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The National Executive Committee met on 15th December 2021 to consider their response to the White Paper that had been launched in Parliament and published on the 7th December 2021.
The Prisons Strategy White Paper can most charitably be described as a missed opportunity to tackle the escalating prison crisis, and least charitably as a cynical smokescreen to hide an authoritarian lurch to US-style mass incarceration and cut-price labour – a very British prison-industrial complex. While spinning “the biggest prison building program in more than 100 years” as a way to improve public protection, the strategy contains next to no credible solutions to the multiple problems plaguing our existing estate, which have made rehabilitation impossible and led to record levels of reoffending.
Unusually for a White Paper, the document contains very few direct legislative proposals but instead asks numerous “consultation” questions – many along the lines of: “Do you agree with our vision?” Old ideas from previous papers are endlessly repeated and recycled throughout the 76 pages of vague aspirations and feel-good gimmicks, such as “resettlement passports” and workforce drug-testing – yet key drivers of violence and instability like widespread squalor, and the collapse in staff retention, morale and experience are glossed over or ignored.
Worse, while lip service is paid to the need for “crucial changes” and to “keep our staff safe”, there is no recognition that Government policies over the past decade have caused the current crisis, including huge austerity cuts to staffing and other resources leading to the degradation of pay, terms and conditions, a hemorrhage of experience, and the surge in violence, especially against staff. The Paper’s headline pledge to recruit 5,000 new officers seems extremely optimistic in light of the current recruitment and retention crisis and a complete lack of ministerial interest in the real reasons behind the record resignations, from poverty pay to an unrealistic and cruel pension age of 68.
The long-promised Prisoner Education Service gets a few mentions but with no real detail apart from praise for the potential of in-cell technology – undoubtably a game-changer in rehabilitation and the incarceration experience more widely, but one which seems set to continue to be controlled by privateers who naturally want to run these new platforms for profit.
One glimmer of hope, however, is recognition that “mass unstructured social time can make some prisoners feel unsafe and can inhibit the ability of staff to manage risks of violence and bullying”, a key lesson from the pandemic that the POA has consistently highlighted, as did then-Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland in July when he insisted there could be “no going back to pre-Covid regimes”. But running smaller-scale regimes with higher staff-to-prisoner ratios will be at the discretion of Governors rather than required by national policy, and the strategy shows no understanding that such initiatives need significant staff investment and so will be simply unsustainable with current staffing capacity.
Very little in this White Paper requires primary legislation – the only mentions being proposals to bring forward release dates by a day or two to avoid Friday’s, and to strengthen the powers of scrutiny organisations – but the buried pledge to “deliver the right prison places in the right locations” raises the possibility that new laws will be introduced to over-rule local authority objections to new prison builds – powers this Government might be keen to secure because, beyond the six new prisons currently planned, the strategy seeks “to increase our resilience in the system” with “a pipeline of accommodation beyond our current build program”, announcing an intention to “begin preparatory work … for future expansion”.
But what will all these extra prisoners do all day? The White Paper calls for “opening up the estate to employers” to “deliver a step-change in the number of prisoners who work in prison” – although it seems likely that new legislation will be needed to “create a presumption in favour of adapting the prison estate and regime to facilitate work in prison for appropriate prisoners”. And, as important as a “sense of satisfaction from doing a proper day’s work” must be to prisoners, it seems unlikely that a minimum wage of just £4 per week will mean “they can earn a wage that will help them buy the things they need in prison and save for their release”.
Praising Officers as “hidden heroes”, the strategy commits to making “the Prison Officer role one which is understood and valued in society in the same way that police and other core frontline roles are”. But it concedes that attrition rates are simply “too high”, which is “causing an unsustainable level of turnover in the system” leaving “new staff feeling unsupported, contributing to a vicious cycle of staff dissatisfaction and lack of retention”. And even the prison service’s new “retention framework”, referenced admiringly in the White Paper, admits that poor pay is a key driver of attrition and accepts that “there are limits locally in what [Governors] can do to improve pay and reward”. In other words, the solutions are well understood – it’s just the political will that’s lacking.
To give some context, the Government recently rejected the full recommendations of the Prison Service Pay Review Body for the third year running. Central to this expert advice is a £3,000 pay rise for frontline entry-level officers to stem the rising tide of resignations, but ministers claim this is “unaffordable”. The POA are now seeking an appeal in the Court of Appeal5 regarding this particular issue.
Official figures show that over 86,000 years of cumulative prison officer experience have been lost over the past decade, and even the White Paper admits that the number of officers leaving the prison service each year is increasing. In these circumstances, commitments to train and retain an extra 5,000 officers without paying them properly is not a strategy – it’s wishful thinking. It’s completely unreasonable to expect officers to work in such a hostile and dangerous environment for low wages until they are 68 years of age, and it’s no wonder that many believe an annual fitness test that takes no account of age or gender is in reality designed to stop them from ever claiming their full pension. No wonder morale is low when officers are made to work the landings late into their sixties and then are penalised for failing an unfair and arbitrary fitness test.
The strategy contains warm words about “transforming the prison officer role” while “listening to our staff to understand how we can improve their wellbeing and provide safer and more fulfilling workplaces where they feel valued and supported”. Key to this will be “improved training, supervision and qualifications”, while “a more bespoke approach to recruitment, retention and training for those working with specific cohorts across the women’s and men’s estates” is also proposed. Due to their need to “continue to learn, develop and stretch themselves”, experienced officers, who are described as the “backbone of the prison service “, will have "monthly 1-1 conversations with more junior members of staff to share jail craft”.5
There will also be a new “suite of learning modules” for officers, including training on “education and skills requirements to improve prisoners’ literacy and numeracy levels and prepare them for the workplace” and “adapting the prison regime to enable employers to establish a presence inside prison to employ prisoners”. Will officers be expected to be teachers and sweat-shop supervisors as well as mentors, managers, constables, guards, mediators, turn-keys, therapists, nurses and more?
And what about the existing teachers and their new Prisoner Education Service? Apparently, there will be “two overriding strategic priorities” – namely “improving the numeracy and literacy of all prisoners” and “incentivising them to improve their qualifications to increase their prospects of finding work”. These are both admirable aims but involve very different types of teaching, alongside additional resources and a break with the current private commissioning model – none of which is proposed by this strategy.
There is, at least, an admission that the current education system is not fit for purpose. “Despite recent changes,” the White Paper insists, “the current quality of education provision is not good enough, with 60% of prisons in England receiving Ofsted grades of ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ over the last five years.” However, the proposed solution is to “work with our providers to improve the delivery and quality of training in prisons to drive year on year improvements to Ofsted grades, so they are much closer to those achieved by Further Education in the community” – another empty promise unlikely to be backed up by any new investment in education delivery.
One area that will see a boost, thankfully, is in-cell technology. There is no question that this could dramatically change learning and rehabilitation more widely, as well as help maintain and improve family engagement and, of course, promote stability and good behaviour when used as a reward or incentive. However, it is clear from the White Paper that the private sector is driving this technology without any democratic or public input – undoubtably for the purposes of maximising profit. Should virtual visits via in-cell kiosks be treated – and charged – as phone calls or in-person visits, which are of course free? Will Parliament or the public get to debate these issues before they’re decided?
Local and national private-sector employers will work with education providers and “new Education, Work and Skills Specialists” to “improve the prison education offer” and “design a curriculum focused on work” – while still aiming to “improve the numeracy and literacy of every prisoner”. And another stated aim is for “the majority of prisoners leaving custody and walking straight into employment on release from prison” – yet another unrealistic target from the ministry of wishful thinking.
In reality, it’s the probation service that’s responsible for keeping new releases on the straight and narrow. The new strategy makes no mention of the trauma of Transforming Rehabilitation – the failed probation privatisation experiment that caused untold misery, most of all for victims of the surge in serious further offences that many organisations, including Napo, warned would be unleashed once the profit motive undermined safeguarding and professionalism. Instead, it promises to “tackle the factors which lead to criminal behaviour” by “enhancing rehabilitation and resettlement provision both in custody and after release and strengthening the supervision of prison leavers in the community to protect the public”.
To address the scandal of homelessness among prison leavers, where many ex-prisoners are handed a tent and directions to the nearest graveyard on release, the White Paper extends the “new provision of temporary accommodation and support for up to 12 weeks after release” to all prison leavers. But it’s not Resettlement Passports new leavers need, it’s front-door keys – so where is the commitment to helping them onto housing benefits with deposits paid in advance to trusted landlords?
As well as expanding the use of alcohol sobriety tags, the strategy anticipates “a near doubling of the number of people on electronic monitoring from around 13,500 this year to 25,000 by 2025”. The Paper states that “MoJ and DWP will work together” over preparing Universal Credit claims before prisoner release in 15 prisons, which will involve rolling out “dedicated Employment Advisers, working alongside DWP prison work coaches and Working Advisers, to all resettlement prisons” over the next two years alongside new Employment Hubs, described as a “job centre in a prison” where “prisoners can find out about opportunities sourced by New Futures Network and other partners, as well as access support with applications”.
The understanding that “prisons cannot support rehabilitation unless they are safe, stable and secure” is to be welcomed, as is the pledge to “provide safer working conditions for staff”, but the proposed “new ministerial prison performance board that will hold the system and Governors to account for ensuring prisoners and staff are safe” sounds like another gimmick that will change nothing, as do the “Key Performance Indicators for prisons, and appropriate league tables, ensuring success is measured against our priorities: security and stability; substance misuse and mental health; and resettlement and family ties”. Worryingly, the crucial metric of “staff safety” seems to be missing from all the KPI lists.
The strategy concedes that “we cannot expect prison staff to carry out their roles to the best of their abilities or remain in the prison service if they do not feel safe at work” but claims the solution is that “prisoners who are violent towards staff will face the full consequences of their actions” – hollow words for any officer who has seen the CPS refuse to prosecute an assault because it wasn’t “in the public interest”. And although it’s encouraging to hear the Government recognise that “more can be done to improve the effective prosecution of crimes in prison”, will prosecutors really “prioritise serious crimes so that there are clear criminal consequences when these occur”? One simple way for ministers to send a clear message to staff that they’re on their side would be ensure that any and all attempts at “potting” – the vile practice of throwing urine, excrement or ejaculate at prison workers – will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and to support Earl Attlee’s amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill outlawing the connected offence of “facilitation of potting”, ie allowing one’s own bodily substances to be used in this kind of attack.
Unfortunately, the new “innovation taskforce with experts from the front line, health, psychology, in academia and third sector organisations” that will “bring together innovative thinking and best practice to address the drivers of violence” doesn’t inspire much confidence either. And while the White Paper recognises that “traditional wet-shave razors can be used by prisoners both as a weapon for assaults and to self-harm”, the proposed solution is to “trial the use of alternative options over the next two years” and, “where the evidence suggests that this is successful in reducing harm and violence, we are committed to rolling out alternatives across the estate”. But we don’t need any more trials to conclude that wet-shave razors are far more dangerous than electric ones – just ask the brave officer at HMP Swansea who was nearly killed after an unprovoked razor attack that split open his neck (see front cover of the Gatelodge Summer 2021 edition). Vapes are also being phased out “to reduce the incidences of fire”
Bizarrely, the strategy calls for “modern desktop computers, devices and software to benefit the people who work in our prisons”, which will “allow for increased productivity and a reduction in time wasted by users waiting for systems to boot up”. Why does it need a White Paper for prison staff to get new PCs, and just how long do their systems currently take to turn on.
Finally, the strategy looks at rolling out “an ambitious two-year programme of Future Regime Design” to let Governors “design their own regimes”. The “highest performing Governors” will receive “earned autonomy” and “greater flexibility to deviate from nationally set policies”. Worryingly this includes “greater freedoms to deviate from Prison Service Instructions and policy frameworks” as long as KPIs are met – which begs the question, why bother having PSIs in the first place if some Governors will be free to ignore them under a “light touch process with an assumption of approval”? Why will Governors be rewarded for hitting targets by being given the opportunity to break the rules? And why should it be left to Governors to come up with new, improved ways of running prisons that ministers haven’t thought of themselves? Not even a commitment to “continuing to drive empowerment across the system” should allow ministers to shift responsibility and accountability like this, no matter how innovative local managers appear to be.
The National Executive Committee on behalf of the POA membership will continue to campaign for a properly funded prison service that deals with recruitment and retention of staff. We will also campaign for policies that address offending behaviour and rehabilitation of prisoners rather than just window dressing and regurgitating policies that have failed in the past but dusted down once again and drafted with different words to make it look different. It is the policy of the POA to have a Royal Commission to look into how the Prison Service is run in England and Wales. A Royal Commission if a proper term of reference was agreed would allow a full public inquiry into the running of our service with the POA giving evidence as an interested party. Only by having a full inquiry with no stone left unturned will we get proper funding and a Prison Service that is fit for the future with a professional staff properly renumerated and producing clear outcomes on rehabilitation which could ultimately see a reduction in the prisoner population and a Prison Service run safely and securely in protecting the General Public.
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.