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This year has given the service the unexpected opportunity to formulate safe, decent prisons where purposeful activity can replace pointless regimes, ensuring those in our care are given hope and those who supervise are supported when they challenge poor behaviour. Reform and rehabilitation must be meaningful words not political headlines.
As the year nears its conclusion it would be easy to think that our prisons have become safer places to live and work purely based upon the restrictions we imposed back in March. Although that played a part it must also be recognised that the herculean efforts of frontline staff, combined with a partnership working approach from the POA both nationally and locally, with senior leaders and the Government, have now given us the opportunity to devise safer regimes that encompass purposeful, meaningful activity as opposed to the age old assumption that time out of cell simply for the sake of being unlocked was the way to go.
If we are truly to make our prisons places of rehabilitation, then prison reform must be a priority for Government and the requisite funding must be allocated. A modern, fit for purpose prison estate in the public sector would go some way to ensuring prisoners could address their offending behaviour, learn new work skills and enter society with hope. It would be good if we could enjoy modern prisons on the same level as our private sector colleagues.
IMPROVEMENTS IN SAFETY
The pandemic has reinforced to those in charge what the POA have been advocating for years. Unlock smaller numbers of prisoners who access purposeful regimes and have sufficient staffing levels in place to meet their needs and to cope with any conflict that may arise. Much better to supervise 30 prisoners with 4 staff than 120 prisoners.
If we are truly to reform our prisons, then we must ensure that we have full time work or education spaces for every prisoner in every prison. Those who need the basic key skills to progress and build confidence must be allowed to do so in our education departments that can offer so much if budgets do not get cut. Our workshops must be places that offer full time working providing skills that give prisoners the opportunity to gain qualifications that enhance employability upon release. At the moment we simply do not have the capacity or investment to facilitate this.
Imagine a prison where every prisoner works or attends education for at least 30 hours per week. Where the minimum wage is paid and a prisoner learns meaningful skills or is educated to a standard that increases their employability. There would be an opportunity for those earnings to be divided equally between the victim surcharge, private spending and a savings account. I would much rather have prisoners being released into a job opportunity or further education with a lump sum of savings to access than being released with no hope, a discharge grant and wondering where they will sleep. It can be done if there is a will, desire and the investment to do so.
The pandemic has given staff the opportunity to do their job the way they have always wanted to. Those vital staff prisoner relationships have been forged and the stability of the regimes has ensured that prisoners are subject much less to threats and intimidation, whilst the supervision of smaller groups has provided a more substantial staff presence. The bullying and intimidation must be tackled if we are to continue with the improvements in safety and staff must be supported when they robustly challenge non-conformist, anti-social, violent individuals. The cessation of an incentive scheme means there are no consequences for poor behaviour.
One of the main concerns of the lockdown surrounds the potential long-term effects on everybody’s mental health. That lack of social contact for both prisoners and staff must not be left unnoticed. Not being able to hug loved ones on a family visit or see family members outside of work will have an adverse effect. The effects of self-isolation cannot be ignored. We must adopt good practice and ensure mental health support is available on our wings for prisoners when the need arises and is accessible to staff when they require it. POA members have an abundance of support available to them if they need help. Prisoners rely on the healthcare provider. Maybe it is time to consider a peer mentor scheme that addresses mental health so we can all help each other.
Part of any prison reform must include the terms and conditions of prison staff. We must secure a retirement age of 60 and ensure all who work at the frontline are paid the same wage for doing the same job. The disparity between F&S and closed terms pay can only be rectified if the employer admits we need to negotiate a completely new, fit for purpose pay structure that adequately rewards staff, enshrines contractual increments and places everybody on the same pay. Although I agree that the pay scales are unfair, it is not illegal to have staff on different pay and terms and conditions. A retirement age of 68 is neither practical nor acceptable. Our workforce makes up a minute percentage of the civil service pension scheme and we deserve to be treated uniquely.
As we look into an uncertain future, I wish to conclude by passing on my sincerest thanks to all POA members who work within our secure settings. You have all done an amazing job and deserve every accolade that comes your way. I have managed to visit many prisons and cannot praise you enough.
Take no note of those who criticise. You have placed yourselves at risk to save the lives of those in your care and you have done so admirably. I will continue to support you and ensure your concerns are addressed.
I wish you, your families and friends the very best for the future.
Unity is strength.
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.