Prison overcrowding has been mentioned so often in the past few years, but what does it actually mean to the men and women who work in Prisons? I recently talked to a Senior Prison Officer; I shall call him ‘Harry’, to find out more.
Harry initially answered from the prisoner perspective. He said; “Overcrowding has many effects but, probably the worst effect for a Prisoner is they can be kept long distances from their family for too much of their sentence, reducing access for wives and kids to visit. This can cause some ill feeling among inmates.”
I asked what the impact was on the people working in UK prisons. Harry pondered the question a while before continuing; “There are so many issues for staff in our Prisons at the moment, it’s hard to give you an answer”.
I enquired about these issues and what I learned was shocking; “It’s not uncommon for officers to be working 13 hour shifts on several consecutive days at the moment. There is a severe staff shortage where I work and I’m sure my Prison is not unusual. Morale is at rock bottom among the staff in many Prisons”.
So why are there staff shortages? Harry explained; “Recruitment seems to be difficult at the moment. A newly qualified Officer is not particularly well paid, well below the national average. Our Union recently had a vote which overwhelmingly came out for action due to pay review procedures. But, looking how the Government has treated us in recent years, few colleagues expect a pay review any time soon that will recognise the stress, hours and work we do”.
I asked what causes the stress; “Contrary to the common perception, we are not employed simply to lock up and feed offenders. We are expected to respect Prisoners and constantly monitor and assist with their needs and concerns. The punishment a Court gives is only loss of liberty and does not mean harsh treatment, quite the opposite. But, unfortunately, many prisoners have been quick to recognise and exploit the increasing vulnerability of a system subjected to so much pressure to act ‘politically correct’. It causes immense stress for staff.”
Harry didn’t want to be quoted on some examples he then gave me. It’s obviously a tender subject but it quickly became clear there is huge resentment being caused by some ethnic minority inmates being quick to cry “racism” any time they have a request for anything rejected or are asked to do something they don’t like. As I listened to Harry I couldn’t help but think of the damage some ethnic minority prisoners were causing to their own worthy progress in UK race relations. To be called a racist and, in some cases, become subjected to official investigation by management, just because you ask a prisoner to turn down his music or refuse to allow him unjustified additional telephone credit is understandably demoralising. The imbalance caused by such abuse of the system is now leading white inmates to claim victimisation in similar trivial circumstances simply because they cannot use the threat of a racist complaint whenever they are unhappy with staff.
Harry continued; “The Prison Service has gone to great lengths trying to recruit officers from all ethnic communities in the UK today and I can honestly say the Prisons are bending over backwards to respect diversity and the multi-cultural nature of society. But at times, this effort is being used against us by the very people it is supposed to be assisting.”
Wrapping up our conversation I asked Harry how he saw the future. His comment was damning; “The first chance I have to get out of this job I’m gone. It is long hours, no thanks, constant stress and all done in an atmosphere that has an undercurrent of intimidation and imminent confrontation running through it. I’m sure it’s had a negative effect on me as an individual but I’m trapped by the wage. Prison Officers are the forgotten service. The public never sees us and therefore there are no votes to gain for politicians to become concerned. I deeply regret the day I joined the service when, as a younger person, I had so many other options.”
I was left with a picture that shocked me. Prison Officers are excluded from certain employment legislation that protects the majority of workers in the UK. As a result the Government exploits them with incredible working shift patterns and relatively poor financial reward given the environment they work in. Despite this it seems money won’t be made available to encourage more recruitment.
When it is not an exaggeration to say that most officers run the real risk of verbal and physical assault on most shifts they work, would you want to work in a UK prison?