National Chair

Summer 2020 | 02.08.2020

Returning to chaos is not an option

MARKFAIRHURST.jpg

 

The realisation that an unseen enemy could indiscriminately destroy our lives suddenly became a reality


Nobody should be in any doubt whatsoever that the POA shaped the lockdown within our prisons. Thankfully, at last, both the government and the employer listened to our union and agreed that we had to severely restrict regimes to protect all those who inhabit our secure settings.

LOCKDOWN WAS WITH US

All those in power had serious concerns about how prisoners would react. To get so used to being unlocked, just for the sake of being unlocked, to lose contact with your loved ones in the form of social visits and to only be let out for essential activities in a very limited way would of course bring back thoughts of what had occurred in Italian Prisons during similar circumstances. We also had to contend with the so called prison ‘experts’ who so often take the form of reform groups or psychologists who have never walked in our shoes, complaining that human rights had been breached and we were implementing draconian unnecessary measures. For sure, in their eyes, mental health would deteriorate and self-harm would significantly rise. No way would we come out of this unscathed and we would be on the receiving end of a prisoner revolt and backlash.

It is testament to the professionalism, bravery and dedication of prison staff that we now see a controlled, well ordered, less violent and more stable prison estate despite the concerns of the critical few.

We await the statistical evidence during the lockdown period, but our own initial analysis would highlight a significant reduction in prisoner on staff assaults, prisoner on prisoner assaults, including in some prisons a dramatic reduction in self-harm incidents and a significant reduction in ACCT referrals.

We must learn lessons from this period and must ensure that we restrict prisoner numbers, particularly during unlock, to not only prevent further outbreaks but to ensure we maintain that stability and control we have regained. Having less prisoners unlocked but more staff available is the key to our success.

RETURNING TO CHAOS IS NOT AN OPTION

We have had the opportunity to press the reset button and we must not allow prison regimes to dictate levels of violence, selfharm, and misery. Regaining those staff prisoner relationships that have obviously been forged during lockdown must not be allowed to go to waste.

I have always maintained that if we are left alone to do our job we will succeed. Interference from so called experts is neither welcome nor necessary. This lockdown period has proved so.

Staff on the frontline in our secure settings deserve every accolade they receive for the commendable work they have done and I am proud of each and every one of them.

Annual Conference has been a victim of the National crisis and the NEC have made the difficult decision to cancel conference this year. We considered Public Health England advice and the need to prioritise everybody’s safety shaped our sensible and defensible decision. We shall come back bigger and better next year when we facilitate a 5-day conference. We must be mindful that large gatherings which include a wide spectrum of age groups and health conditions was simply not a risk we are prepared to take.

It pleases me that during this period the POA have been able to look after so many members. We have tried our best to regularly update you and we managed to secure a deal with Center Parcs to shield staff if they did not wish to live at home. This has proved to be a major success with over 150 POA members accessing this facility that we secured. It is a pleasure to work with such an ethical and community spirited company. Long may our healthy relationship with Center Parcs continue. I would like to thank members who resided at a site for their impeccable behaviour.

We also managed to secure extra funding from the Treasury to ensure staff on the frontline would receive financial reward for the risks they have taken. Although the final details were less than palatable for this union, we must put this into perspective. We are the only frontline public sector service who have received financial reward for working during this pandemic. This has come at a cost of tens of millions to the public purse.

We also ensured that the pressure we placed upon Government worked in our members favour when PPE was sourced for frontline staff. Our concerns were prioritised which enabled us to get vital supplies to our members at a time when the NHS were running out of supplies. This is a testament to the dedicated and committed work the NEC do on your behalf.

We have worked in partnership with both HMPPS and the Government. When faced with a pandemic that destroys lives all our differences are quite rightly cast aside and we must ensure we work together to get through this. I hope the positivity that surrounds our working relationships continues. We must build on the evident safety and control in our prisons to ensure we improve the working lives of our prison staff. Be in no doubt, we will continue to robustly defend and protect POA members in every workplace.

The country continues to recognise key workers with their applause every Thursday evening. It is a welcome gesture but for many key workers who are the lowest paid in society, a round of applause will not pay the bills or prevent them using foodbanks. If we are to truly recognise their worth, we must ensure that poverty wages, zero hours contracts and inadequate sick pay are a thing of the past. I fear that yet again the public sector will bear the brunt of Government measures to reduce the deficit and can see a pay freeze, reduced public spending and tax rises on the horizon. I hope I am proved wrong.

The way the NEC have been forced to work demonstrates the unity, team approach and value that exists.

Although we have been forced to utilise unfamiliar technology, we have managed to agree safe working practices and have secured funding for reward schemes that improve POA members lives. The lockdown period has produced a reduction in violence against staff and prisoners, and in some sites a major reduction in self-harm. Mental health, although always a concern, has been addressed. It is easy for reform groups to decry the ‘bang up’ regime and blame it on self-inflicted deaths, but historical data would suggest that the reason for such a tragic set of circumstances may not surround restricted regimes and is complex. The outcomes and specifics should be left to coroners and not the headline grabbing speculators. I know we do all that we can for the most vulnerable and deaths in custody affect us all. I will take this opportunity to remind members of the mental health support services we offer which can be accessed at nil cost. Full details are on our website. Please do not suffer in silence.

It will be good to get back to visiting branches and engaging with members, but until we are able to do so safely, we will continue to meet members needs however we can. You cannot beat face to face interaction!

As we work our way back towards business as usual, we must reflect on the positives. POA members have been recognised as key frontline staff who do a commendable job. I am not keen on the phrase ‘hidden heroes’, I much prefer ‘frontline heroes.’ No longer are we the forgotten service. We have had much media recognition and politicians from across all parties have praised us all for the job we are performing on behalf of society.

I would like to convey my solidarity on behalf of the POA to all those who fight injustice and prejudice throughout the world. We must continue to fight racism and inequality wherever it exists. As a union we must refrain from becoming insular and continue to support campaigns to end racism and inequality in all its forms. The POA will continue to support campaigns that eradicate all forms of prejudice from our society wherever in the world they exist. Protest is acceptable if it is peaceful. My solidarity is relayed to our police forces for the outstanding job they have performed in quelling disturbances at protests that were hijacked by a violent minority.

Finally, let us not forget our colleagues and their families who have succumbed to the virus. We will continue to remember them and honour them. We will erect a permanent memorial to all our fallen. I would like to take a moment to remember our colleagues who have lost their lives during this pandemic.

To those absent from work and to those who have been affected by Covid, I wish you a speedy recovery.

Until next time I salute each and every one of you. You are a credit to yourselves, the service, and this union.

 

Mark Fairhurst
National Chair

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