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13 Nov 2017

New report on prison officers calls for urgent action to save the profession

Action on staffing levels, rates of pay, and officer development is urgently required in English and Welsh prisons, research by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the justice sector trade union, Community, reveals today (Monday 13 November).

Dangerously low staffing levels, a poorly-defined job description, insufficient training and a perceived lack of decision-making power have left officers feeling ignored, ineffective and unable to achieve their aims. Morale is low among staff in private prisons and few see a long-term future for themselves in the service.

The concerns are raised in The role of the prison officer, a joint report by the Howard League and Community, the trade union representing staff across the justice sector. The report presents the findings of focus groups and surveys with 27 prison officers working in the private sector for a range of companies. A number of officers working in public-sector prisons also gave evidence to the project.

Prison officers said that they were enthusiastic for change and wanted to play a role in helping people to turn their lives around. They want systemic change so that they are able to continue to develop their skills and receive the support that they need to succeed in their roles.

The report calls on private companies, ministers and officials to demonstrate that they value prison officers. They must recognise their staff as professionals, fulfil their potential and ensure that officers are able to build rewarding careers.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This report, based on findings from focus groups and surveys with people working on the front line, underlines the need for urgent reform of the whole system. The Howard League’s experience is that staff morale is low in public prisons as well as private prisons.

“The problems will not be solved by simply recruiting more prison officers. While devolving responsibility to governors, ministers ought to take steps to ensure that the workforce is motivated, empowered, educated and allowed to exercise professional discretion.

“This must come hand-in-hand with bold action to reduce the prison population, which would protect staff, save lives and make the public safer.”

Roy Rickhuss, General Secretary of Community, said: “Community members in the justice sector carry out important jobs in difficult circumstances. This report confirms that government must urgently address the problems in our justice system.

“There are simply not enough staff in prisons to keep people safe, and those officers that are there are not paid nearly enough. If we want prison officers to be effective, then we need to show we value their work. We need proper training and career development, as well as practical and emotional support to help deal with the challenges of the modern prison.

“Community, the union for the justice sector, stands ready to engage constructively with government and employers to help make our prisons safe for the staff working in them, and effective tools of reform for prisoners.”

All who participated in the project said that there were not enough officers working in their prisons. In some, there were staff shortages and prisons were recruiting. Other prisons were technically fully staffed, but the staffing levels were so low that they did not have enough people to achieve the basics of keeping people safe and delivering a full regime.

One officer said: “[T]here are two officers on a spur of 61 men…when everyone is back for lunch, one has to supervise medication and the other has to go and collect the food from the kitchen. This means there is nobody else on the spur, the model incorporates completely unsupervised association time and with all the other tasks we have to do it really means that one officer is alone all morning and another in the afternoon.”

Another officer said: “[O]n our house block we have 60-odd on a wing and I work it by myself. I work 0715 to 2000 and I might only see and speak to another officer a couple of times a day…I cover two floors and so might not know about an incident in a cell until the following day”.

“We had a murder a few months ago. There wasn’t enough staff on at night and nobody came when the alarm was rung. They thought one experienced staff member could run the house block on their own.”

Inadequate staffing meant that prisons were fundamentally unsafe for staff and prisoners, researchers heard.

One officer said: “[W]e had a murder a few months ago. There wasn’t enough staff on at night and nobody came when the alarm was rung. They thought one experienced staff member could run the house block on their own.”

Many officers no longer felt that they could make a difference as the conditions in their prisons meant that they could not form quality relationships with prisoners. Low staffing levels, high workloads and frequent rotations to different parts of the prison made many officers feel powerless to achieve what they saw as a central part of the role.

One officer asked: “[W]hat am I doing for them apart from holding them on behest of a judge? There is nothing to help them.”

Another said: “[W]e’re at rock bottom and it’s going to take a lot to get that back.”

Many of the officers working in private prisons felt that their companies were not sufficiently focused on recruiting people who understood and had the right skills. Several reported that new officers sometimes arrived without a full understanding of the realities of being a prison officer and as a result quickly left. This high turnover put enormous strain on longer-serving officers.

“We’re at rock bottom and it’s going to take a lot to get that back.”

In the prisons that the officers worked in, basic training ranged between seven and nine weeks in length. Officers viewed this as being far too short for the difficult and complex role they were carrying out.

One officer said that training at his prison “is death by PowerPoint…there’s a mandatory five-day course on control and restraint (CNR). It’s not a pass or fail – just an idea of what happens. You are told that CNR can only be enforced by a three-officer team, but there are never three on a wing – most of the time you would be on your own. I think it’s too detached from reality. There’s no training for what to do when you’re on your own”.

The report recommends that the government should support the setting-up of a specialised training and standard-setting college, akin to the College of Policing, to set standards to promote high-quality training across prisons in both the public sector and the private sector. Such a college would also provide an ethical framework and guide good practice, both of which are currently missing.

A number of officers told the project that the starting pay was reasonable in most areas of the country, but needed to rise as staff became more experienced and took on more responsibility. Others thought that the starting salary needed to be higher and commensurate with police officers and social workers in the area.

One officer said: “You can go and work in Aldi for £18,000 a year without having to deal with the things we have to deal with. It’s nowhere near to what we should be paid for [what] we’re doing”.

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  1. Community represents more people employed in privatised justice and custodial sectors than any other trade union. It works on behalf of its members to create a better working world and a safer justice sector.
  1. The role of the prison officer can be downloaded from the Howard League website.


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