Prison Officers: Working Conditions

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:14 am on 2nd May 2018.

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Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 11:14 am, 2nd May 2018

It is 100% in the public interest to prosecute prisoners who assault prisoner officers. If they are not prosecuted, the authority of the state is undermined; it becomes almost impossible for prison officers to run a decent and human regime, very difficult for people to be unlocked from their cells and difficult to move people into education and purposeful activity.

If the education and purposeful activity and the decent and safe environment of the prisoner are not delivered, the prisoner is much more likely to reoffend when they leave that prison. That is a direct threat to public safety; therefore, as my hon. Friend implies, the Crown Prosecution Service must prosecute prisoners for attacking prisoner officers. We owe that to prison officers, but we also owe it to the public as a whole to have safe, clean and decent prisons. These are our prisons; in the end, prisoners are citizens who come out and reoffend on the streets. We have to restore discipline.

My hon. Friend spoke about drugs and the importation of mobile telephones. In the end, those issues can be dealt with. There are basically only five ways in which mobile telephones or drugs can get into a prison—after all, there is a fence around the prison. They can be thrown into the prison, flown into a prison, dragged into a prison, posted into a prison or carried into a prison. Every single one of these ways needs to be addressed.

We address the issue of people flying things into prisons by tackling drones; of people throwing things into prisons by the use of nets and proper yard searching; of people dragging things into prison by identifying the wire set-ups that run into prison windows; and of people posting things into prison—for example, a letter impregnated with Spice so it can be smoked can be photocopied. But we have not been good enough in England for nearly 40 years is searching humans going in and out of prisons.

Scotland is different. I venture to suggest that it is not a coincidence that the violence and drug rates have been lower in Scottish prisons and that there has been much more regular routine searching of people going in and out of Scottish prisons. I do not think that is an accident. I would be very interested in working with the Prison Service to pilot in 10 prisons increasing the security and routine searching at the gate, to see what would happen. But that will not be enough—many other things need to happen. At the core are people: the prisoner officers themselves.

There is no point in my standing here and pontificating about the Prison Service because there are more than 100 prisons. With the best will in the world, even if I visited two prisons a week, I would not be able to visit them all in a year. There are more than 20,000 prisoner officers and 84,000 prisoners. In the end, good prisons depend on good people. That is about recruiting, training and promoting the right kind of people and managing people in the right way.

How do we recruit the right kind of people? We search for exactly the values we are looking for. We train them by focusing on institutions such as Newbold Revel, the prison officer training college, to make sure people feel proud of being prison officers. I am very interested in reintroducing the passing out parade—getting families in to applaud people as they graduate from that training college, so that they feel they are extraordinary public servants, protecting our nation through their work. They need to feel that in their uniform, in their passing-out parade and in every day of their work.

We need to get the training right when people enter, and when people move into the custodial manager role. We need to think about how supervisory officers on the units, even if they do not have formal line management responsibilities, can mentor and drive those young, inexperienced staff. In many prisons, 60% to 65% of prison officers have been there for less than a year; we need supervisory officers to be able to work with them, to give them the confidence and the jailcraft to manage those prisons.

Then, we need to think about what happens at the governor level. How do we make sure that we do not end up in the situation that my hon. Friend found in a prison in his constituency, where there were four governors in five years? We need governors to stay longer in the prisons. We need them to be formally trained before they arrive in those prisons. One of the key determining features in trying to work out why one prison is performing well and another is not has to do with questions that are very difficult to put on paper. We sit here and look staff numbers, drug levels and the age of the building, but the biggest constant is always the human factor: the culture of that prison and the prison officers, the nature of the leadership and management, the morale of the place and the way in which people work together.

This has been a really important debate. From our point of view in Parliament, we are very proud that there are three Bills on their way through the House of Commons that will help prison officers. One of them is doubling the maximum sentence for assaulting a prison officer. We have another Bill going through that will focus on new psychoactive substances and testing of drugs in prison. We have a third Bill going through the House that focuses on excluding mobile telephones from prisons.

Legislation on its own is not enough. It is about public understanding and support for one of the most unique, precious and impressive services that we have in the United Kingdom. That is why I believe that the proposal, made today by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, of a parliamentary scheme focused on telling Members of Parliament about the Prison Service will be an enormous help in getting legislators to understand how much our prisons matter to our society and, above all, understanding how much we owe our prison officers.