Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Q & A with a Frontline Prison Officer

As regular readers of this blog know I do aim to make the posts as informative and balanced as possible. Since its launch in July 2014 the blog has acquired a wide readership ranging from the Chief Inspector of Prisons and politicians to ex-prisoners, as well as quite a few people who are facing the prospect of a custodial sentence.

Prison officers: staff shortages
This particular post is a first for this blog, however, because a serving prison officer has agreed – on condition of anonymity – to give his personal views on working on prison wings, as well as an insight into the impact of current policies, staff shortages and the reasons that morale is so low. He also shares his experiences of the dangers posed by so-called ‘legal highs’ that are smuggled into our prisons.

We conducted the Q & A via e-mails. All we have agreed to reveal is that he is a male officer with over 20 years’ experience and currently works in a male Cat-C establishment.

Q. How would you say the job of being a prison officer has changed over the last few years?

A. ‘More for less’ as that often repeated popular Tory slogan goes!

There is less time for ‘good old’ prison officer duties i.e. face-to-face communications with prisoners and dealing with their ‘issues’. We’ve been pushed out of roles where prison officers were employed, and could utilise when working ‘on the landings’ – for example Offence Focused Groupwork.

On a daily basis I just don’t have the time to attend to individual prisoners’ requests and issues. There appears to be a ‘if it can’t be quantified’ attitude – by ‘management’ – then it is not important.

There is more emphasis now – via ‘management’ – on paper filling and box ticking to make it appear that the jobs are being carried out satisfactorily. For example, my daily duties are now broken down into slots of 15 minutes. At least twice, on a daily basis, my detail shows me as being in two places at the same time.

Q. What impact has the 28 percent cut in staffing had on you and the colleagues you work with?

A. There are less staff to complete all the daily tasks to a satisfactory level and, more importantly, far less time interacting with, and monitoring, prisoners and their behaviours – for example bullying, violence, substance misuse, vulnerabilities, etc.

Less time to talk to prisoners
Also, there is lowered confidence in dealing with anti-social, pro-criminal behaviours due to lack of availability of staff.

Q. How does overcrowding (if that is currently a problem in your own nick) impact on the way you can do your job?

A. I’ll give an example.  A typical wing has 94 single cells. Currently, a typical wing is holding 126 prisoners. That's approximately 32 prisoners sharing cells originally built for one prisoner. This means more demands on staff time and the resources available within the wing/establishment. Also, everyday is a ‘ticking bomb’ due to prisoners fighting for attention, and for the use of limited facilities such as showers, phones, association equipment, etc.

Q. Most of the prison officers I communicate with feel staff morale on the frontline is pretty much rock-bottom at the moment. What’s your own take on this?

A. I would agree with that. However, most of the experienced staff help each other get through the day. There is a distinct feeling that the ‘management’ of the establishment is not that bothered about the frontline staff as long as all the relevant paperwork is signed and dated, for example wing diaries. There is an opinion that the calibre of ‘management’ within the prison service nowadays do not want to engage with officers or prisoners on a daily face-to-face basis - they are more happy to sit behind their computers looking at and making spreadsheets.

In my first couple of years’ service I remember governors being based on wings and the ‘No. 1’ [governing governor] and the ‘Deputy’ making daily rounds of the prison talking to and observing staff and prisoners. I have yet to see the current ‘No. 1’ and ‘Deputy’ do this! This just reinforces officers’, and prisoners’, views that the prison ‘management’ isn’t interested in what is actually going on within the walls of their establishments.

Q. Do you feel that safety – of staff and cons – has been compromised due to Chris Grayling’s ‘reforms’? If so, where do you see the real flashpoint and dangers?

A. Without a doubt, yes!

Staff shortages mean less supervision
There is a distinct lack of staff presence during the ‘line route’ to and from activities which makes it a prime time for prisoners to ‘get even’, carry out assaults, ‘taxing’ [charging protection money] etc.

Activities are regularly being curtailed due to lack of staff due to sickness, emergency escorts etc. Gym is a regular activity that is cancelled due to staff being re-deployed.

Gang activity is on the increase, along with the availability of drugs – particularly the so-called ‘legal highs’. The prison’s security department has been depleted, along with the number of searches that used to take place, together with staff who were available within the establishment on a day-to-day basis.

Q. You’ve commented previously on a lack of support from management. How does this work in practice on the wings and has it got worse in recent years?

A. ‘Management’ is rarely seen on the wings, within the grounds during the working day. It has been regularly commented on by officers that if the building where all these ‘managers’ are located was in London in would not make any difference to the current running of the establishment.

I would say the quality of the ‘managers’ (governors!) has declined over the past ten years. It appears to me these new ‘managers’ are good at balance/spread sheets and looking at computers but they appear very hesitant in dealing with or communicating with officers and prisoners on a personal basis.

Officers have a saying for the type of current ‘management’ and that is ‘management by e-mail’ as this appears to be the preferred method of communicating with staff and means that ‘management’ do not have to leave their offices and see what is being dealt with on a daily basis throughout the prison estate.

On the wing
Q. Can you give us an insight into the way the revised Incentives and Earned Policy (IEP) policy has impacted on your establishment since September 2013?

A. It hasn’t made much of an impact, in my opinion! I see it as just another bureaucratic ‘exercise’ that diverts disciplinary cases from adjudications.  Call me cynical, but these do not show up on monthly statistics!

There was/is very little difference between a ‘standard’ and ‘enhanced’ prisoner and the privileges, etc.

In all honesty I haven’t paid much attention to this policy as, like a lot of officers and prisoners, I do not rate this system much as it’s a poor substitute for the old disciplinary system.

Q. What effect has so-called ‘legal highs’ had on your nick? Are these substances widely available at the moment and, if so, are they making your job more difficult and/or dangerous?

A. This is one of the most frightening things that is worrying frontline officers. You don’t know, on a daily basis, if there is going to be a spate of prisoners using these and what strength they are using. Prisoners become violent, have an increase in strength, lose all awareness of where they are and the physical dangers to their bodies is worrying too.

Ticket to the Mambulance
On one particular day we had 18 known cases that required medical attention i.e. ambulances. Prisoners now refer to these as ‘Mambulances!’

It takes all of the wing officers to deal with just one prisoner who is having one of these ‘attacks’. This leaves the rest of the wing unsupervised, so you can draw your own conclusions as to what else could be happening, or could happen, when we are dealing with the use of these ‘legal highs’.

They appear to be easily available and a popular method of entry into the prison is being thrown over the fence as the chances of staff stopping these ‘drops’ is minimal.

If a prisoner is suspected of using these substances then they are automatically downgraded to the Basic IEP level.

Q. Have you noticed any changes in the type of prisoner you are dealing with or the length of sentences they are serving? Have you seen the prison population ageing during your time in the job?

A. There does appear to be more prisoners over 50 entering the establishment and the younger ones are more violent and willing to resort to violence. I believe this is because of how they have been treated during their ‘rise’ through the Criminal Justice System. In other words, they have been treated with kid gloves and the sanctions that have been applied or are available to punish them are a joke. They often say “And what are you going to do about it?” The answer to this has been not a lot or nothing and this has been imbedded in them

Q. It’s often said that our prisons run on the basis of cooperation between staff and most cons – particularly in view of the numbers of prisoners on a wing in relation to the smaller number of prison officers now employed. What is your take on this? Are cons becoming more difficult to manage or work with?

New regimes: increase tensions
A. Yes, they are more difficult to manage. This, I believe, is due to staff not having time to talk with prisoners, and the same goes for prisoners as the new regimes that were brought in last year do not allow for prisoners and staff to slow down. It’s rush, rush, rush: get them out and get them to work!

Most prisoners would like to go back to being ‘banged up’ during the lunchtime period as this forced them to slow down and relax. Now, because they are out [of cell] it increases tensions and I have noticed a lot more aggression shown between prisoner and prisoner particularly.

Q. Have you ever met any cons in the last 20 years that you genuinely believed might have been wrongly convicted?

A. I don’t know. But, I have met some who I believe should not have been sent to prison. For example one prisoner who ‘stole’ food thrown away by a well known supermarket into a skip. I think he was sent down for three months for this. He is now dead from overdosing after being released.

Q. Do you get any job satisfaction from your work these days? How do you cope with the increased violence and the risks to your personal safety? Have you considered looking for an alternative career because of working conditions getting worse?

A. Sometimes I get satisfaction but it’s very rare as we are too busy to take time on task and requests.

I’m constantly worrying about my own and my colleagues’ safety. I’ve come to realise that I stand clear until enough staff arrive or the prisoners cease fighting each other or I withdraw as quickly as possible. I’m finding it very stressful and not just the violence but the workloads and staff cuts.

I have – and am – seriously considering leaving. This is due to the increase in violence, reductions in officers and how ‘management’ treat us, particularly those at the higher end and, of course, politicians.

Prison UK: Many thanks for sharing all this with us.


  1. As a new (under 2 years) front line officer in a B Cat whilst I agree (recognise) a lot of what's been said (particularly regarding management) I have never seen 15 minute duty slots.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's important that we have an informed debate about the prisons crisis and the more frontline staff who get involved the better. I think that the two groups who know more about prison life than anyone else - prison officers and prisoners - are those who are heard least! Coverage in the media is dominated by politicians, bureaucrats and senior managers.

      As regards the 15-minute slots, I can't comment. Maybe the PO I interviewed can elaborate further?

  2. Interesting but nothing new unfortunately. I have been released for about 15 months now but this post rings so true of the situations in the prisons I was in between 2010 and 2014. Grayling should be made to work as a PO for a couple of weeks to see exactly what officers have to deal with on a daily basis. Perhaps then he would realise that his "reforms" are ridiculous. Interesting piece by Loprd Woolf in the Guardian today on the anniversary of Strangeways:

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think that what is clear is that there is a crisis in morale among serving officers. This tends to get overlooked by the media which seems to focus either on a mythical view of how 'cushy' prison is supposed to be (Daily Mail etc) or on deteriorating conditions inside, but without giving a voice to frontline staff. It's also obvious that speaking out can have potentially serious consequences for members of staff, which is why such interviews are extremely rare.

      My view of Mr Grayling is that it isn't that he doesn't know how bad things are inside prisons. He does know, but he just doesn't care. Politicians generally only see prisons as vote losers unless they are promising to 'crack down' on prisoners and make life inside as miserable and soul-destroying as possible.

      Thanks for the link to the Strangeways riot anniversary interview with Lord Woolf. I've already had my say in the comments section underneath!

  3. I think it’s really interesting to hear an honest account of the situation from a prison officer, it’s unfortunate though in as much as it backs up a lot of what i am told by son and others who experience it from the prisoners or families point of view.
    I will admit that i did wonder in the past if he was exaggerating just how bad things had become but i hear more and more from other prisoners family members that they are being told the same thing by their loved ones inside.
    I myself have found that I have to chase up paperwork, make phone calls etc more regularly now as my son does not have access to the phone as regularly; it’s also a cost issue. It does sometimes reach the point when he is chasing an officer for paperwork or some other important issue where he is afraid to push it further as he becomes frustrated and so do they.
    As a mother along with many other family members who have relatives in prison I have become more and more concerned for my sons safety just as I imagine prison officers families will be. It is very frightening to hear a news headline or read one with the name of the prison your relative is either serving in. We as prisoners families do not get to hear if our loved ones are safe until we get a letter or a call, it can be days before we know if they are safe.
    There is little honesty in the press, only headline grabbers which i think will keep the politicians happy as it diverts attention away from other pressing issues with the elections looming. As for the general public unfortunately there will always be those who take what is written in the papers as gospel and have no real interest or understanding of what it is like to either work or be incarcerated in an HMP and wont unless they are unfortunate enough to find themselves in the system.

    1. Thanks for your comments and for sharing your personal experiences as a parent of a son in the prison system. I think that you are quite right when you highlight your concerns for your own family member, while also pointing out that prison officers' families must have similar fears for the well-being of their loved ones while they are at work inside.

      The current prison crisis has been brewing for the last ten years or so - since David Blunkett (Labour's Home Secretary) launched the ill-fated Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP), a sentence he himself has now disavowed as 'unjust'. However, the Coalition has managed to take a bad situation and make it much, much worse.

      If the truth be told, frontline prison officers and prisoners actually have much in common when it comes to facing the daily impact of recent Ministry of Justice policies. It's hardly surprising that the rate at which prison staff are resigning has been rising steadily. If things don't change quickly, this is a crisis that can only get worse - much worse.

  4. And the good news just keeps rolling in! Grayling found by the High Court to have made yet another unlawful decision regarding transfers to open conditions. One can only hope of the Tories do get in again that Cameron comes to his senses and sends Grayling off to the political equivalent of latrine duty. because he has proven himself beyond incompetent over and over and over and over again

    1. Not entirely unexpected by anyone - except perhaps Chris Grayling himself! As I understand it, his 'legal argument' was that as Justice Secretary he can do what he damn well likes since he also issued the directions to the Parole Board.

      Fortunately, their Lordships were having none of it and so we can chalk up yet another legal defeat for our legally unqualified Lord High (& Mighty) Chancellor. It would be laughable if it wasn't so shockingly serious for thousands of prisoners and their families.

  5. The prison officer states pretty firmly that the lion’s share of drugs come into the prison ‘over the fence’. This would appear to contradict your oft stated opinion that only a small amount of contraband is thrown over the wall, which to me make more sense, particularly if only half an hour a day is allowed for exercise. Also, the logistics would appear to be daunting: how to ensure that the package reaches the correct recipient. After all, the sender can hardly attach a note saying ‘Will the finder please deliver to Prisoner XX at cell number YY’.
    Do you have any idea how this was achieved?
    Also, you did write a very good piece on prison laundries some months back, something of which you have had some considerable experience. As the prison took a great deal of washing in from outside sources, hotels etc, would it have been feasible to smuggle stuff in with the laundry? I would assume that security would not be able to check inside every pillowcase.
    I do hope you don’t mind me picking your brains.

    1. Thanks for your comments and questions. I think that the 'official' view tends to be that prisoners and their associates are responsible for almost all contraband. If that was so, then I really doubt that we'd see so many smart phones on prison wings. They have to be surgically removed!

      Yes, packages do get thrown over walls, but exercise yards are never right up against the outer walls - always inside fenced 'cages' well away from the perimeter. As a result, only trusted prisoners ('red bands') are permitted to go anywhere near the outer walls. Some of them no doubt hoover up small parcels, but this just can't be the only route in.

      My own view - based on discussions with dealers and ex-screws who were serving time having got caught in the act - remains that the bulk of drugs (legal and illegal) are coming in via the staff entrance. Of course some users do pressure their visitors to bring a few tablets etc in to try to pass over during visits and many cons do arrive at reception 'plugged' (as it were) with drugs, but the quantities are relatively small and mostly for personal use or to sell quickly in order to make life inside a bit more comfortable.

      The heavy wing dealers need to be assured of regular supplies and a few tablets or wraps coming in via visits just couldn't meet the massive demand, especially for the so-called legal highs. Believe me, these are brought in mainly by bent staff (uniformed or civilian) or regular contractors. Having seen the amount of prison property going out of the gate, stolen by various members of staff, then nothing really surprises me anymore.

      The laundry route from outside contracts is interesting. Personally, I never saw any evidence of drugs or other contraband coming in via the laundry bags, but then I wasn't really looking for anything and I wasn't working on the 'dirty' team that sorted the incoming bags. My involvement started with the sorted washing going into the washers. There was, as far as I know, no security checks on washing coming in although I imagine that drug dogs probably had a sniff from time to time.

  6. Reference staff moral the independent pay review body reccomended 0% pay rise for the vast majority of staff which was a decision very well welcomed by NOMS and the Governement they state that staff are VALUED! The pay review body states that they don't believ that pay is linked to staff morale! Well in my humble opinion i don't think it helps staff moral at all when there is no pay rise for the vast majority of staff!

  7. please help me I don't know who to turn to my son is in a young offenders no he is no mummies boy he can hold is own and he is no angel but phone me earlier he said mom im being bullied by my officer they are missing my meals and just giving me rice and not allowing me go out on association hes got to be desperate to tell me cause he hates to worry me about anything please im desperate thhanx from a worried mum

    1. Hi. Thanks for your query. I'm really sorry to read of your lad's problems. Most YOIs do offer a dedicated phone service for families of people they fear are being bullied - whether by other inmates or by staff. If you know his local probation officer you could also try giving him or her a call to share your concerns.

      A restriction on association might be down him being on Basic regime or after an adjudication, but restricting his food is illegal. This was happening at HMP Bristol but the inspectors caught them at it and they did get serious consequences.

      If you don't get any joy with the routes I've suggested above, drop me a follow up message and maybe we can speak about this on the phone. Alex

  8. Hi- I'd just like to thank you for this imformative and useful Blog. I had little experience of prison,with the exception of a short time as a Probation volunteer many years ago. My youngest son (19) has recently pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing (guideline max.7 years)and has been at Bristol prison for some months.I have found that it is nigh on impossible to get him clothes and other items for his sentencing hearing as even with the 'relevant paperwork' officers refuse to pass them on.Phones go unanswered (especially on Bank Holidays)information is sketchy and conflicting. As it's his first offence we have concerns about his welfare and from 'phone calls with him some officers are downright bullying and vindictive.Of the prisoners support blogs I've seen,many appear to 'toe the party line'and instead of being campaigning and proactive,seem to do little other than support a corrupted prison model. My sons imprisonment has caused intense distress to his family and without going into too much detail may ultimately lead to my wife and I leaving both our respective jobs-losing the provided house that goes with them. Till I read your site I had no idea that the problems that we experience are endemic and getting worse. With my background in Law I have never been reticent in making official complaints when needed,but now I have to balance my actions with my sons welfare. Thanks once again for your site, long may it continue.

    1. Hi, I'm glad to hear that you are finding this blog helpful. I'm sorry to hear that Bristol prison is being so obstructive. Sadly, this isn't a problem confined to just one establishment. There is a general crisis across the prison estate, caused in part by understaffing and overcrowding, and in part by an ingrained culture of mistreatment and bullying.

      It is likely that he will serve much of any sentence in a Young Offenders Institution (YOI), rather than in an adult prison, although some prisons have mixed wings where youngsters of 18-21 are housed together with older prisoners. I have campaigned against this for the past couple of years on the grounds that it does nothing for rehabilitation, while leaving many lads vulnerable to exploitation and 'grooming' (not only of a sexual nature - drugs are a major problem too).

      If there is anything specific I can advise on off-site please feel free to e-mail me directly on and we can discuss any concerns you may have privately. Alex