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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

The crisis in our prisons: they can't get the staff

The warning lights are flashing in our prisons - but has the new Justice Secretary, Brandon Lewis, noticed?

This week, three respected organisations, each with a deep understanding of penal policy and practice across England and Wales, provided alarming glimpses into a corner of the criminal justice system that Ministers prefer to keep hidden from public view.

HM Prisons Inspectorate, led by Charlie Taylor, said Swaleside Prison, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, was at "crisis point" because of staff shortages. Taylor said no meaningful progress had been made at the jail in the past 12 months with five self-inflicted deaths and "extremely worrying" levels of violence.

Swaleside is a 'training' prison which holds 1,000 men over the age of 21. Virtually all of them will be released at some stage. On the basis of the latest report there is little hope that they will leave equipped to lead a more productive, crime-free life. And that means more offending - and more victims.

Of course, Swaleside is not an outlier. Staffing shortages are a problem that run through countless other establishments. Look at the inspection report into HMP Chelmsford, also published this week. It says: "Many prisoners spent more than 22 hours a day locked up. This was principally due to staff shortages, and these recruitment issues were affecting education and work, which was curtailed frequently." Or the report on Onley Prison, in Warwickshire, which came out in September: "Acute staffing shortages were having a severe impact on the provision of activity and progression for prisoners."

It's not just the inspectors who are worried. The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), which brings together groups of volunteers who carry out regular visits to prisons, says staffing problems are now the "principal brake on safe, humane and rehabilitative regimes". In its annual report, also out this week, the IMB chair, Dame Anne Owers, says every month there are more experienced staff leaving than new staff joining.

"Most prisons, even training prisons, are still running restricted regimes." she says. "Key work, which is the foundation of individual care and offender management, is still struggling." For Owers, a former chief inspector of prisons, the dangers are obvious. "This creates considerable risks to stability, as regimes loosen, built-up frustrations and tensions surface, and staff and prisoners need to learn or relearn how to engage."

Unlike inspectors, who carry out short, intensive visits every year or so, IMB volunteers are in jails each week, picking up on problems that others may miss. For example, an IMB report into HMP Stafford, published in September, revealed "repeated failings" in arranging for medicines to be provided; one inmate had to be taken to hospital after going without heart medication for seven days.

But staffing problems are the prevailing concern. The prison population has increased by about 2,500 in the past 12 months and is continuing to go up - 81,423 this week - but at the same time there has been a drop in the number of frontline staff. At the end of June, there were 21,725 prison officers at bands 3 to 5, down 318 on the year before, with the total still below what it was in 2010 when a programme of cuts began that drained the system of valuable experience. In 2014, 66 per cent of staff had more than ten years' service; now it's less than 36 per cent.

As Owers points out, keeping staff is just as much of an issue as hiring them. The proportion of band 3 - 5 officers who left the prison service in the last year was over 15 per cent - the highest figure on record, while almost 19 per cent of jail staff doing operational support duties departed - also an all-time high.

In a withering letter, delivered to Lewis ahead of its annual conference next week, the Prison Governors' Association (PGA), which represents hundreds of senior operational staff, says "catastrophic cuts" during the austerity years are continuing to have a "disastrous impact", partly because so many personnel have quit.

"The loss of thousands of years of prison officer experience through redundancy, followed by a much-reduced pay and reward package, caused untold damage to the staffing position and ability to maintain safe regimes. All of this was to support a fiscal ideology and did nothing to safeguard those who lived, worked, or expected protection from those in custody," writes the PGA National Executive Committee.

It says some prisons have only half the number of officers needed to run an effective regime. "Staff bear the brunt of this with violence and disorder against them; is it any wonder our attrition rate is too high in such a working environment? The mental health and wellbeing of all grades of staff in these prisons has reached an unacceptable level," says the PGA, which is concerned that a further round of cuts is on the way.

"To protect the public and have any hope of rehabilitating those who are locked up costs a significant amount of money. Our prisons are overcrowded, and the overall population too high. If the cost of imprisonment on this scale is not affordable to Government, we ask you to take swift action to reduce the demand placed on prison spaces. This needs to be bold and see a significant reduction at a time when we are not able to recruit and retain prison officers in the required numbers," it adds.

There is frankly little chance that a government which is trying to restore its law and order credentials will sanction measures that would lead to an "immediate and sustained reduction" in prisoner numbers, as the PGA calls for. Rather, Ministers are committed to supplying an extra 20,000 places to deal with a projected rise in the prison population to 98,500 by 2026. How it will staff the new jails and house-blocks it is proposing to build, however, is arguably an even bigger challenge than the construction work.

In August, to address recruitment and retention issues, the Government announced a 4 per cent salary rise for prison officers with targeted increases for lower-paid staff, following recommendations from the independent prison pay review body. But the percentage increase will not keep pace with the current rate of inflation in a competitive jobs market, while the review body said far-reaching "structural changes" to the pay and conditions regime were needed to attract and remunerate those who do some of the most demanding jobs in the public sector. It said: "HMPPS {His Majesty's Prison and Probation Service} is facing a crisis in the recruitment and retention of Band 2 and 3 staff and... pay, in particular take home pay, is a significant contributory factor to this. The lack of action in recent years to improve the market position of these staff has led to increasing numbers leaving the Service year on year. This is having a major impact on our remit group and the stability of public sector prisons."

This week, the Justice Secretary made no reference to prison officer shortages in his first major speech since taking over from Dominic Raab a month ago. He told the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham about a new apprenticeship programme that would furnish prisoners with the "training and skills they need to become active participants in the jobs market". But he failed to mention this: without enough staff to unlock inmates and escort them to workshops there will be no skills training. Has he not read the inspection findings, the annual report from the volunteers and the letter from the men and women who run the prisons?

Lewis is new to his role and will need time to assess the areas that require his most urgent attention. But it is clear that whatever noble intentions he has, he will not achieve anything unless he tackles the chronic staffing difficulties across the prison estate. That will require resources which the Ministry of Justice does not have and which the Treasury is unlikely to provide given the state of public finances and other government priorities. The inescapable conclusion is that without the courage to drive through alternatives to custody for remand prisoners and offenders posing the lowest risk - in order to ease overcrowding and pressure on officers - prisons will be stuck in the same dismal cycle for years to come.

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