Prison Reform isn’t helped when lazy journalism meets an outdated Trade Union

By Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales.

“Inmates to be handed cell keys” – the headline to Richard Ford’s article in The Times today on the new Incentives policy framework for prisons issued by the Ministry of Justice yesterday, stretches disingenuousness to the very edge of dishonesty.

Let’s cut straight to the chase: prisoners are not ‘handed cell keys’.

Prisoners will be issued with keys to a ‘privacy lock’; a lock that is physically separate to the central cell door lock and one which, in any event, prison staff have master keys that can override the prisoners’ privacy lock at all times.

Another basic but vital point missed completely by Richard Ford’s lamentable article is this: prisoners can use the privacy keys to get into their cells – but there is no keyhole on the inside of the cell door by which they can use their privacy keys to get out.

An important and simple enough point to grasp – but one that was either unrecognised or ignored by Richard Ford.

Another important point is that last year over a million pounds of public money was paid out in compensation for lost and stolen prisoners’ property, where cells doors negligently left open by prison officers while prisoners were not present, allowed other prisoners access to steal the belongings of fellow inmates – yes, shocking isn’t it: there are thieves in our prisons.

Richard Ford’s article is an example of the worst kind of warped reporting that one doesn’t expect from The Times but which has become all too common; lazy journalists who can’t be bothered to ascertain the real facts much less report them.

The new Incentives Policy Framework, which has been a year in the making, is very much to be welcomed – it strikes exactly the right balance between incentive and disincentive.

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It has received widespread praise from all quarters with the notable – and predictable – exception of the Prison Officers Association (POA). The POA’s National Chairman, Mark Fairhurst, describing the revised policy as “a recipe for disaster”.

The POA is a Trade Union that trumpets its support for its Members but in truth the vast majority of prison officers couldn’t care less about it – in reality it actually ‘represents’ very few at all.

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Mark Fairhurst was elected in 2017 – of the 25,529 Members who were sent ballot papers for the Election of National Chairman, just 1,113 voted for him – 4.39%

The POA are a Union  who have little support from its Membership – until they need legal help. Of the 25,529 Ballot Papers sent out just 2,225 were even returned – and of those 189 were either spoilt or left blank – presumably a way of asserting ‘none of the above’.

It is time the POA were challenged, and confronted with the damage they are responsible for, their failure to possess any negotiating skills and the fact that an increasing number of prison officers writing on social media say they are a waste of time.

Our Prison Service has been in meltdown since the loss of 7,000 experienced frontline officers in 2014 – it is a simple but painful fact that the POA agreed to the loss of those 7,000 Officers – who they now constantly blame the Government for when they were themselves responsible for raising not a single objection to any of those officers leaving.

Prison Officers must now retire at the age of 68 – a ridiculous age for any prison officer to still be walking the landings – and yet the POA, with their constant abuse of Government, their ballots to carry out illegal strike action,  their being taken to court and made the subject of injunctions, their demand that their staff stand outside the main prison gate in the pouring rain in a fruitless attempt to change policy that hasn’t worked as a negotiating tactic since mid 1980s – and for which the end result is that those prison officers lose pay – shows what an out of touch, unrepresentative, failed Union they really are.

The POA are rightly quick to make press statements condemning when officers are injured – but despite prison officers being convicted and jailed for corruption, inappropriate relationships with prisoners, violence and abuse against prisoners, fraudulent doctoring of documents, importation of drugs, phones and even knives into prisons, the POA says nothing; refusing to publicly condemn a single one of these corrupt members; complicit by its silence lest they lose even more of the few members they have left.

Today industrial disputes are resolved around a table, not stood outside a prison gate engaged in an illegal battle they can never win. Modern Trade Unions work in partnership with their employers, putting their case forward for change, based on evidence and a desire to work together – not banging the table, demanding change, on the basis of threats and walk-outs; the failure of that as a negotiating tactic is proven by the fact that the POA achieve so little.

Thankfully we are now seeing change in the prison system, a new breed of prison officer is coming through, better educated, better trained, more intelligent and the POA needs to reform itself in the same way, or become less of a effective Trade Union than even they currently are.