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PRISON officers, medics and education workers laid bare the shocking levels of violence carried out against them as they gave testimony about their work in prisons in the Commons today.
The new Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance (Jupa), which is seeking to bring together the major trade unions that represent prison workers including the BMA, GMB, NAPO, the POA, UCU, Unison and Unite, held a packed-out meeting in Commons committee room 10 to address the deteriorating nature of Britain’s jails.
Labour shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon chaired the meeting and MPs such as Karen Lee, Marie Rimmer and Siobhan McDonough also attended.
Workers repeatedly stood up to take aim at prison management, who were criticised again and again for being distant and unsympathetic to the strain that prison staff are put under.
Concerns were expressed by some workers that staff are not given the same duty of care as the prisoners they look after and that workers feel isolated and unable to properly deal with the traumas they experience.
A probation worker, who did not wish to be named, said: “I have seen a prisoner attempt to cut off their own penis.
“I have seen prisoners pick up a pair of scissors and walk to me — where I think: ‘is this the end for me?’ — only for the prisoner to stab his cellmate and sit back down, leaving me wondering if any of that actually happened or if I’d just imagined it.”
Others mentioned the stress caused by workplace protocol, by which prison officers are forced to retrospectively apply for the days they have taken off to recover from an incident in order to register sick days rather than recorded leave.
Joe Edwards, who served as an officer at HMP Winchester — in Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s constituency — was assaulted three times in his eight months in the job. He was hit to the ground, knocked unconscious and had all of his front teeth chipped.
Mr Edwards said that only having a mental breakdown made prison authorities take his case seriously and get him properly referred to occupational health therapy.
He said: “I got a lot of support from my colleagues and union branch officials. But from managers, it’s been lacking, and feels like they’re attempting to palm me off.”
Another worker, who did not wish to be named, received thunderous applause for pointing out that the officers’ retirement age of 68 is “just unsustainable.” Many argued for the age to be reduced to 60.
Annie Norman, who until recently was a prison nurse at Winchester, said: “From listening to all of your testimonies, it’s clear to me that something fundamental has changed, and what I have heard in the room has only confirmed to me the worsening nature of what we are facing in the justice system.
“We have examples of mental-health nurses who have lost an eye after being attacked or who have had to have serious medical attention to bring their heart back to a regular pace after inhaling psychoactive substances from prisoners.
“With these challenges, how can we recruit good people into the prison services? And when workers are treated so badly, how can the prison services hope to retain them?”
Before leaving the event, Mr Burgon told those present: “One of the things that I imagine must really annoy you about politicians is the praise they give you from the Commons dispatch boxes about the jobs that you do.
“This is despite never taking the steps to make sure you’re all safe and secure in your work and are funded enough to do your work properly. Well, talk is easy isn’t it? Talk is cheap.”
The Jupa event is expected to add weight to demands to urgently release funding to the justice system after a 2018 report said that staff shortages and poor resourcing had led to British jails having “some of the most disturbing conditions” ever seen.
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