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Policy Insights · 2 Jul 2019

“Soldiering On”? What difference do ex-military personnel make to the prison service?

Back in 2016, the then Justice Secretary Liz Truss announced a recruitment drive for Armed Forces leavers, to help address the low retention rates for prison staff working in very challenging circumstances. Intending them to support prison reform, she asked: “Who better to instil the virtues of discipline? Who better to show what you can achieve in life with courage and integrity? They will help our prison officers lead the change. Two years later, Prisons Minister (and former Army infantry officer) Rory Stewart announced plans for a military-style ‘staff college’ to help reform prison leadership.

Although these announcements implied that Armed Forces leavers did not already consider prison work to be an attractive post-military career, and that military leadership was not already influential in the prison service, in fact many former Armed Forces personnel already work for HMPPS, G4S, Serco or Sodexo, with many in positions of significant authority. Prison work, with its uniform, its hierarchical structure, concern for security, and status as Crown Service, has probably long appealed to Armed Forces leavers, who are thought to seek out such civilian uniformed services when choosing post-military careers. But at the same time, ex-military personnel can also take a very different ‘route’ into prison, with ‘Veterans in Custody’ now the largest occupational group in prisons in England and Wales, representing 9.1% of the custodial population.

The initiatives led by Stewart and Truss beg the question – what does it actually mean to be an ex-military prison officer, or to bring military leadership styles into prisons? And what difference does this make to how our prisons operate, both for prison staff and for those in their care, whether Veterans or not? To paraphrase Justice Secretary David Gauke, with what kind of justice – ‘soft’, ‘hard’, or ‘smart’– might military influences be associated?

The plain truth is that we don’t know. Back in the 1960s, in a study of Pentonville, it was claimed that ex-military prison officers were ‘authoritarian’, and ‘martinets who have merely exchanged a khaki uniform for a blue one’. Such clichéd military stereotypes may be of a bygone age, but they still inform notions of a ‘military-style crackdown’ which hold a certain appeal for those convinced that increasing the punitivity of the prison system is the only way to solve its current challenges.

A new paper in the Howard Journal of Crime and Justice argues that to answer these questions, an evidence-based understanding of how the military interfaces with the prison is far more useful than seductive military clichés, whether of courage and duty, or of authoritarianism and violence. To understand the past, present and potential future influence of the military on the prison service, a new research project addresses exactly these questions, by exploring the experience of current and former prison officers.

This research is important because we currently lack both data about how many prison staff have a military background, and insight into their role in the prison service. This means that we understand very little about the specific skills and attributes that military experience brings, either for prison work in general, or with Veterans in Custody in particular. Crucially, with our prisons still facing problems of recruitment and retention of staff, and effective leadership more important than ever, this knowledge gap means that anticipating the likely outcomes of key initiatives such as Truss’s recruitment drive, or Stewart’s staff college, is very difficult. Understanding the relationship between the prison and the military better than we do now will help define the role that military methods and ex-military staff can play in delivering ‘justice that works’.

Dominique Moran, Professor in Carceral Geography, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham

This blog is based on the following article: Soldiering On? The PrisonMilitary Complex and ExMilitary Personnel as Prison Officers: Transition, Rehabilitation and Prison Reform, Dominique Moran, Jennifer Turner and Helen Arnold. First published: 16 April 2019.
https://doi.org/10.1111/hojo.12316

Watch the video abstract here.

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