The Role of a Prison Officer


The POA has been representing Prison Officers since 1939 and throughout that period it has seen the role of prison service employees evolve from a turn key to that of a custodial officer responsible for assisting with the process of rehabilitation of offenders.

The introduction of private sector prisons has done little to support the criminal justice system. In fact the POA believe the only thing it has done is drive down the unit cost of staff and has had no benefit to offenders or in reducing re-offending.

The introduction of a third sector, the voluntary sector, may or may not impact on the service. The POA firmly believe that all prisons should be under public ownership and prison officers should take the lead role in the delivery of all programmes and work on a daily basis with offenders to create and build a stable relationship. The voluntary sector should only be used to support the work of officers and not as a cheap replacement.

The prisoner/prison officer relationship is the key, to safe, decent and secure prisons of all categories and serves to ensure the public is safe and remains confident in the criminal justice system.

The rising prison population is placing extra pressure on prison officers as they try to address offending behaviour and reduce re-offending, but building Titan Prisons, which will line the pockets of private companies, will do nothing to address our current crisis.

The Role of a Prison Officer

Is there such a thing as the ideal prison officer? The POA doubt very much if there is such a thing, each officer fits into the establishment team like the piece of a jigsaw, playing a key role in the face to face management of offenders. However, it is fundamental that they are all trained and empowered to deliver the work that is demanded of them. Unfortunately, in the last twenty years the training for officers has been eroded and is inadequate to properly train staff for the professional work required of them.

In the last twenty years the role of a prison officer has changed from that of a supervisor or guard to that of a multi skilled manager of offenders. Officers have to fulfil the role of teacher, trainer, welfare officer, agony aunt, listener, enforcer and supervisor. Their work continues to evolve to ensure the demands of the service are met and re-offending reduced. It is no good sending someone to prison with drug and alcohol problems for example and then sending them back to society unless we have addressed those underlying factors and put in place support mechanisms for their release.

The role of a prison officer is varied but it has some key elements that all officers must be able to deal with to be able to perform the work asked of them and to develop their career:-

1. The day to day work, which involves violence and other risks;

2. The officers have to be able to perform C&R;

3. The officers have to be able to perform First Aid;

4. The officers have to write reports;

5. The officers have to work with and understand offenders, including their religious beliefs and diverse backgrounds;

6. The officers have to deal with drug and alcohol dependant offenders.

7. The officers have to deal with sex offenders who have abused children and others from society and often been abused themselves;

8. The officers have to deal with young offenders who have their own unique problems in addition to those presented by adult offenders;

9. The officers have to deal with the old and infirm, offenders starting long sentences, and those coming near to release;

10. Officers have to deal with terrorists and people who do not believe they should be in prison;

11. Officers have to deal with the effects of self inflicted injuries, deaths and violence amongst the prisoners themselves and against staff;

12. Officers have to deal with fires;

13. Officers have to deal with being stigmatised and institutionalised;

14. Officers have to manage offenders with serious mental health issues;

15. Officers have to deal with the bereavement of offender’s family and friends; 16. Offices have to deal with the security of offenders and the public;

17. Officers have to deal with the public everyday and other agencies as necessary;

18. Officers have to deal with thousands of polices and procedures that come with the job; and

19. Officers have to prosecute offenders if they breach prison rules and defend their actions in front of an independent body.

Would you do all of this for £17,744 per annum?

Prison Officers are required to work with other agencies in a multi disciplinary approach to address offending behaviour and should not just be seen as a guard or security officer. The role of the officer must be seen as part of the essential services to society; a valuable and cost effective part of public services. A return to national recruitment will be a major step forward in addressing recruitment and commitment to the service.

It is vital that all prison officers have a good command of the English language and have good written and communication skills. The emphasis in recruitment, however, should be on the individual having the right qualities for the role and not on having the right qualifications. Prison Officers must be strong willed, supportive of colleagues and offenders and have the ability to demonstrate empathy when necessary without compromising their role.

The role of a Prison Officer is a specialist role and we require a remuneration package that recognises the very varied work which must be undertaken on a daily basis to ensure prisons are fit for purpose.

The training of all prison officers and indeed any worker is pivotal to a successful prison service. The removal of mandatory training for officers was a retrograde step and this needs to be reintroduced so that the key elements of a prison officer’s work is developed and managed.

The training in relationship building needs to be enhanced rather than being left to chance and classed as on the job development.

Specific training for the juvenile, female, open and high security estates is basic and needs to be enhanced once the officer is established at a prison but this should not deter the Prison Service from providing such initial training at the colleges. We would welcome a tailored training programme for all officers in the first year of service delivered on site alongside the current NVQ. To facilitate this, the non effective element of profiles and shift patterns needs to be addressed. Over the past five years three independent reviews have been undertaken of the non-effective element of profiles and the recommendations were that they should be increased from 20% to anything up to 28%.

The current NVQ’s have demonstrated the way forward but these are achieved on the job and should be a specific target under training and development. We are told that the achievement of better training in the current climate is difficult due to the pressure on budgets and staff shortfalls. We believe, however, the true contributing factors for better training not being delivered are ineffective systems to cover foreseen and unforeseen shortfalls and the lack of will from management.

A prison officer must have a clear understanding of an offender’s background and what was the cause or were the causes that led to the imprisonment. This is a key area of staff training. If we can’t understand these difficulties then we will always struggle to release the offender back into society with minimal risks of re-offending.

The creation of National Offender Management Services (NOMS) has had no positive impact on frontline staff. It is another level of bureaucracy that was unnecessary and costly. The ethos of end to end management of offenders is fine but society has already failed every prisoner when they receive a custodial sentence.

The Workforce Modernisation Programme was a missed opportunity to look at the functions of each individual prison to ensure they are fit for the challenges that our society faces today and in the future. This could have ensured that we had the most cost effective prisons delivering the best quality service in respect of addressing offending behaviour and reducing re-offending. Unfortunately NOMS and the Prisons Board were only interested in saving money and not looking outside of the box. The negotiations, or lack of them, demonstrated to the POA that short term monetary gain was the only thing on the agenda.

The prison service is not an effective employer. It costs approximately £20,000 to train a prison officer and the number of leavers in the first 5 years proves that something is wrong. Nothing has been done to address this revolving door issue.

The prison service as a career is not as attractive as other public services but it could be with the right makeover. The salary is too low compared to the police and fire and rescue services. The benefits provided to prison officers loyally serving the crown also need to be addressed.

Through no fault of prison officers the public profile of officers and staff working in the NHS is at polar opposites. Prison Officers are stigmatised, so much so that they can’t walk down most high streets in uniform and they have to be careful where they live for the same reason.

The public perception of prisons and prison officers has to be addressed. The public needs to understand that prisons are no longer places of incarceration but places of education and rehabilitation. The Prison Service needs to promote the professional work carried out by Prison Officers. The Prison Service is quick to publicly condemn the few who may misbehave in order to protect its own image without giving much thought to the damage done to the public image of prison officers. The focus should be on building a professional and positive public image of Prison officers and not party politics and self protection.

The trust and confidence of staff in the management of the service has to be restored. It is no good asking staff to buy into goals and targets when they feel that they are a number; commodities for management to abuse, bully, intimidate and threaten.

To enhance its appeal there needs to be investment in continuous training so that staff are given an individual training plan which is tailored to their needs and ambitions, in staff development so as to actively encourage development and promotion and in an appropriate remuneration package that properly reflects the very diverse and demanding role carried out by prison officers, mostly in very difficult circumstances. The current economic climate may be used by some as a reason or excuse for not providing additional funding for training and development but it is clear that those who succeed in times of economic downturn are those who look to the future and invest in their staff so as to properly equip them to achieve the long term aims. Those who fail are those who don’t invest in their staff and look at making a short term saving to their bottom line figure. Prisons must be about addressing offending behaviour, not making profit.