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Safe prisons are within our grasp if there is a genuine will to do so from senior managers within the service. Already I can feel the rush from certain Governors to race back to pre-COVID-19 regimes where prisoners are unlocked for the sake of satisfying Prison Inspectors, but in reality, all some prisoners do is get bored, hang around landings and settle old scores, bully, and tax each other whilst confronting, abusing, and attacking the beleaguered staff that are attempting to do a professional job in the midst of depleted staffing figures and excessive hordes of angry, disrespectful individuals.
If we ever had an opportunity to make our prisons safe, now is the time and we must not let it pass.
GIVE STAFF ON THE FRONTLINE THE OPPORTUNITY TO DO THEIR JOB
The service has commissioned a ‘lessons learned’ report into what was positive and worked well and what was negative and did not. The usual suspects are involved with heavy input from psychologists and prison safety leads. Of course, the real experts in this field are the frontline prison officers, who have bravely reported to work for the past 12 months despite all the life-threatening risks they have faced. As their voice I really do hope the frontline is listened to. Safe regimes are within our grasp but only if frontline staff get a say and senior managers listen and act.
The evidence is all too clear. Unlock smaller numbers of prisoners, ensure when they are unlocked, they have something purposeful and constructive to partake in, so they do not get bored or have the opportunity to enact violent crime. We must end the mixing of wings during activities to further reduce the potential for criminal endeavour. Give staff on the frontline the opportunity to do their job and make a difference. We can do so if we feel confident and are not overrun by excessive prisoner numbers.
If we are to really address offending behaviour, provide skills that increase employability and ensure prisoners physical and mental health needs are met then we must ensure they feel safe and have adequate staff resources to access should they need. Looking for a member of staff when 200 prisoners are running amok helps nobody. We must abandon target driven time out of cell figures and concentrate on constructive, safe, and productive regimes.
WE MUST ABANDON TARGET DRIVEN TIME OUT OF CELL FIGURES
A recent thematic report by HMIP highlighted that prisoners were reporting their mental health had suffered during the pandemic due to prolonged periods of lockdown. I have no doubt this is a concern, and we must address it. However, delve deeper into this report and you will discover that out a population of 79000 prisoners they had only interviewed 72. Hardly a convincing conclusion. The future of prison life will inevitably involve more time locked up if we are to promote safety. Whilst I accept the long-term mental health affects need to be addressed, we must remember that staff on the frontline and indeed our entire society have suffered mentally during the lockdowns. If we are to ensure that we address this amongst the prison population then having adequate staff and support services on site is a must.
I sometimes wonder what the reaction would have been amongst inspectors and reform groups if we had just carried on as normal. Allowed prisoners to access 9 hours a day unlock, go to work and education, not locked down at all. We would now be staring at thousands of prisoner deaths and getting condemned for not acting. Locking down has enabled us to prevent an estimated 3000 prisoner deaths and yet we still get condemned. We just cannot win. Funny how the critics never come up with solutions.
We must be mindful that locking our way out of a crisis is not the answer. Purposeful, busy, constructive regimes that address offending behaviour, increase employability, give access to family links and harbour positive staff/ prisoner relationships must be a future blueprint.
LOCKING OUR WAY OUT OF A CRISIS IS NOT THE ANSWER
The recent announcement by the Government that key workers including frontline public servants will not be prioritised for vaccinations is yet another kick in the teeth for prison officers. We now have to accept that as well as not being a priority within the most volatile and disease transmissible work environment in the United Kingdom, we must also accept a pay freeze. Despite the support of our Secretary of State and Prisons Minister it seems that prison staff on the frontline are now viewed as an expendable commodity. Denying us a pay rise, knocking back pay recommendations and now placing us further at-risk highlights just how much contempt this Government treats its loyal public servants. It could have been so easy to vaccinate everybody in a prison on one given day. All frontline staff deserved this concession. Our members will not forget this decision by the Government. My biggest concern as we come out of the pandemic and return to some sort of normality in our communities is the aftereffects of Covid on staff. The toll this has taken is yet to be recognised and we must not underestimate the aftereffects. I know our members are burnt out and have endured months of monotony and worry. As well as keeping prisoners and patients alive they have had to contend with the anxieties of keeping themselves and their loved ones safe and healthy. Many have suffered the virus whilst some of our colleagues have sadly succumbed to the disease. All this coupled with the inability to access quality leisure time or foreign travel enabling us to recharge and spend time with our families will undoubtedly adversely affect our mental health. We must continue to support each other and make use of every initiative we can if we feel it is getting too much to cope with. Please do not suffer in silence. There are support services available for all members which can be accessed via the POA website.
Now that the pension consultation has ended, and the Government have concluded their proposals we are left with many unanswered questions. Although we are content with the deferred choice option that enables us to choose where we place contributions for the discriminatory 7-year period upon our retirement I have to wonder what the Government class as an ‘overpayment.’ Everyone in a civil service pension scheme has paid increased contributions since 2012 based on their gross annual salary. We are now paying 5.45% into our schemes whether we are in Alpha or a legacy scheme. In 2022 we all go on Alpha, even those on reserved rights. So where have we all overpaid? I expect there are now many members thinking they are due a massive lump sum due to an overpayment, but I am very wary. We will of course seek clarification but I would encourage any member with a question about pensions to submit them to the following e-mail address so we may get answers and produce a specific pensions Q&A circular. Questions to email@example.com.
YOUR CONTINUED PROFESSIONALISM AND BRAVERY WILL NOT GO UNNOTICED
Finally, as time progresses, and we eventually reach normality I would welcome invites to address members at branch meetings. It is important to me that I pass on my sincerest thanks to you all and update you on national issues. It also gives me an opportunity to remember our colleagues who have passed. Your continued professionalism and bravery will not go unnoticed and I will ensure those in power do not turn us into the forgotten heroes. Each and every one of you are a frontline hero and deserve every accolade for the sterling work you carry out.
Stay safe, look after each other and until next time, 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.