For the full transcript, along with comments from Peter Dawson from prison Reform Trust and Natasha Porter from Unlocked graduate, see here.
Impact of lack of staff on delivering services in prisons
‘Many of our members deliver interventions in prison—prison education, employment, housing support and all the things that help people to build a stable bridge to leave prison and successfully carry on their lives outside, gain employment and keep relationships with families. They tell us that the lack of prison staff is preventing those positive interventions. You need staff to be able to get people to classrooms, but prison officers play a critical role on the wings, having one-to-one conversations to encourage, support and nudge: “Why don’t you think about doing education? Why don’t you think about engaging with this organisation?” Having not those conversations but just a transactional relationship, opening and shutting doors, misses out on those opportunities. The real value is in officers, who spend a lot more time with people in prison than those organisations do, so it is very frustrating. The lack of staff impacts on the amount of time available to do those activities—getting people to classes late or not getting them there at all and having them out for only half a day. There is huge potential there. Lots of organisations are ready and willing to provide the evidence-based interventions that can really help people while they are in custody and after release. They are not able to fulfil those functions without adequate staffing and the attributes of prison officers who are able to have those conversations.
A lot of people want to work in the third sector because they do purposeful work—they want to go into prisons. The frustration is being able to get into prisons and deliver those services, or working with people coming out of prison they have not been able to work with through the gate. The most effective intervention is where you start with someone in prison and build a relationship rather than meeting at the gate and in the community—you have built that relationship of trust. It is extremely frustrating for people working in the voluntary sector, who are trying to put on interventions but people aren’t coming to the courses, you can’t get access to the people you need to, you can’t promote your interventions, and people are coming out of prison not knowing you exist or are coming to you without having had that lead-in.’
Reforming vetting processes for prison access
‘It is very frustrating for people working in the voluntary sector at the moment in trying to get into prisons. The voluntary sector has a growing number of people who have personal lived experience of the criminal justice system as part of our paid workforce—peer mentors and people who are able to establish a good rapport with people in prison. The vetting processes to enable them to go into prisons and deliver those interventions are very opaque and difficult. There are a lot of barriers to our members doing the work with their workforce that they want to do. People want to do that work because it is rewarding, purposeful work, but it is very frustrating when they start those roles and are not able to do the job they have applied to do.’
More clinical supervision for prison officers
‘I want to come in on something around self-harm, suicide and the lack of clinical supervision and counselling support for prison officers, who are having to deal with really appalling situations and mental health issues, which they’re not trained to do, and once they’ve seen a traumatic incident to be able to access counselling and clinical supervision. People in prison with mental health issues aren’t getting access to those
interventions, whether it is sport or purposeful activity, that support better mental health and wellbeing and relationships with families. The more time people are spending in cells, the more we are seeing those things increase. The people dealing with them are the officers on the wing, and they are not being supported adequately, so you end up with a vicious cycle.
The Committee’s report on remand talked about the record levels of people on remand. People do not know what is happening. There is a feeling of instability and churn that that causes. It is a different dynamic that prison officers are then having to deal with.’
Dis-invest from prison building and invest in community support
‘With the prison expansion plans and all the capital investment, you’ve still got to staff those prisons. We are struggling to staff the prisons we have now, so we think that the investment in prisons would be better spent on increasing the quality of what is happening in our current prisons and diverting more people from custody on remand or short sentences. There are ways of reducing those longer sentences. This doesn’t have to be the direction of travel. There are alternatives.’
Continued professional development including restorative training
‘Coming back to your original question about the loss of experience, what we really need to do now is focus on training and continuous professional development—whether that is around mental health, or around restorative practices and approaches. How do you engage with people on the wing? How do you support them to build better relationships with officers, with their families and with other people on the wing? A lot of our members are involved in delivering not just interventions but training, support and coaching to support staff. When you don’t have experienced officers who would naturally do that mentoring, coaching and training on the job, you need to fill that gap and that vacuum. Many organisations are out there with those skills and expertise, and are willing to do that. We really need to focus on bringing those organisations in. Coming back to what you were saying, clinical supervision is really important for officers to enable them to deal with the day-to-day things they are witnessing.’
Support for Black, Asian and minority ethic prison staff
‘The Criminal Justice Alliance published a report in the last year on the women’s estate, in partnership with the independent monitoring boards, which go into prisons. HM inspectorate of prisons published a report earlier this year, which Peter mentioned, about Black prison officers, and Black men in prison. Those reports, taken with the report that we are due to publish in the next couple of weeks on the whole criminal justice workforce and racial diversity, show that we have a real problem in many prisons with racism and with prisons not being a safe space for staff, or for people living or working in prison, if they are from a Black or minority ethnic background. Recruitment and attitudes to race are part of that. There are lots of examples in the reports of officers being locked out of staff rooms, called names, or bullied, and not feeling that they have the camaraderie of their colleagues; and of low-level banter going on, which they feel they cannot call out. On a wing, your safety is reliant on your other team members. If something happens to you, you need to be able to rely on the other officers on the wing. That makes it really hard to put your head above the parapet, call these things out, and make complaints, so we see a vicious cycle. It is critical that, as is happening in the police and with other parts of the criminal justice system workforce, that is part of the recruitment process.
We are seeing lots of evidence of prisoners themselves being subjected to direct racism and name-calling, and similar things; but there is also indirect discrimination and racism.
Something that came out in our report and the HM inspectorate of prisons report is a sort of politics on the wing, where a Black prison officer, say, does not want to speak to a Black prisoner, because of the additional scrutiny that they are under— the idea that they might be colluding, or there might be favouritism. The prisoners absolutely know this is going on, so you end up with toxic dynamics on the wing to do with that. It needs to be addressed.
Just coming back on the point about staff of racial minority backgrounds, I think it is a feeling of support, adequate resourcing of staff associations and peer support networks, better complaints processes and ensuring that it is a safe place for them to work and bring their whole selves. Often, they are the ones who are expected to try to do that work as well—to educate their colleagues or do positive things about it. It cannot be their responsibility. It has to be the responsibility of the organisation. There are plenty of external organisations that could be brought in to support that.
As I said, there is a sense of wanting a safe environment and to be taken seriously. When you hear banter, or so-called banter, and see things on social media, or hear your colleagues say things, it is not an environment where you feel you can bring your whole self, or a safe place. That has an impact on recruitment. Officers were saying to us, “Would I go back to my friends or family, or people in my community, and encourage them to join the service, based on my experience? Actually, no I couldn’t.” If we want a more diverse workforce, we want people in the job who feel they can go and promote it among friends and family and their networks. That is not what they feel at the moment.’
Reduce the use of PAVA spray
‘I am glad you said that because we have seen an increase in the roll-out of PAVA sprays and the use of force. That is just a sticking plaster that makes the situation worse. What we need is what we have talked about throughout this evidence session: relational skills and the ability to have restorative conversations, to engage with people at a human level, de-escalate and get that kind of intelligence of what is going on on the wing through conversations and other things, and to have those conversations to know people. That is really key. We know that some things like PAVA spray and the use of force are disproportionately used against Black, Asian and minority ethnic prisoners. We need to be really careful.’
Improve access to technology in prisons
‘One thing I would add on the equipment side is technology. We have not talked yet about technology. One of the things that could be very usefully done is a much faster roll-out of technology that people in prison can use themselves rather than relying on written apps. That frees up the time for officers to have those conversations about education and family relationships rather than dealing with administrative things. At the moment, there are only about 15 prisons with this technology. It enables the person in prison to take responsibility or autonomy over those sorts of things and it frees up prison offer time. I think technology would be one area of equipment I would want to see.’