General Secretary

December 2016 | 12.12.2016

Secretary of State announces prison reform

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WE CANNOT ADDRESS PRISON REFORM UNTIL WE ADDRESS THE VIOLENCE IN OUR PRISONS.

Everyone was waiting in anticipation of this widespread reform of the Prison Service, which was going to be the saviour and salvation of everything that is wrong within the Justice System. One thing I do agree with the Secretary of State on, is her phraseology in that: “We will never be able to address the issue of re-offending if we do not address the current level of violence and safety issues in our prisons.”

In fact, we will not be able to address Prison Reform, as outlined in the White Paper, until we address the violence in our prisons and the lack of control.

The Secretary of State, Liz Truss, is at a disadvantage, as she has only been in post for several months and in a way, she is picking up the broken policies of those before her. She has recognised that her Government have cut the service to the bone through austerity measures and now we are seeing the devastating results.

A service run on goodwill

As I write this article, a riot at HMP Bedford and a double escape at HMP Pentonville have recently taken place, incidents that are so serious on a daily basis that it is crisis management. This Union has been warning about the crisis for many years and politicians have buried their heads in the sand. If Liz Truss is to be believed, she has fought her corner and got reinvestment in the service to recruit 2,500 more prison officers, but will the service be able to recruit and retain? Only time will tell, as they have not been able to do so in the last few years. The service is being run on goodwill with payment plus and detached duty being relied on to prop the service up.

The media has been frantic during this period with the British public realising that a crisis is in full flow in our jails in England and Wales. The Government have had repeated warnings from this Trade Union, the Howard League, Prison Reform Trust and the present Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, the previous Chief Inspector, Nick Hardwick and Lord Ramsbotham. The TUC have made interventions but alas, it would appear everyone is over-egging the pudding, and Government are correct.

If I had one piece of advice for the new Secretary of State, it would be to listen to prison officers and related grades, as they know their job. They are not failing in their job − they are being failed by the present administration overseeing things and I am afraid individuals need to take responsibility at the highest level.

It has been claimed that prisons don’t work, but let me reproduce an email from an offender who had just left prison. I have removed his email address and his name to protect his identity, but I am more than content to show it to the Secretary of State; the letter is headed “Thanks to Bedford Officers please pass on.”

Dear Sir

I was hoping you could on my behalf circulate my support to the Officers working at Bedford prison and other Officers involved in dealing with yesterday’s riot at HMP Bedford. I am an ex off ender released a month ago and I spent some time in three prisons. The first was HMP Bedford in August 2015. I watched on the news tonight an ex off ender verbally attacking Bedford and the Officers there. I would like to share with you my views as an ex off ender. I wanted to say I had depression and anxiety problems when I went to prison. I was frightened and unwell when I went to HMP Bedford. Despite being massively over stretched the staff there were fantastic with me. I was treated with dignity, care and respect and they went out of their way to help me and look after me. Every single officer there did an absolutely superb job.

In fact, the things I witnessed in all three prisons were shocking. I have nothing but respect for you officers. Countless times I witnessed officers being run ragged and being over worked with little or no resources. Time and time again I watched staff literally risking their lives dealing with situations they were under staffed and under resourced to deal with. I watched staff attacked and even have a bucket of excrement chucked over them. Yet you know there was always an officer there to help and support me when I needed it. You should not have to work so short staffed that you are placing your life on the line.

I know that tradition dictates a reformed criminal should not support your organisation but I do and have nothing but admiration. So, I know today that morale among the staff at HMP Bedford will be low. So please pass on these words to them. However hard things seem keep going. However, many people that don’t want your help, however many times you get called screw keep going. I have seen the risk you put yourself in and the things you face that the media doesn’t show to the outside world. In all you have been through during the riot remember this that you were there when I needed it the most. You made my time in custody bearable, you looked after me and you helped me change my life for the better and get back to my wife and children. You do a good job and thank you. Many Thanks.

A letter that this individual did not have to send but that speaks volumes. Prison officers and related grades do a brilliant job on behalf of society. They do make difference to people’s lives and help to turn them around as this letter demonstrates. It is not all negative, and for politicians to keep saying our prisons are failing is not exactly true. Our prisons, and those who work in them, are not failing − they have been failed by successive governments; constant interference to satisfy mainly the media who can be tough on crime.

Disgraceful newspaper article

Whilst I am referring to the media there was a downmarket newspaper that ran a story that belittled professional prison officers. A newspaper that belongs to the Murdoch empire, which I would encourage the membership not to buy and follow the lead of the citizens of Liverpool. They suggested that “guards” fled and then went on to say “warders” were terrified and ran away and riot police restored order. In fact, they were wrong on every count in the disgraceful article.

Firstly, there is no such thing as ‘warders’ that terminology went out in the 1920s when it was recognised that the role of prison staff was much more professionalised and the term ‘prison officer’ was brought in.

There is no such employment in the Prison Service for ‘guards’ and the riot police that he referred to was in actual fact, prison officers restoring order in a professional manner that we do so often these days.

I don’t expect to get an apology from that newspaper who openly supports the Conservative Government. By writing in that manner, they are attempting to smear hardworking prison officers and belittle them by using such outdated language that does not reflect the professionalism of the job that our members do.

Challenges

As yet, I have never heard the employer, or indeed the Secretary of State, condemn when we are referred to as guards, warders, screws etc. We will scrutinise everything in the White Paper on reform. We will hold our respective employers and the Secretary of State accountable when our health and safety is placed in jeopardy with policy designed to do so. We will continue to do the job to a high standard, as is common practise, even against the backdrop of these vicious budget cuts that are responsible for the crisis the service finds itself in.

Going into 2017, we will face many more challenges, which I believe, united, we can come out of the long, dark tunnel that we have been submerged in.

I hope all POA members and their families remain safe and that you all have a healthy and prosperous 2017.

Steve Gillan
General Secretary