General Secretary

August 2016 | 06.09.2016




Four ministers in six years with little cohesion in policy or direction. POA members want stability and consistency not policy being made up as being reactionary to the media. Government appear to want a Prison Reform agenda with very little detail and with the white paper on reform being delayed time and time again.

I wrote an article some years ago as a foreword for the Prisons Handbook. I believe if there is to be true reform of our prisons and not just a cuts agenda, then it needs to go back to basics and actually mean something. So I would ask the new Secretary to reflect on the very basics of our prisons and engage in a meaningful dialogue with the experts who deal with the day-to-day running of our jails and actually listen, because I am afraid the others didn’t, and we have been used as a political football in a point-scoring exercise that we have witnessed for far too long. The article I wrote is reproduced below, and I hope it is heeded:

My foreword written for the Prisons Handbook

A number of high profi le individuals in the past have been invited to do a foreword for the Prisoners’ Handbook, which is recognised by all as an extremely valuable and informative booklet that assists prisoners and their families, and I am delighted, as the first General Secretary of a trade union who represents Prison Officers and related grades, to be writing my view on what is needed within the Criminal Justice System to rehabilitate offenders and protect the public. Being General Secretary of the POA is never an easy task. I have been doing this particular role since May 2010 and believe during that time, the POA has had to modernise because the present time is totally different to anything any trade union has experienced probably since the 1930s. The role of any trade union is to protect and promote its membership and I believe POA members have probably the most challenging career within any occupation in the United Kingdom. Our members are recognised within the Criminal Justice System whether that be in prisons or the special hospitals as doing a sometimes dangerous and thankless task on behalf of the general public.

I joined the prison service some 24 years ago so feel qualified to assess whether our current system, which holds in excess of 85,000 offenders, is working or not. Having served at HMP Chelmsford, HMP Bullwood Hall and HMP Pentonville I feel that I am more ably qualified than any politician or pressure group to give an open and honest account of the English and Welsh prison system. I believe Scotland and Northern Ireland although I oversee that as General Secretary that there are more qualified individuals to determine the issues in respect of their systems.

All too often over the years law and order and prisons have been used as a political football which results in staff and offenders being on the receiving end from ill thought out policies that are seen as vote winners to get a particular party serving in Government. In my view that is not helpful for anyone in the justice system. I have never seen the Criminal Justice System as being rocket science but I am afraid politicians of all parties with the exception of a few well-meaning individuals who do actually care miss opportunity after opportunity in dealing with the real root and branch issues. For example, until such times as the root causes of crime are dealt with in an intelligent way then rehabilitation and a reduction in crime are merely pipe dreams. Most crime is related to drug abuse, alcohol abuse, mental health issues, social housing, education and decent jobs that give people hope. I do recognise there will always be a percentage of offenders who reject all efforts of help and will continue to offend against society and prison will be the only alternative for those individuals in order to protect the public, however it is a national scandal the amount of mentally ill individuals that are incarcerated without adequate interventions.

I hear politicians over the years announce new policies whether it is the Incentive Earned Privileges Scheme, through the gate, end to end management of offenders, working prisons, rehabilitation revolution. Let me be blunt, I have heard it all before and it is merely window dressing along with a sentencing policy that makes absolutely no sense and that very few prisoners understand. I am not even sure members of the public understand what happens when someone is sentenced and how long they serve before being eligible for some form of release, either through tagging or on licence.

What are the answers and what would I like to see as General Secretary of the largest trade union in the Criminal Justice System? I would like to see real commitment given to the drugs problem, not just in society but indeed, in our prison system. Drugs bring absolute misery for everyone. Instead of playing at it there should be adequate funding, education and training at school level − anything else is too late. Proper investment in inner cities to divert the gangs away from crime. Too many young lives have been wasted through drugs and knife crime, turf wars and crime syndicates. Early intervention not just by voluntary groups but I believe Prison Officers playing a role in the community and using ex-offenders who have demonstrated a trust and confidence to assist others in rehabilitation. Alcohol abuse also destroys society, communities and families. Most crimes are related to these two issues. If correct resources and early interventions are given appropriately then I am sure we would see a marked reduction in drug and alcohol-related offences.

Mental health has always been a major problem within our prison estate. Some of it is drug or alcohol induced and some not. Most Prison Officers will have come across an offender who should not be held in a prison because of mental illness. The training a Prison Officer receives is not adequate to deal with these individuals or their needs but Officers do their very best and obtain some miraculous results against the odds. I have always believed it is a national disgrace when I have come across the mentally ill in our prison system and I am afraid it is no better now than it was 25 years ago. It is no use whatsoever just putting individuals on medication and hoping for the best. Lord Bradley produced a report and the POA worked hard alongside him to influence this report. Politicians should take note of its contents and endorse it in full instead of pretending to accept its findings. Other reports such as the ‘Role of the Prison Officer’ which was produced by Sir Alan Beith was one of the best reports I had ever seen produced that gave a warts and all report of our prison system and what was expected of Prison Officers without adequate resources. I believe that brilliant report is lying somewhere gathering dust. Lord Justice Woolf after the Strangeways riots, stated that a prison rule should be adopted which stopped overcrowding and that each prison should operate at its Certified Normal Accomodation instead of locking up offenders two to a cell that is designed for one. That is not healthy nor decent for the offenders nor is it for Prison Officers. The reason politicians will not make that a prison rule is because of budget cuts. It is cheaper to overcrowd a prison instead of having decent conditions, which will be more conducive to Prison Officers being able to do their job of offender management and reducing offending.

A Conservative Government and then a Labour Government embarked on a privatisation agenda claiming it would make the whole system competitive and bring innovation and reduce re-offending rates. Simply there is no evidence that this has indeed happened. It could even be argued that since the first private prison came about, that was when the prison population started to increase. In 1993, there was a prison population of approximately 43,000 prisoners now 20 years later it stands in excess of 85,000 prisoners with more private prisons per population than anywhere else in Europe. Surely to have a system that appears to be warehousing individuals instead of dealing with them in a robust, fair and humane way is counter-productive. I am no economist but surely to save money in the prison system is to have a smaller prison population where individuals are not reoffending and coming back through a revolving door. The old saying ‘speculate to accumulate’ is true in the criminal justice sense. If money is spent in the right areas to prevent crime in the first place then surely the savings from having an over-crowded system will eventually come to fruition.

I am in favour of working prisons and proper educational facilities and offending behaviour programmes but I agree with Martin Narey an ex-Director General who stated that these programmes are most effective when they have Prison Officer involvement. Sadly, to save money it would appear the mantra appears anyone but a Prison Officer to save money.

One day the penny will drop with those who produce policy in that decent jobs, a proper education and decent social and affordable housing will steer some individuals away from a life of crime and stop them getting that fi rst criminal record which puts barriers in the way to obtaining a job. Let us be clear on this issue at interview stage it doesn’t matter who is the more capable, the individual without the criminal record is more likely to obtain the job from an employer. So why not invest in these crucial areas and intervene before it is too late. Most Prison Officers have had dialogue with offenders where we have been told it is the normal way of life for me “Guv” my family were all criminals because of where we lived, no jobs, no hope but this seemed a normal way of life. I am not suggesting for one minute that individuals who came from poor areas or from poor education ended up career criminals but percentage wise it is more likely.

It is not rocket science and if Prison Officers can see the problems with the system why can the politicians and the so-called experts not see or find the solutions? We seem to go around in circles with law and order and indeed the prison system. I still believe our system is one of the best in the world but if we are serious about addressing reoffending then politicians, voluntary groups along with the POA need to pull all the knowledge together and dare I, say it listen to ex-offenders for the right reasons to finally address recidivism. If the will is there then it can be achieved, but it is time for politicians of all parties to stop being macho on who can be toughest with offenders and bring some rational thinking to the table. The POA are willing and ready to join in those roundtable discussions because after all it will help to promote and protect our members along with those prisoners in our care and keep society safer.

Finally our prisons have always been potentially violent places and I have, along with my colleagues, witnessed horrific sights of violence with prisoner on prisoner and prisoner on officer and there can be no place either for prisoners being abused by a minority of staff. I don’t ever believe the violence will be totally eradicated but a concerted effort needs to be made and if the slogan “Zero Tolerance” to assaults is to mean anything then I hope this paragraph regarding it makes individuals responsible for their actions, and that may mean that Prison Officers can work in a more healthy and secure environment that is safe for both prisoners and staff.

I hope this foreword makes politicians of all parties realise that another way is possible in relation to our Prison System and that the POA have a major role to play in that process.

Steve Gillan
General Secretary