Number of experienced prison staff plummets amid concerns over safety and pay

Just 30% of prison officers have a decade or more of experience, down from 60% in 2017, analysis finds
HMP Wandsworth, from which Daniel Khalife escaped earlier this month. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The Ministry of Justice has been warned that it must address the retention crisis among prison staff after analysis found the number of experienced officers has plummeted over the last six years.

Analysis of MoJ figures by the Independent discovered that the number of prison officers with 10 years’ experience has dropped by more than 4,000 since 2017, from 11,100 to 6,681.

The analysis comes shortly after the escape of terror suspect Daniel Khalife from HMP Wandsworth, after which chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor said a lack of experienced staff was among a number of problems facing the prison.

As of June, just 30% of the 22,400 prison officers working in HM Prisons and Probation Service had a decade or more of experience – down from 60% in 2017.

More than 1,000 of these more experienced prison officers have been lost in the past year alone.

At last count, more than a third – 36% – of officers had three years’ experience or less, up from 27% in 2017.

Following Khalife’s escape earlier this month, Taylor told The Independent that “very inexperienced staff who just don’t know the ropes” were a concern.

“That’s fine if you’ve got one or two because you can mentor them or look after them. But we often come across instances where inexperienced staff are being mentored by those who are only slightly more experienced than them,” he said.

Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the charity Howard League for Penal Reform, told the newspaper that the loss of large numbers of long-serving staff had “created instability at every level of the system”, with “overstretched senior leadership teams in a state of flux while new staff with little training are parachuted in”.

This summer, a large-scale survey of prison officers in England and Wales found that around 40% of staff who deal directly with inmates wanted to leave their jobs in the next five years – against a backdrop of safety fears and widespread dissatisfaction over pay.

More than half of the HM Prison Service staff responsible for dealing directly with prisoners did not feel safe at work, the Justice Committee survey found.

The general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, Steve Gillan, urged ministers and HMPPS at the time to treat the findings as a “wake-up call”.

“Our members have been clear for years on subject matters of pay, terms and conditions and the manner they are being treated in the workplace,” he said.

Shortly after the committee’s report into prison staffing was published, committee chair Sir Bob Neill likened the loss of experienced staff in the service to a “powder keg”.

Addressing the House of Commons in July, Neill said it was “clear that there is a real issue with experienced officers leaving the service”.

“When things get difficult in prison, when those tensions threaten to boil over, and when there is potential dispute or violence on the wings, it is exactly those experienced officers – the old hands, the men and women who have been around the system – who know how to deal with sometimes quite damaged and challenging individuals,” he said.

“Their experience is more necessary than anyone’s to calm things down and to prevent things from escalating. Therefore, unless we have a proper strategy for retention, we are creating a potential powder keg for the future.”

An HMPPS spokesperson said: “We are doing more than ever to attract and retain the best staff, including starting salaries for officers which have risen from £22,000 to £30,000 since 2019.

"Our hardworking officers are also being equipped with the tools they need such as Pava spray and body-worn cameras, and x-ray body scanners prevent the smuggling of illicit contraband that fuels disorder. These measures are working and in addition to increasing the number of officers by 4,000 since 2017, retention rates for prison staff are now improving.”

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