General Secretary

August 2014 | 11.08.2014

Prison Officers: "A case for our concern"


I went to HMP Risley recently to represent a committee member on a code of discipline. During discussions in the POA office I was shown a box of newspaper clippings about the Risley riot in the 1980s. Interestingly, I came across a cutting written by Judge Michael Argyle dated August 1988.

I read the clipping with interest. I didn’t agree with all of the article, particularly the criticism of the POA back in the 80s, but fast forward more than a quarter of a century and I believe it is as relevant now as it was then. Michael Argyle was not everyone’s cup of tea but at least on this occasion he was on the side of prison officers. We reproduce it here for POA members to make their own judgement:

“I have always taken a close interest in the Prison Service − being, I believe, the only judge to do so in recent years. I find it extraordinary that during any criminal trial the only person who is totally ignored by everyone is the prison officer in charge of the accused. I also find it extraordinary that although any judge or bishop is entitled to enter any prison at any time – an excellent idea and a valuable safeguard against impropriety – very few do, and those who go are invariably concerned with one or more of the prisoners.

If more went, perhaps there might have been more understanding of the current disputes in Holloway, Strangeways, Parkhurst, Norwich and six of London’s crowded prisons. During the last 20 years I have been in the habit of paying regular visits to Dartmoor prison. When I first went, prison officers had to be conscripted to serve there, and the post was very unpopular. But, through meetings with staff I have been able to make one or two suggestions of my own to improve their lives. With help from the County Council, the local television company and the local MP, a launderette appeared in Princetown, a decent café, local TV reception was improved and mini buses were hired so that the wives of the prison officers could get out and socialise.

Removal expenses of officers posted to Dartmoor were also very greatly improved, with the result that there is now a waiting list of people wishing to work there. All this because someone listened.

But the general British public have a warped view of prison officers, both male and female. In the TV series, ‘Porridge’ the prison officers were consistently portrayed as idiots, and the prisoners as those with brains and balance. It is an image that hasn’t helped the women prison officers protesting over working conditions at

London’s Holloway Prison, in particular. Theirs is not a popular cause. Yet consider the difficulties they face. One new feature of contemporary British society is the emergence of a class of women criminals who are more active in major crimes, more violent and more numerous than ever before. They have graduated from sewing stocking masks for bank robberies to carrying the guns themselves.

It is a fact that assaults by women prisoners on prison officers are often more violent and dangerous than those that take place in male prisons. Further, the women prison officers at Holloway, who are from good homes, usually suffer a drastic fall in their standard of living in expensive North London. There are no, or few quarters for them and they end up in bed and breakfast accommodation. They have an excellent club within the prison, but this is not the same as having a satisfactory home.

I have always felt that the Prison Officers’ Association formed to solve such problems, has been too much on the defensive. It has consistently failed to get their case across. Much of the trouble is that prison officers feel they are treated as second class citizens. Any complaint by a prisoner is instantly taken up by one or other of the organisations who cater for them, or the press, but the prison officers’ complaints seem to get lost in the bureaucracy. Of course, they are heavily weighed upon by the Official Secrets Act as well.

It is now more than 60 years since an Act of Parliament designated them as “Prison Officers”, but the general public and, alas, many people in the legal profession, still call them ‘warders’. The truth is, they have a statutory duty not only to contain their charges but also to attempt their rehabilitation. The fact that the prisons are so desperately over-crowded, and the Prison Service so over-stretched, means that rehabilitation has had to take somewhat of a back seat. But that is no reason why these people should be called by a name which is incorrect, and which perhaps unconsciously − indicates an attitude of superiority towards them.

It does not take much to dispel this prejudice. For many years, I have made a point of including prison officers and their wives and husbands in parties which my wife and I have given. I am godfather to the daughter of one prison officer who serves in the North of England, and for many years gave the prison officers at Lincoln the right to fish freely on my private water on the Trent. I believe that society, in general, should reconsider its attitude towards the Prison Service.

When you get to know them, prison officers are little different from any other professional people. Of course, not all of them are good; but many of them are caring and compassionate, some with degrees, some religious, others with a lifetime of service to the Crown and holding decorations from the Queen.

Their personal influence has helped to straighten out many a prisoner. I have always maintained – in the teeth of Home Office opposition – that the prison officers know far better than any parole board when any particular sentence has reached its optimum effect. No member of the House of Commons is specifically charged with attempting to look after the interests of prison officers; the police and the prisoners have their own very vocal representative. It seems to me that this is a gap which could, and should, be filled.

I believe that the Great British public is all too aware of the importance of prisons in our crimeridden society. Yet it is ironic that they have such low regard for the people who run the service. Nearly 2,000 prison officers were recruited in 1987 and 500 new officers will be posted to prisons this month. They have a vital job to do and it is time we gave them the goodwill and support they deserve.”

By Judge Michael Argyle 12th August 1988.

I am sure POA members will find this article thought-provoking, I certainly did and intend to raise it with Ministers, the employer and the media.


Steve Gillan
POA General Secretary