The shocking real world true story of life behind today’s prison gates

By Mark Leech

This is a brutally honest account of life on the other side of the prison gate – it comes from a senior manager, working in a prison today where the majority of prisoners are serving long term sentences; this person has been in the Prison Service for over 20 years, and I have known them personally for more than a decade.

Here is what he, or she, thinks of life on the landings, and of the Prison Officers Association too.

Be prepared for a brutally honest account.

I have four new officers on First improvement warnings for sickness, they are all still in their Probationary period and with work-related stress being the main factor.

One of them has childhood mental health issues, he actually has his own mental health team, and he can’t cope.

Another has bouts of anxiety and depression.

A third has just had a wobble and doesn’t look like he will survive.

And a fourth who is always crying.

We may be getting bums on seats, unfortunately they’re not the right bums.

My staff go sick at the drop of a hat.

Instructors are told to get them through whatever…..

Our biggest issue outside of self-harm and violence is staff related issues with NEW staff.. in my opinion less than 10% of staff are good, sadly the rest are in it just for a job.

We need to bring back Boards, where potential staff are interviewed on their suitability – let me say, many are NOT suitable and we spend too much time dealing with staff issues.

I’m pretty fortunate, my reputation gives me a degree of flexibility in terms of how I have managed my staff, they respect me, because I don’t sugar coat issues, I don’t blow smoke up their asses either.

I tell them every day what I expect, I give them SMART objectives, they get them done.

To be fair, when I’m not the Orderly Officer, I’m on my wing, I have an open-door policy and both staff and residents are continually in and out. I am everything that I disliked about my PO/CM when I was an officer.

The residents like it, I tend to sort out more issues, my staff like it because I take the pressure off them and I will stand on the landings and talk with the lads and in some cases the girls too, but unfortunately experience is very rare.

In time they will get experience, but sadly we don’t have that time.

You can’t blame the Governors; they’re doing a job with one arm and leg tied behind their backs.

All is clearly not well inside our prisons.

Getting more staff on the landings is vital – but nowhere near as important as getting the right staff on the landings and the evidence of this senior manager is that this is simply not happening.

In April 2017 when the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was subject to yet another reorganisation and morphed into what is today HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), one of the consequences was that it lost control of prison officer recruitment – which was passed to the Ministry of Justice.

I have never understood the logic behind it and the consequences of it are that we are today clearly locked in a desperate scramble to get the number of officers on the landings back to where they should be; but this cannot simply be a numerical issue.

It has to be the right people, selected for the right reasons, capable of doing an extremely difficult job in the right way – HMPPS today has the task of training Prison Officers, surely they should be the ones who select those people in the first place?

A part of the problem is the Prison Officers Association, and it is true to say I have been a critic of this organisation for many years. Prior to the opening of the first private prison in 1992, POA entrenched industrial practices developed over decades meant that prison governors where held in an industrial headlock by the POA – forbidden from introducing any changes unless the local branch of the POA first agreed; the tail was wagging the dog.

If the local branch of the POA disagreed with a reform a prison governor wanted to introduce they entered what was called a Failure To Agree process, a series of negotiations that could go on for years, and often did.

Prior to 1992 prisons were run for the benefit of prison staff, not for prisoners or the public who paid for them. Many prisoners were locked up 23 hours a day, in appalling Dickensian conditions where many were subject to abuse and violence from prison officers.

Many officers were racist, openly displaying National Front lapel badges.

Some prisons at this time – 1990 – had their own social clubs, usually just outside the main prison gate, which served alcohol at lunchtime with the result some staff went back on duty in the afternoon having been drinking and creating a danger to themselves, their judgment and everyone else – and there was little the Governor could do about it.

If you are interested in what our prisons were really like just a couple of years before the first private prison opened in the UK watch this documentary.

When privatisation came along in 1992 finally those in charge in private prisons were freed from the industrial POA headlock. The union representing private sector prison officers signed no strike agreements, where their industrial issues were settled by discussing things like adults around a table.

It incensed the POA who staged walk outs and took strike action – in effect they cut their own throats.

Prison officers were then banned from striking under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Under Section 127 of the Act it is an offence for any prison officer to take, continue to take, or be induced by others to take,  any industrial action or to commit a breach of discipline.

Following the election of a Labour Government in 1997 this law was temporarily replaced in 2000 by a voluntary agreement between the government and the POA, which ruled out strike action as a way of solving disputes – but the POA failed to keep to their word.

After a “protest meeting” in 2006, the government responded by re-enacting the 1994 Act and legally banned strikes again at the High Court.

The High Court clarified in 2017 the effect of section 127, which the court said meant that POA members cannot withhold their “services as a prison officer”, or take any action that would be “likely to put at risk the safety of any person”.

This included withdrawal from what were voluntary services – like the provision of first aid and the taking of assessments to determine whether prisoners are at risk of suicide or self-harm – in addition to their contractual obligations; POA industrial action of any kind had been neutered – and it only had itself to blame.

The POA is a union locked in industrial practices that are 40 years out of date, they behave in many respects like the British Leyland Shop Stewards of the 1970s, believing, wrongly, that they are in some way a layer of prison management – which they are not and must never be.

The mentality of the POA is to criticise everything that the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS does, to see nothing good in any kind of reform for prisons, and many POA officials have all the negotiating skills of a brick wall.

Technically the POA represent the vast majority of prison staff – but in practice the only reason prison officers join the POA is for the legal cover it provides them with in cases of injury or disciplinary conduct hearings.

When it comes to the POA membership having faith in elected POA officials, the union’s pathetic election results speak for themselves.

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The results of the most recent POA Election of Union Officials in 2017 makes the point starkly.

In June 2017 the POA sent out 25,529 ballot papers to its Members to Elect a National Chairman and NEC officials – less than 10 percent of these ballot papers were even returned; 2,225 to be exact or just 8.7% – and of those, almost 200 ballot papers were spoilt – an effective way for even the 8.7% of POA Members who voted making the point they believed in none of those who were standing for office.

Mark Fairhurst was elected as National Chairman by just four percent (4%) of POA Members – FOUR PER CENT.

Put another way, Ninety Six percent (96%) of POA Members eligible to vote did NOT vote for him – yet he is their National Chairman – paid for by you and me, the taxpayer, who funds his salary as a Prison Officer despite the fact that half the time he doesn’t work as one at all.

I believe in trade unions, I fully support what they do, the vital functions they discharge and their right to represent their members – what I object to is that in the case of the POA it is the taxpayer who pays 100% of the salaries of POA union officials – yet gives them 50% time off from being the prison officers they are paid to be.

If they work half the time for their members, then it is their members who, deriving the benefits of their union work, that should pay half their salary.

The public deserves value for its money, and it simply isn’t getting it when we pay people to do a full time job but who only work half the time.

The POA are the first to claim that the chaos in our prison system has been caused by the loss of 7,000 experienced frontline prison officers, who were given generous voluntary redundancy packages – known as VEDS – in 2013/14.

What they are less keen to admit to is that it was themselves who did not object to the loss of these officers at the time – they did not ask their Members to vote on VEDS, they sought no mandate from them as to whether they should support or oppose these brutal staff cuts, quietly they went along with it – and the chaos we have today is the result.

In 2018 Phil Wheatley, the former Director General of the Prison Service explained it like this:

At this time the only way of making the required expenditure cuts, now that reducing the prison population was off the political agenda, was by reducing both the numbers of prison staff, at all levels – and also their cost.
The POA did not, as might have been expected, oppose this; lured by a promise that market-testing prisons would be abandoned and that generous early retirement terms would be offered to existing staff.

When I asked Mark Fairhurst, the POA National Chairman, in September 2018, why the POA had not opposed these disastrous staffing cuts, given the chaos that had resulted and which they surely must have seen coming a mile off he admitted the POA had whimpishly caved in, sacrificing the safety of their members on their altar of anti-privatisation.

“We had no choice” he wrote. “There was a gun to our heads.
“Accept it or go through wholesale market testing leading to a majority of private prisons.”

So there we have it – the POA were prepared to risk absolute chaos in our prisons,  where prison staff (their members) would be massively outnumbered, subject to increasing levels of assaults and all because the POA did not want to compete with private prisons.

And its not only their agreement to staff cuts that the POA seek to conceal, it is when their members are convicted in criminal courts of corruption that they remain tight-lipped too.

The POA refuses to issue any press statement condemning any prison officer convicted of corruption – whether it is bringing in drugs, mobile phones or knives, engaging in illicit sexual affairs with prisoners, stealing prisoners’  property, or forging documents that conceal the truth about deaths in custody – and there have been convictions of prison officers for each of these things – they say nothing.

On the other hand, when staff are assaulted by prisoners who are then rightly convicted and punished by the courts – the POA screams from the rooftops.

I don’t blame them for that, I condemn assaults on prison staff publicly too – but all I ask for is some degree of balance; you can’t condemn a prisoner for assaulting an officer on one hand, and yet say nothing at all when five prison officers are jailed for physical assaults on prisoners.

But that is what they do.

And it isn’t just that they are silent when prison officers are convicted of attacking prisoners either – the POA remain silent and complicit when prison officers attack other prison officers too.

The recent shameful case of Prison Officer Ben Plaistow, who suffered a year long series of homophobic assaults and humiliation by fellow prison officers and who recently won a damning case before an Employment Tribunal – he too has been totally ignored by the POA.

The vast majority of prison officers are decent, professional, hard-working honest people, doing a job I personally would not do for a £100K a year.

They each deserve the public’s support, they all deserve the public’s appreciation, but most importantly they all deserve professional industrial representation by a trade union that believes in decency and respect for everyone.

They deserve a trade union that isn’t constantly banging the table issuing  demands, holding out the prospect of unrest by taking prisoners hostage with threats of illegal strike action in order to force industrial concessions.

They deserve a trade union that recognises those tactics achieve nothing at all for anyone; least of all their increasingly demoralised membership whose refusal to vote for union officials in their tens of thousands, should ring POA alarm bells like nothing else ever could.