In response to a BBC Newsnight item around rising suicide rates in prison the POA would like to issue the following press release.

The POA have campaigned for many years for improvements to safety within our prisons.

Suicide and self-harm in our prisons is a very complex subject, there are many reasons a person takes their life whilst in prison.

Our hard-working members strive diligently to protect those in our care, however that struggle has been made more difficult for several reasons. 

Austerity measures in our prisons saw huge cuts to the MoJ budget, those cuts were too deep and too quick, the immediate result of those cuts were that Prison Officers who previously had the time to build relationships with the people in their care no longer had that precious time to get to know them.

Prison Officers spent all their shift simply trying to deliver a regime set against unrealistic and undeliverable performance targets. Many of our local prisons and training prisons suffered staffing cuts that were simply not safe for staff, and not safe for prisoners.

The operational environment in our prisons became desperate and dangerous, when the resource was removed the chaos switch was flicked to the on position and unfortunately in several prisons staff spent much of their time responding to incidents simply trying to maintain decency and the rule of law in our prisons, and this impacted on building caring relationships. 

Things have improved very slowly, but those draconian cuts resulted in 86,000 years of Prison Officer experience leaving the service, those that remained have become demoralised, new starter pay is critical to attract and retain professional Prison Officers and the Pay Review Body recognised that last year, but Government rejected the recommendation.

During this period, we also saw individuals with demanding and complex mental health issues being sent to prison because funded community-based support had become almost non-existent, so unfortunately their critical needs fell to a service that was at breaking point. The mentally ill should be diverted away from prison so they get specialist treatment.

Part of the austerity cuts that were applied to prisons impacted on prison security. Prisons were identified as a money-making opportunity by organised crime gangs, drug related debt and associated violence also spiralled, and many prisoners felt unable to confide in staff for fear of violent retribution from the organised crime gang or an unfavourable response from staff.

POA General Secretary Steve Gillan responded to last night’s BBC Newsnight article;

“It would have been good if the BBC had approached this union to seek the opinion of the rank-and-file officers who work -day in day out to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Every death in our prison system is an absolute tragedy for the family and friends of those who become so low that they feel the only way out is suicide. It also has a massive emotional impact on our members, it leaves scars and doubts for our members, some of whom never recover. We want to work positively with HMPPS and Government to deliver real tangible change, however that change will require significant investment from Government, firstly to undo the damage caused by their austerity, then to build a better operational environment where staff feel valued, and prisoners feel supported to address not only their offending behaviour but supported as individuals”.

POA National Chair Mark Fairhurst responded;

“Prison populations have grown massively, the number of people taking their lives increased, yet the number of front-line Prison officers has fallen. We work for an organisation that says it cares, we have campaigned tirelessly to remove razor blades from our prisons, they are very often the implement of choice for some very serious acts of self-harm and suicide, yet our employer has struggled to act with any sense of urgency. Even before Covid lockdown there were issues delivering staff training.

Staff training is a critical part of keeping people safe. HMPPS puts suicide and self-harm training in a category of work called the non-effective. This is training, that is key for our members and key for those in our care, it must be moved out of non-effective and built into our profiles of work, in far too many establishments it has become a nice to do if staffing numbers allow, that is not acceptable.

We want all critical training to be built into our staffing profiles so that our members receive these vital pieces of training. Covid lock down has given our members the chance to stop running round responding to incidents and start to rebuild relationships with prisoners. We are now at a critical point where we have the opportunity to move forward with controlled purposeful regimes that allow staff to rebuild the relationships that are vital to keeping everyone safe”.





For further information, contact:

POA Press Office                                                  020 8803 0255 Option 7

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.