2018 – 031 Why is the UK Prison Service in such Chaos?

From an ex Prison Officer.

Birmingham prison was always regarded as a militant prison and the government/prison leaders did not like it at all and so jumped at the chance to break it up by privatising it (I am surprised the same thing didn’t happen to Liverpool). The thing is Birmingham was a good prison, a hard prison where staff were a dominant force resulting in a well run prison. Therefore it is ironic how the government have now taken it back and the talk is how we need to introduce more ex service staff and tougher regimes which is about to be introduced in several prisons in the north midlands area. This is a complete u turn. When I first started in the job half the staff were recruited from the services. Civvies like myself learned a lot from them from the discipline point of view. In time the authorities wanted to change the image of the prison service as didn’t want to upset the prisoners. I won’t deny that there were times when a prisoner got a bit of a hiding from staff but this was not done indiscriminately in what done because the prisoner had stepped way over the line. Prisoners knew this and it helped keep them in check. Then it changed. We were instructed that we must no longer wear our caps whilst on duty as it intimidated prisoners ( this was good for me as hated wearing it as it messed up my hair!) but this was a huge step in the softly softly approach which has led to today’s troubles. They stopped recruiting ex services and went firstly for a much higher female in take. Having a few female staff was good as they could offer something that the macho man could not but it became excessive. Eventually there was almost a 50/50 split between male and female which was always a dangerous recipe. At times the shift pattern would fall in such a way that only female staff were on duty. If you suspected a prisoner of having contraband on them we would deal with it swiftly, we would take the prisoner away immediately and give them a strip search (for the record we are no longer allowed to call it a strip search as it is offensive to prisoners so must call it a full search!!!) So if you only have female staff available then this action cannot be performed as only males can do a strip search.  Prisoners latched onto this, more so the Muslim prisoners who wouldn’t even allow a female to give them a rub down search. The rules stated that females could give male prisoners a rub down but eventually the authorities caved in and said that a female officer must not rub down a Muslim unless there was no other option which meant calling for a male officer on the other side of the jail. Due to this whatever contraband is concealed will be disposed of.

I worked at Bedford jail from 19** to 19** and it is best described as a mini Birmingham. We had the place screwed down, we run a tough regime and as a result had very few problems. Then the prison service introduced audits and as a result of the audit we were told that Bedford was a bad jail. Where was the failings? It was due to not having posters on walls pointing out help groups, it was due to us having metal tea spoons for stirring tea even though they were in an area not accessible to prisoners. There were many silly reasons like that whereas in reality the prison worked but as it had been deemed a failure things had to change. More time was spent getting posters and plastic spoons in place than was spent caring and dealing with prisoners. The eventual outcome was seen 2 years ago on TV when the prisoners posted their riot on line using their phones.

As ex service staff were no longer being employed it meant civvies were learning from civvies and I am sorry to say that we recruited some proper lame ducks who were not prepared to challenge unruly behaviour. For those that were prepared to challenge they were worried to do so as they knew they didn’t have the back up of staff anymore, no longer did we all stick together. Should an allegation be made that an officer had used excessive force then they were suspended and shown the door as this was no longer the image the prison service wanted. These days staff don’t have much back bone and are soft and easily go sick, for me this is due to the civvy background. For those of us that had a disciplined side we would attend work no matter how shit we felt and knew that our colleagues would support us.

Another change in the service happened in the early 90’s when a fast track promotion scheme was introduced so that new starters could become a governor within two years. It was known as the accelerated promotion scheme (APS). Up until then governors would have years and years of experience, they would have spent time as a Principal officer which was my rank. This rank was very respected by officers and governors and they always came to you for advice (in subsequent years this rank was disbanded and this led to further chaos in prison as staff did not know who to turn to for advice and support. More recently they realised yet again what a mistake they had made and re introduced this rank under another name but by then it was too late as the likes of me had left and so they had to fill the vacancies with staff of limited experience). As for the APS it worked ok at first because those staff on that scheme had experienced governors and Principal officers around them to feed off but in time most governors had limited experience and they made all their judgements based on what the new prison bible said they should do rather than basing decisions on experience and what was best for a positive outcome.

When the soft approach described above started we all warned against it and all said it would not work but as we were disciplined we got on with it and did what we were told. Many years down the line we were proved correct hence the mess the service is now in. Sadly unless there is a radical change things have gone to far and we will never get control back in our prisons. As I mentioned they are going to try a harder line in some north midland prisons but this will not work because the prisoners will create and cause sufficient damage or violence that they will secure a move to a prison in another area. For it to work it needs to be across the board, it needs harder staff employed and it needs a very firm hand including the odd prisoner being on the wrong end of excessive force. But this won’t happen and the problems in our prisons will continue.


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