Retention problems plague MoJ's boost to prison officer numbers

The Ministry of Justice recruited record numbers this year but is still losing experienced staff

Government has turned its attention to recruitment after a 30% cut in frontline prison officers between 2010 and 2013. Credit: Anthony Devlin/PA 

By Tamsin Rutter

18 Aug 2017

The Ministry of Justice has hired the most prison officers in the past 12 months since records began – but it is also seeing a leaving rate of almost 10% among frontline staff.

In the 12 months to June 2017, 2,930 new prison officers were appointed, an 85% increase on the year before and the highest rate of recruitment since 2007.

There are now 18,755 frontline prison officers in England and Wales, up from 18,090 in 2016, according to MoJ figures published yesterday. This is an increase of 665, or 3.7%.

But critics say government has made little headway on its problems with retention, with Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, pointing out the discrepancy between the appointment of nearly 3,000 new staff and the net employee increase of just 665.


In total, 4,763 staff joined Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) in 2017, while 3,910 people left the service. The leaving rate across HMPPS was 8.3%, and among frontline prison officers it was 9.3%.

Responding to the boost in prison officer numbers, Crook told Civil Service World: “Whilst going in the right direction, this isn’t going to solve problems. The problem is that there are too many prisoners.”

Following a 30% cut in prison officer numbers between 2010 and 2013, under then-justice secretary Chris Grayling, a rise in the prison population and reports of violence and deaths in prisons forced the government to turn its attention to recruitment.

Former justice secretary Liz Truss pledged to reform the service, give prison governors more flexibility over local recruitment, and make the newly formed HMPPS a place that would attract “the brightest and best talent”, where staff would be “proud to work”. The government’s target is to recruit 2,500 new prison officers by 2018.

But Crook points out that the MoJ is failing to retain experienced employees.

“Chris Grayling cut 40% of the staff - not just frontline prison officers but also governors and managers,” she said. “[There are now] a lot of young new officers, and it takes years to learn to be a prison officer. It’s a profession as well as a vocation.”

She added: “They [the government] are in a downward spiral of their own making.”

The MoJ says it is on track to appoint 2,500 officers by 2018, announcing that 738 further job offers have been made to potential recruits who are expected to start after June 2018.

It also said that 600 people had applied for the 40 places available on the new Unlocked Graduates scheme, which is modelled on Teach First and aims to professionalise the prison service. The 40 recruits have started work at prisons around London.

David Lidington, the justice secretary, highlighted this programme was an opportunity for students to develop “vital and diverse skills whilst completing a Master’s degree”, and said the record staffing numbers show that recruitment efforts are working.

“Boosting the frontline is critical to achieving safety regimes and I am committed to building on these figures,” he added.

Natasha Porter, the chief executive of Unlocked Graduates, said the scheme has challenged assumptions that the role of prison officer could never appeal to graduates.

“The overwhelming interest in our programme shows an incredible desire from graduates to tackle one of the major social challenges of our time and provide the skills that will equip you for many future careers," she said.

“We are particularly pleased that our first graduates will so visibly challenge the misconception that prison officers are older, white men."


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