Is Today’s Prison Service in England and Wales fit for purpose? Does it achieve its aims? I would strongly argue against this. The prison service this country has today is on the precipice of disaster.
Immediately prior to the 1997 General Election, Jack Straw confirmed the Labour Party Criminal Justice Policy to the Annual Conference of the Prison Officers’ Association: all private sector prisons would be returned to the public sector. A week after the general election Jack Straw and Labour reversed this policy, announcing all new prisons would be built and run by the private sector. The Labour Government then went on to open seven new prisons, all of which were in the private sector; this figure was nearly double the previous Conservative Government’s four private sector prisons.
During the 13 years of the Labour Government, they were criticised for overspending on the public sector, leading the country to the brink of financial collapse. None of this overspending went to the Prison Service. During their period in power on each and every pay review for Prison Officer Grades, not once did the award meet let alone beat the rate of inflation.
So what was Labour’s next move to ensure the safety of the general public from crime? The 2003 Criminal Justice Bill, Paragraph 244 of which states:
244 Duty to release prisoners
(1) As soon as a fixed-term prisoner, other than a prisoner to whom section 247 applies, has served the requisite custodial period, it is the duty of the Secretary of State to release him on licence under this section.
(2) Subsection (1) is subject to section 245.
(3) In this section “the requisite custodial period” means—
(a) in relation to a person serving a sentence of imprisonment for a term of twelve months or more or any determinate sentence of detention under section 91 of the Sentencing Act, one-half of his sentence.
The effect of this Bill in the prison system was that prisoners are now automatically released after half of their sentence, irrespective of their behaviour in custody. No offending behaviour work is required. At the same time Prison Officer Grades were being given real terms pay cuts whilst the Labour Government of the day was deliberately making their job far more hazardous, and increasing the risk to the general public.
However, Labour has been out of power since May 2010, so what has changed since then? Well there has been no change to the 2003 Criminal Justice Bill, and Prison Officer Grades have had a pay freeze since 2010 despite recommended 1% cost of living pay awards for Civil Servants since 2011.
The Coalition Government has brought in new terms and conditions with new pay structures. As an Officer at my establishment if I moved onto the new terms and conditions I would be taking approximately an £8000 pay cut, but I live in rented key worker accommodation, and a pay cut of this magnitude would mean I could not afford to live in housing specifically made available to key workers. A policy designed to make Prison Officers homeless would seem to be the result of this restructure! So could I be promoted? Yes I could, but that would mean a £3,000 pay cut, so I would then be working purely to pay rent! This situation has occurred as a result of a four year pay freeze and inflation rate rises in key worker housing rent during the same period. Please take a moment to consider the effect this has upon morale.
So how does one become a valued Prison Officer as people now beat down the door to join the Prison Service? There is no minimum educational standard required to join the Prison Service, and the minimum joining age is 18. Candidates have to answer questions on the Prison Service website to progress their application. The following is taken directly from the Prison Service website:
Sample Question 2
84 Prisoners live on B Wing which is fully occupied. There are 2 beds in each cell.
How many cells are there on B Wing?
This is the level at which people are now being recruited and expected to deal with the most dangerous members of society: terrorists; murderers; sex offenders; gangsters; and drug dealers for example. But the general public should not worry because the Prison Service is deliberately recruiting people who can divide 84 by 2!
Following on from the new terms and conditions of employment the Coalition Government are also restructuring the Prison Service under Zero Resourced Bench-marking and New Ways of Working, (yes management grades are employed to think these names up – nice work if you can get it). The vast majority of prisons that have been bench-marked have had a reduction in Prison Officers of all ranks, which means less Officers to deal with prisoners. Hundreds of Officers have left the Prison Service on voluntary redundancy over the last two years. Their experience obviously went with them, but again the general public need not worry as the Prison Service is actively replacing them with people who can divide 84 by 2 on thousands of pounds a year less. Whilst I state this I am not intending to insult and denigrate newcomers to the Prison Service, far from it, what I am doing is demonstrating the techniques used by the Coalition Government and the Prison Service to justify paying Prison Officer Grades a salary far below the national average wage for a job, which is nothing like the national average occupation. The Prison Service states that it is merely following the market forces of the private sector, a disingenuous claim because the entry requirements there are the same: be at least 18 and able to divide 84 by 2! All the time people join for £18,000 a year under these terms and conditions, the Prison Service and the Government will continue to use market forces as its excuse for such appalling pay for such a difficult job.
I am sure this must be very reassuring to the general public who are worried about crime levels. If minimum educational standards were required, along with a higher minimum age (life experience is a very important factor in becoming a Prison Officer) how would the recruitment levels on the existing terms be then? Market forces would dictate a higher rate of pay and in return get a higher quality of candidate. This in turn would lead to a better Prison Service and better value for money for the hard pressed taxpayer.
In a following article, I will reflect on the effect all this is having on the Prison Service today.