need to demonstrate that they value prison officers. They must recognise their staff as professionals, fulfil their potential and ensure officers are able to build rewarding careers through creating clear career paths that enable experienced and skilled officers to progress.
  2. Prisons must work to ensure that they have enough well-trained staff to allow prison officers to do their jobs. They must provide opportunities to develop new skills and specialisms that are met with promotions and pay increases. Officers must be given the autonomy, professional discretion and responsibility to make a positive impact.
  3. Action is needed to reduce attrition. A full audit of the training and development opportunities available to officers in both the public and private sector should be taken. This should be independent of the Ministry of Justice and fully resourced.
  4. Prisons across the sector should look to reinstate meaningful mentoring and shadowing schemes for new officers. Thought should be given as to the adequate length of this scheme and as to whether a system similar to teaching or nursing would be beneficial in the style of a newly qualified year or a transitional probationary period.
  5. The government should support the setting up of a specialised training and standard-setting college, akin to the College of Policing, to promote and deliver high quality training across publicly and privately run prisons.

A number of officers told the project that the starting pay was reasonable in most areas of the country, but needed to rise as staff became more experienced and took on more responsibility. Others thought that the starting salary needed to be higher and commensurate with police officers and social workers in the area.

I’ll leave the last word to one officer who was intereviewed for the report:

You can go and work in Aldi for £18,000 a year without having to deal with the things we have to deal with. It’s nowhere near to what we should be paid for [what] we’re doing.


All prison posts are kindly sponsored by Prison Consultants Limited who offer a complete service from arrest to release for anyone facing prison and their family. Prison Consultants have no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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