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The start to 2020, without doubt, has reinforced the fact that frontline prison staff, regardless of where they work, either public or private, special hospitals or escort services, work in the most hostile and violent workplace in western Europe without adequate protective mechanisms in place to reduce and negate risk.
If I hear the management speak of ’green shoots’ once more I will be in danger of being disciplined. You see, senior managers love to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the real issues. Instead they come out with some old bluff that the violence stats show a slight decrease the last quarter, so things are looking up! Apparently, this is the third quarter highlighting a decrease in violence. I would imagine that January 2020 will rip up their ‘green shoots’ and put them back in the garden bin with the knotweeds.
GIVE STAFF THE TOOLS THEY NEED TO DO THEIR JOB SAFELY AND EFFECTIVELY
Since the New Year we have seen a major terrorist attack in a high security prison that nearly resulted in the murder of an officer on duty. Having visited Whitemoor after the attack and having spoken to staff on scene who responded, it is clear that their bravery prevented the murder of a colleague. It is also clear, in their minds, that if they had been carrying PAVA, their injuries could have been prevented and the incident would have been subdued within seconds. The true horror of the incident I cannot divulge, but what is abundantly clear is that the terror threat in our prisons is prevalent and real. We now need an independent review into the management of terrorist prisoners in our jails, and more importantly, we need increased staffing levels, the cessation of lone working and we need to listen to frontline staff and give them the tools they need to do their job safely and effectively.
It comes as no surprise to me that just over two weeks later another major disturbance on a wing at Whitemoor was immediately subdued with the deployment of PAVA. What is the saying? The proof is in the pudding. Well this service needs the pudding ingredient of PAVA!
I am disappointed in our Secretary of State Robert Buckland, who has taken over 3 weeks to acknowledge my letter to him and offer me a meeting to discuss recent events. Even more disappointed that I still await that meeting. Why can’t we just respect our staff and issue them with the protective equipment they need? Funny how HMPPS run scared of legal challenges from human rights groups but are happy to attempt to impose adverse changes to frontline staffs working conditions despite the POA threat of legal action.
I just have one simple message: “Prison Officers have human rights as well and deserve to be safe at work. Stop pussyfooting around and issue PAVA and rigid cuffs”.
The violent incidents against staff continue to cause concern. The ferocity of attacks on staff at Whitemoor, Long Lartin and Bristol highlight the fact that no matter how much decency is shown to prisoners, no matter how many staff we have on the landings, no matter how great the interpersonal relationships are or how modern the living conditions, we are simply dealing with a different dynamic. Some modern prisoners care not about being addressed as a man, resident, Mr or first name terms. Some modern day prisoners simply have no respect for authority, live their lives by violence and do not wish to reform. If you doubt me ask yourself why the majority of segregation units are full and prisons struggle to transfer troublesome souls out.
The time has come to review our management of terrorist and violent offenders. If this means a purpose built jail for those who continue to display violence, so they are all housed in one space, and our segregation units are emptied, then so be it. We simply cannot continue to appease violent offenders and place staff at risk.
As for our terrorist and extremist offenders, the attitude of the employer is clear. They run scared of legal challenges and refuse to house those who staff highlight need separating. If this was inaccurate then ask yourselves why we only have one separation centre open but should have three.
The POA continue, despite the many obstacles we face, to succeed in influencing those in power. It is encouraging to see that the roll out of PAVA is accelerating, with targets being set to train staff once prisons have satisfied the criteria. The roll out in the high security estate is now a priority, and in one case, a relaxation of the set criteria. Well, if you can relax the key work element for one high security jail you can relax it for everyone. I would therefore urge all committees to adhere to POA circular 13/2020 for guidance and advice.
TOGETHER WE WILL MAKE OUR PRISONS SAFE
The recent publicity in the press surrounding mental health and the effect social media has highlights that many of us need support and continue to suffer in silence. The POA are working constructively with the employer to improve mental health services for staff and we should see funding made available and an increase in onsite support for staff very soon. Please do not sit alone in silence and bottle things up. Speak to your colleagues, access the support already available, do not suffer alone. Our mental health, considering the environment we inhabit, is more important than ever, so please look after each other.
As conference approaches I look forward to seeing those who attend. Continue to invite me into your prisons to address your branches and continue to engage with me whenever you feel the need. Remember, you are the union and we are here to serve you.
To staff recovering from assault, illness or injury I wish you a speedy recovery.
Until next time. Solidarity to you all.
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.