Skip Content

Howard League blog · 9 Aug 2019

Recruiting prison officers is about to get even tougher

I spent yesterday in a prison holding adult men. It is a complex place, with a wing holding men convicted of sex offences who have to be moved and provided with activities separate to the other wings, and another wing with vulnerable men who also have to be separated. The prison is twice as big as it should be, dilapidated and seriously in need of repair and investment. Despite this, I met enthusiastic, committed and thoughtful staff and managers, working hard to do the very best they could.

The point of this blogpost is to talk about staffing of prisons. The concerted effort to recruit more staff, to restore some of the number that were cut a few years ago, has meant that the prisons are desperate to recruit anyone and everyone. There is no minimum educational standard. The new recruits get a few weeks’ training and are put into prisons expected to carry out some of the most demanding work imaginable.

The attrition rate is high. Some recruits are clearly never going to stay, they are people who do the training simply to add to their CV or for a holiday job. Some simply cannot hack it when they are faced with the reality of the job.

More are being poached by the Border Force, which is conducting an aggressive recruitment exercise in readiness for Brexit. They pay more than prisons and it is a much less stressful job. Soon the police are going to be joining the competition in order to fulfil the prime minister’s promise to recruit 20,000 more officers. Prisons are bottom of the heap in that they pay less, expect more, train less, and have lower status in the eyes of the public.

Sixty per cent of the staff in the prison I saw yesterday had less than a year’s experience

This is not helped by the confusion around the role of the prison officer. They are expected to be a gaoler, a social worker, a health worker, a psychologist, a mentor, and a security guard and, sometimes, a cage fighter.

Many prison officers have barely completed secondary school and the service provides hardly any training. When Chris Grayling cut 40 per cent of the staff to save money, he also got rid of the managers and experienced staff. Sixty per cent of the staff in the prison I saw yesterday had less than a year’s experience. I met a new officer whose past experience had been working as a nightclub doorman.

I visited Tegel prison in Berlin some years ago, which was not dissimilar to the prison I saw yesterday, a big prison for adult men. Only Tegel was run by qualified psychologists, teachers, doctors, psychiatrists and the basic functions were carried out by people employed only to carry out security. I saw the opposite in Norway, where all prison officers are put through a vocational degree – something that Scotland is working towards.

Our hybrid model is just a mess. The service is asking the impossible from men and women who are not educated, trained or supported to carry out complex and demanding responsibilities. And things are going to get worse as the public sector competes to recruit tens of thousands of new people to fulfil administrative and security roles following Brexit. Prisons will not be top of anyone’s list.


  • […] Prisons are tough places to work. The attrition rate is high. Wages, however, are low. The Howard League for Penal Reform argues, rightly, that recruitment will get harder, since prisons are competing with police and the […]

  • […] Prisons are tough places to work. The attrition rate is high. Wages, however, are low. The Howard League for Penal Reform argues, rightly, that recruitment will get harder, since prisons are competing with police and the […]

  • Ollie says:

    As a serving officer with over 20 years in, I whole-heartedly agree with all of this report. If you have taken offence to it then I think you have misunderstood what has been said in it’s entire context. Nobody is saying we are uneducated in that fact they we are incapable of reading and writing etc, it is stating we aren’t educated in all the fields the service requires of us. We are supposed to just slip into a role that has many different elements, yes we can be the gaolar, we can unlock, lock-up, we can talk, well some of us, but a complex job dealing with very complex people with very complex issues isn’t something that all are capable of. I am not a qualified psychologist, social-worker, mental health professional, health care expert, legal expert, the list is vast. Yet we are expected to encompass all of these roles without the training. Our current recruiting campaign is nothing more than a “bums on seats” exercise, with new staff who some have absolutely no grasp of anything that is expected of them, its not fair on them, us, or the very people we are hoping to rehabilitate. This forgotten service relies on those committed staff to hold the whole mess together, with no real leadership, focus or goal. Jails are dangerous, messy, and fail all who sail within them, its as simple as that….

    • Paul W says:

      Well said, the article was well balanced and I agree with everything that was written. I have just taken early retirement after over 30 years in the service as a prison officer. I was just sick and tired over the last couple of years having to undo all the younger members of staffs’ mistakes. A lot of the time it is not their fault due to inadequate training and no older staff to mentor them in their new roles. Attrition rate in the first year was approximately 20%, My old prison was only half full of prisoners due to ongoing refurbishment and even then we couldn’t run the regime due to staff shortages

  • Westy018 says:

    Although I agree with a lot of what has been said, I find the authors opinion, that Prison Officers are uneducated, very offensive. Prison Officers put their life on the line daily. Society is far more violent and therefore a lot of prisoners are too. The discipline within the Prison system has diminished for both prisoners and staff. The boundaries are a lot more relaxed now, some worryingly so and some positively so. A middle ground needs to be found.
    When Chris Grayling cut staff he ruined the Prison Service. He ruined the chance of rehabilitation for a lot of prisoners. He ruined the chance of Prison Officers having a helping hand in that. Prison Staff are now turn keys. They do not have time for anything else. A wing of 180 men has only 6 officers to manage it – not the safest of environments for anyone. However these men and women do their very best to ensure everyone is safe. They enter cells and cut down prisoners that have hung themselves. They deal with people cutting their wrists, throats, legs and more. They deal with those that have severe mental health issues because there are not enough specialised hospitals to house them. daily they deal with being verbally abused, attacked, having urine and faeces thrown at/over them, spat at, punched, kicked, stabbed and much more.
    I could go on and on about the good work all prison staff do … so please do not offend us with your throw away comments

    • Ollie says:

      The report is 100% accurate, there is no offence taken if you read the report thoroughly and in context. The author is merely stating prison officers are not educated in many of the roles they are meant to be….

  • Janine Goodall says:

    I work in a prison as an OSG and feel that the comments made are completely valid, the job roles and staffing ratio are based on the prison , population of many years ago and not the complexity of the prison population now with higher rates of self harm ,suicide and violent incidents, pay ,terms and conditions do not reflect the value of employees leading to an overall devaluation of the service.

  • GK says:

    I did nearly 30 years as a Prison Officer. I was so fed up with all the new initiatives but the basics weren’t been done and with me having to micro manage new inexperienced staff who were being demoralised by experiences prisoners. If you pay peanuts you don’t get the right caliber of staff

  • Chris says:

    Absolute load of rubbish, I did 20 years in, you don’t need academic people you need people with life experience not paperwork qualifications. Perhaps if staff weren’t treated like trash they would stay. All Gonernors want to do is show how quick they can sack staff for use of force, bend over backwards for prisoners by rewarding bad behaviour.
    We should recruit from the armed forces, give them a chance when leaving that career and have people with discipline and a sense of reality.

  • Darren Gilson says:

    Frances i applaud your efforts to air your views but like you said we will always be bottom of the list. I agree with everything you say. I can only speak of the prison i work at and as a supervising officer, i am expected to manage 5 wings sometimes on my own on a regular basis. I would suggest that maybe you look into the SPDR system as staff are not fully supported fully by management as we often get threatened by management by putting staff on Poor Performance measures without using the spdr system which is there to indentify where staff need to develop, where they feel they need to develop and set SMART goals to enable this to work for them. It seems to be here is the task, get on with it and if you dont you will be on poor performance. I have done 27 years and i offer confidential help to any member of staff off my own back. Please keep up the good work because it can be a thankless task at times. I appreciate what you are trying to do. If i can be of help please do not hesitate to get in touch.

  • Billy Jeffery says:

    Your absolutely right Frances it is a very difficult job dealing with the needs of the most complex, violent,vulnerable, disfunctional and unwell members of society. Ideas turn into policy which have not been discussed with those staff and managers who are involved with prisoners on the ground floor.

  • John Charlesworth says:

    I have just taken early retirement from prison service, the reason I went early was bad management, I worked as a trainer on the National response group training Search dogs & training staff in first aid.
    Over the years I built a good relationship with the police bringing our training together as this will be a requirement from January 2020.
    My complaint is that managers are being put in roles that they know nothing about, it’s a case of train handlers as fast as you can so we can show our numbers tally, I’m sorry but I do have a standard and training dogs & staff to search for firearms & explosives is a serious job.
    Personally I would like to have continued for another 7 yrs but because of the bad management I could no longer be part of a group of amateurs.
    Sorry to drone on.

  • Rob says:

    Victorian prisons, Victorian pay scales and Victorian training. And managers who have never walked a landing, faced conflict and just there to fulfill kpi’s.

  • Robert says:

    They should include free Private Healthcare with the job, retirement back down to 60 years instead of 67 (Who wants to restrain a prisoner at 67) The police and Fire Service still retire at 60, and pay a proper overtime rate not time of in lieu (Which when they are short staffed is hard to get)

  • Jean Merry says:

    My husband served 32 years in a very different service, we have become too soft, of course they have to be treated humanely and prepared for the outside
    BUT when they are violent to staff as well as inmates they are punished or moved immediately, if it’s not near their family tough they have been punished
    And give the staff more support which they aren’t getting from the top at the’s a hard job pay accordingly

  • Martin webster says:

    I have worked in a Prison as Officer, So and now CM. I can assure you that staff are educated, albeit to different standards. But for you to say staff are not educated I find offensive.

    • Paul W says:

      You obviously haven’t read the article correctly, She is saying that prison staff are not correctly trained to deal with the complex needs of prisoners not that they’re are uneducated.

  • Jodie says:

    Sadly, the same is true of youth offending services, as an experienced Human Resources manager alongside coordinating a homeless shelter, advocating the rights of young people with SEND in schools, I have worked in school governance and patient support in a healthcare setting, mentored young adults in college, volunteer on a Youth Offending Panel and recently I completed my certificate in Youth justice Practice whilst also studying a foundation degree in the same subject.
    I have been asked to apply for various posts, and travelled many miles to attend interviews for positions which pay one third of the salary I am currently paid, only to find the interview panel unprepared or to feel that my age is a barrier (I’m a young 50) as my application is declined in favour of recruiting an apprentice with no previous experience or someone who has been side-shifted from another post within the system by managers who have no formal qualifications themselves.
    As an older more experienced applicant I’m often told I should perhaps consider fostering, or working in the private sector.
    Sadly things are unlikely to improve for prison or youth offending services unless there is a shift in thinking and an approach which does not return to short sharp shock tactics which we have recently seen in the media with politicians threatening to make offenders terrified. The system needs an improved status and a clear out of old thinking and outdated attitudes which cause more harm and add to the existing trauma of vulnerable people. Until people can recognise something of themselves amongst our prison population and realise that we need to learn how to repair damaged people without causing more harm, we are unlikely to see change for good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tagged with

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation