Thousands of prison officers ‘want out’: Survey flags safety and pay concerns

Justice Committee chair dubs large-scale research findings “shocking” as prison service battles staff shortages
HMP Birmingham Photo: Google Maps

By Jim Dunton

23 Jun 2023

A comprehensive survey of prison officers in England and Wales has found that around 40% of staff who deal directly with inmates want to leave their jobs in the next five years – against a backdrop of safety fears and widespread dissatisfaction over pay.

The picture of job disaffection and concern comes in stark research undertaken for parliament’s Justice Committee that received responses from more than 6,500 HM Prison Service staff at bands 2 to 5 earlier this year, a response rate of roughly 25%.

The survey’s findings indicate that more than 10,000 prison officers and support workers expect to leave the Prison Service over the next five years. Forty-two percent of respondents at bands 3 to 5 – who deal directly with prisoners inside jails – said they planned to leave in that timeframe. That would equate to a loss of more than 9,000 officers.

A third of band 2 staff – who support prison officers with gate procedures, censorship of mail and phones, and reception duties – said they expected to leave within five years. At staffing levels that were correct in the weeks shortly before the survey was undertaken, that would result in a loss of just over 1,700 staff.

Nearly 25% of band 3-5 officers said they would look to find new work in a border-control role if they left their job within the coming months. Other popular options included police work and jobs in different parts of the public sector.

Overall, around half of the respondents who deal directly with prisoners said they did not feel safe at work. The figure was significantly lower (26%) for band 2 staff.

Staff at all categories of women’s prison felt safer than their counterparts at men’s facilities. However, prison officers at young offender institutions had the highest level of concerns about their personal safety, with 65% reporting they felt unsafe at work.

Fewer than a quarter of band 2-5 staff said the physical working conditions at their prison were “adequate”. Eighty-four percent of band 3-5 officers said their prison did not have enough staff to ensure that prisoners could engage in purposeful activities; 57% of band 2 staff held the same view.

Pay 'does not reflect responsibilities'

The vast majority of respondents said they did not believe their salaries reflected the roles and responsibilities of their job. Eighty-three percent of band 2 staff expressed that view; 80% of band 3-5 staff also supported the sentiment.

Four out of five respondents said they believed their salary was not in line with that of officials in other public-sector jobs. Resentment is likely to have grown in recent weeks because the survey was conducted in February and March this year, and does not factor in prison officers’ controversial exclusion from the £1,500 cost-of-living payment that ministers tabled for other rank-and-file civil servants this month.

The government’s logic for the move is that prison officers have a pay-review body, unlike departmental officials below senior civil service grades, that will make recommendations for officers’ 2023-24 award. It could propose a similar one-off uplift.

'Damning indictment'

Justice Committee chair Sir Bob Neill said the survey findings – which will feed into an ongoing inquiry by the panel of MPs – were a “shocking” reflection of sentiment in the Prison Service.

“We’ve known as a committee for some time that there are severe staff shortages in prisons and that many prison officers are unhappy with their lot,” he said.

“They don’t feel they can carry out vital rehabilitation work with prisoners. But when I learn from this survey that fully half of our prison staff do not feel safe at work, that is still deeply concerning.  

“This position is not acceptable. The government risks failing in its duty of care to prison staff and prisoners alike. We are sitting on a potential time bomb.  It must be defused”.

The Prison Officers Association said the survey’s findings were a “damning indictment” on the working conditions staff faced, but only confirmed what ministers had been warned of for years.

The union's general secretary, Steve Gillan, said a root-and-branch review was required, starting with a Royal Commission into prisons and the wider justice system.

“I am not surprised by the findings from the survey,” he said. “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.

“This is a wake-up call for government and indeed senior officials within HMPPS.”

An HM Prison Service spokesperson said a range of measures was being taken to improve staff safety, including the provision of PAVA synthetic pepper spray, and that prison officer pay was now at least £28,880 a year.

“Our hardworking frontline staff work day-in, day-out, to rehabilitate offenders and protect the public – and it is vital they have the right tools and equipment to keep them safe,” the spokesperson said.

“That’s why we’re further improving safety in our jails by investing in PAVA spray and body worn cameras, as well as X-ray body scanners to keep out the dangerous contraband that fuels violence behind bars. We’re also boosting training on the job and prison officer pay to help us hire and retain the best people.”

The Justice Committee launched its inquiry into workforce pressures in the Prison Service in November last year,  noting that the number of staff working in the key officer roles in the secure estate had “fallen significantly” in recent years.

At that time, it said there had been a drop of 600 staff in prison officer and custodial roles over the previous 12 months and that the numbers leaving the service were increasing despite initiatives to support new employees and aid development.

In 2016, then-justice secretary Liz Truss launched a drive to recruit 2,500 additional prison officers to offset a 30% fall in headcount during the early years of the coalition government, which saw numbers hit a low of 14,607.

The Justice Committee said there were 21,632 full-time equivalent public-sector prison officers at bands 3-5 in December 2022. There were 5,159 full-time equivalent band 2 staff in that month.

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