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The prison service is in crisis

Prisons should be a place for rehabilitation that keep everyone inside them safe — instead, they are little more than crowded warehouses, chronically underfunded and their staff dangerously overworked, writes STEVE GILLAN

THE Prison Officers’ Association (POA) conference commences in Eastbourne where delegates gather to set the policy for the national executive committee and full-time officers to carry out.

We will hear keynote speakers from across the political spectrum and from the employer of HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most concerning periods for HMPPS in decades.

I do not use the words lightly: there is no doubt that the prison service is in deep crisis. We have witnessed measures such as “operation safeguard,” “operation early dawn,” and a variety of early release schemes to ease overcrowding.

It has not worked; it is like putting a sticking plaster over a gaping wound and hoping everything will be fine. The prison service needs major surgery not tinkering around the edges.

The prison service has not been out of the headlines for months, for all the wrong reasons. Political parties are using the prison service as a political football to score points against each other as we head for a general election.

This is totally wrong and there needs to be a proper discussion regarding overcrowding, and sentencing policy in order to move forward and steer not just prisons, but the whole criminal justice system in the right direction.

For far too long political parties have produced failing policies that not only let the general public down, but POA members who strive to do the best job possible in deteriorating prisons due to a lack of capital investment in our prisons up and down the country.

I am hoping that POA delegates formulate clear strategies at this conference. The POA executive will be setting out in a conference paper strategic aims and objectives in a five-year plan, 2024-29.

If this paper is endorsed by annual conference, then we will have the following policies to take forward with the employer and whoever is in government. Those policies will be;

• improve pay, terms and conditions for all our members

• to break the link between pension age and state pension age

• improve staffing levels, training and professionalisation

• reduce violence in the workplace with clear health and safety policies

• to campaign for a Royal Commission into prisons and the criminal justice system

• to restore the right to strike for prison officers who currently do not have it

While the POA is neutral on political parties, this cannot be mistaken for being politically neutral full stop, as politics affects each POA member and their families. That is why the POA will continue to be politically active to enhance the well-being of our members in the workplace.

POA members are not punching bags, and it is a disgrace that assaults on staff continually rise year on year. Self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in custody are also continually rising. The overcrowding of prisons is shameful and a stain on society.

It appears politicians have learned nothing from the Strangeways riot over 30 years ago, after which Lord Woolf made clear recommendations that were effectively about overcrowding and conditions within the prison estate.

It seems we are heading towards another Strangeways. All the ingredients are there, all the warning signs are there. That is not me being alarmist but really stating the obvious and it can no longer be ignored.

The POA has raised the warning signs on television through the media and hopefully, politicians will not ignore those warning signs because at the moment they are sleepwalking into dangerous territory.

There needs as a matter of urgency for political parties to be clear in the manifestos that they commit to a Royal Commission for not only prisons but the whole criminal justice system, as it is on its knees from a lack of investment and knee-jerk reactions to policies in order to demonstrate to the general public who is toughest on crime.

The reality is we cannot continue in the manner that we have been. We need politicians and political parties to be brave and modernise sentencing policy, rehabilitation, and community sentences that the public will have confidence in — and use prisons to incarcerate those individuals who are clearly a danger to society.

A Royal Commission could pave the way for the criminal justice system to operate in the way it should. The public should have confidence in every aspect of the criminal justice system and at the moment I’m afraid that just is not happening.

Sadly, prisons have just become warehouses with no worthwhile rehabilitation taking place because they are so overcrowded, and prison officer grades do not have time on their hands to even deal with the basics of the job.

The POA has always been a part of the solution. We have the expertise and knowledge from local branch officials to national officials to offer our view to assist the employer and government to make our prisons places to be proud of going forward.

I hope our local officials have an enjoyable conference setting out our vision for the future so that we can have a prison service that is safe, and properly funded and that our members who do a magnificent job on behalf of the public are respected for the work that they do.

Steve Gillan is general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association.

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