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Prison safety - going beyond a simple debate

Our lead for the prisons we manage in England and Wales, Jerry Petherick, on tackling violence and improving safety for officers and prisoners.
Jerry Petherick

The Prison Officers Association (POA) recent action is ostensibly borne out of official statistics which reveal a disturbing rise in prison violence. Assaults are up a third and attacks on staff have increased by more than 40 per cent in the past year.  This is rightly the subject of urgent examination by all of us in the penal system.

We see the impact of these attacks on staff and there is no doubting the damage they cause to confidence and morale.  In light of this it might not seem unreasonable for prison officers to withdraw their labour, but the government was right to demand an end to the walkout.  A strike betrays a long history of responsible commitment among prison officers to their duty of care in not only maintaining the security of our prisons, but in protecting the prisoners they look after.  Neither does industrial action protect staff, as prisoners who have been locked up during a walkout are more prone to exercise their frustration once unlocked the next day.

The debate about violence in our prisons had already become a false choice between stability and staff numbers before the POA's action, and it is now in danger of becoming  an old fashioned dispute about pay and conditions.  We owe it to those in custody and the wider public, to ensure that the debate about violence fully accounts for the complexity of our model of custody in this country.  Staff numbers and the availability of new synthetic drugs are undoubtedly factors, but we ignore wider systemic changes at our peril.

The UK has never been particularly reliant on coercive control to manage our prisons.  Everyone working within the prison system recognises that there is no way that on a prison wing of 100 prisoners that three, four or even eight prison officers could possibly maintain coercive control.  Instead, an environment of mutual respect between prisoners and staff underpins a more subtle notion of imprisonment ‘by consent’.

This is obviously questioned from time to time, as personalities change and the experience of prisoners and staff waxes and wanes.  Although this can lead to instability, a state of dynamic equilibrium reasserts itself as resources are redirected or experience developed.
The rise in new synthetic drugs and concerns about staff numbers has highlighted that the fragile consensus between prisoners and staff is now becoming harder to maintain.  Just as on the outside, the values that support it – respect for authority, for institutions and for each other – are under threat.  At the same time the demographic of our prison officer population is changing.  What used to be a job for life, with long-serving employees able to build trust through knowledge and the application of acquired 'jailcraft', is giving way to a more inexperienced workforce with higher staff turnover.

Stability and staff retention has also suffered through the abolition of roles. The senior officer – akin to a non-commissioned officer in the armed forces - is a position many prisons have disbanded, but it was pivotal in resolving conflicts at a low level before they escalated.  Flatter management structures have also served to reduce promotion opportunities, exacerbating turnover and further eroding stability.

The mainstay ‘prison officer’ role has also been devalued, such that it’s now other – more detached professionals - who exercise a greater influence on the terms and conditions of a prisoner’s sentence.  This disconnect, between frontline staff and the interventions and programmes which prepare prisoners for release and that also encourage the right behaviours, undermines stability. It is vital that prison officers are more than turnkeys.  They should have a greater say in a prisoner’s sentence plan in a way which strengthens prisoner relationships, and contributes to the professionalisation of officers who genuinely want to create positive change.  At a leadership level, governors also need the freedom to lead effectively and moves to give them greater control over important areas of everyday prison life are welcome.  This will surely bring more innovation as governors experiment with new ways to engage prisoners and reduce re-offending.

The vast majority of prisoners want to serve their time without incident and our response to the current trend in violence should not limit rights or take away hope that they will one day be released.

Much has been written about the on-going impact of indeterminate sentences, particularly for those prisoners who have shown a genuine willingness to change and live by the rules.  For their part, prison officers who do tremendous work in challenging circumstances every day are fundamentally motivated to make a difference to the lives of the people they look after.  Our response to violence in prisons should go beyond a simple debate about numbers and consider how hope can be regenerated in prison communities, both among prisoners but perhaps more importantly, those charged with their care.

Jerry Petherick is G4S’s managing director for UK custodial and detention services. Jerry has worked in the prisons sector for more than 33 years and spent 23 in the public sector prison service. He moved ten years ago to the private sector and is now responsible for G4S’s five prisons in England and Wales.

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Telegraph on 17 November, 2016