National Chair: Time to take back control

It’s certainly been a busy couple of months!

At a time when the government spin machine is in full swing and headline announcements have dominated the press, apparently, the Prisons Minister Rory Stewart is going to resign if prison safety does not improve.

Well, that’s another new prisons minister in post shortly then because the safety statistics keep telling us that violence is higher than ever and continues to rise. Prison officers are now being assaulted at a rate of 24 per day and investing 10 million pounds in just 10 prisons in an attempt to win back control and reduce violence is merely a pipe dream. A million pound extra per prison amounts to very little, whilst the other 108 prisons get nothing yet still suffer from similar problems. Let us not forget that it was Mr Stewarts Tory Government that destroyed this proud service with their savage cuts. Whilst the prison population continued to rise we were expected to carry on as normal with 7000 fewer experienced staff and an ever-increasing violent prisoner dynamic. Cuts have consequences and the consequences for our brave prison staff is a stark reminder that we cannot possibly be expected to work until we are 68 years old in the most violent and hostile workplace in Europe. If the employer and government actually listened to this union we would not be in such a mess. As soon as managers realise that control, order and discipline come before regimes, rehabilitation and rhetoric we will all be in a better place. All too often staff find themselves unlocking when there are no alarm bell responses in place or in adequate staffing in place to facilitate a full regime.


We seem to be trying too hard to satisfy government announcements instead of getting, as Rory Stewart says, ‘back to basics.’ To experienced staff this means a constructive and disciplined establishment with prisoners getting predictable time out of cell to access a regime but with consequences for poor behaviour. Merely keeping our prisons clean is not enough. We need support from senior managers when dealing with violence but instead we get suspended and investigated. We need sanctions for prisoners instead of appeasement and a lack of consequence for their actions. It’s time to take back control of our prisons. I know POA members are up for it but will senior managers be brave enough to support the frontline staff?

The starkest contrast I can give relates to a recent event in the press where a Lancashire Police Constable was praised publicly by his Chief Constable for dealing with a violent 14-year-old girl by slapping her with his open palm. His boss confirmed he was justified and used reasonable force. Now imagine that in a prison setting. Do you really think you would be exonerated and praised for delivering this technique on a prisoner?


The Pay Review Body recently submitted their recommendations to government. Despite the International Labour Organisation ruling that the POA should have pay review body recommendations implemented in full as a compensatory measure because we cannot strike, the government refused to do so. Instead of a 2.75% consolidated pay rise we only get a 2% pay rise. This is yet another below inflation award, which clearly demonstrates that this government are determined to treat public sector workers with disdain. The saddest fact about this award is that it is the highest pay award prison officers have had in the last 8 years! 2% is a high pay award! Whilst council tax rises at a rate of 6%, fuel costs go up and utility bills continue to sting, we are expected to be content with 2%. Is it any wonder that experienced staff and new starters alike are deciding to leave? No wonder we are all demoralised. Time and time again I have asked the employer to sit down with us and negotiate new pay scales that will align both closed grades and fair and sustainable so we can achieve pay parity and encourage retention. Time and time again the employer refuses to do so. They think that closed grades will transfer onto F&S because of schemes such as the advanced prison officer, but we are still in discussions about various proposals and until we get protections for staff nothing will change.

The PAVA project has now concluded and apparently the results are being analysed pending a decision by the secretary of state on the national roll out. I have been waiting for months to meet with Mr. Gauke to discuss this but for some strange reason he has still not obliged. My patience is now wearing thin and if this government think we are going to carry on viewing rising violence statistics without recourse they have severely misjudged the POA. We cannot accept a decision to not roll out PAVA. And we will not accept it.

PAVA spray needs to be rolled out nationally. It’s been a huge success and our staff desperately need this protective measure. I will not take no for an answer.


The reinstatement of HMP Birmingham into the public fold gives the POA an opportunity to insist that it remains there and the contract is ripped away from profiteers who care more about their share prices than they do about staff and prisoner safety. After reading the report into the riot at HMP Birmingham it is clear that the fault clearly lies with senior managers at the prison. It is a shocking account that confirms that ‘the disturbance could have and should have been prevented from escalating in the first 30 to 50 minutes;’ and ‘there where sufficient staff on the wings and in the prison to form a hold but the staff apparently felt unable to make decisions without a clear order so they withdrew and ceded control to the prisoners.


The most concerning conclusions involved senior managers at Birmingham insisting that staff ran a full regime at all costs, summed up with this finding which states ‘the ratio of staff to prisoners on a wing was unsafe – even to the point of there being just one member of staff left supervising an entire unlocked wing while colleagues had to attend to other duties.’

If ever there was justification for POA members to forget about unlock targets and ensure they work safely the Birmingham report is a true vindication of everything the POA is fighting for. Control, order and discipline has to be the bedrock of a safe, decent and rehabilitative prison culture. Safety first, everything else will follow.

It was also interesting to note that wing-based gym equipment, which the POA do not agree with, played a significant part in aiding prisoners barricade and break through gates.

This report could have been any public sector prison and highlights the dangers of management obsession with running regimes at all costs despite the lack of staff to do so.


If you don’t think it’s safe you don’t do it. We stick together and challenge poor decisions. We will support you. Do not work unsafely.

It’s time for prison officers to take back control of our prisons and it is time for managers to support us when we do. Work safely and look after each other.

All the best.

Representing over 30,000 Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, the POA is the largest UK Union in this sector, able to trace its roots back more than 100 years.