2 September 2022

How the next Lord Chancellor can restore our battered, broken prison service


When the dust finally settles on the Conservative leadership contest next week we will see the appointment of the seventh consecutive Lord Chancellor under a fully Conservative administration.

The possible reappointment of Robert Buckland to the coterminous Secretary of State for Justice post he was fired from last September would be a welcome way to foul up the statistics, but also a stark reminder of how little justice seems to matter as a Government priority. The party of law and order is a crime scene. Broken prisons, striking criminal barristers and crumbling logjammed courts are but some of the consequences of this neglect.

Maybe there’s some relief in sight. The racing certainty for Number 10, Liz Truss, occupied the post herself, so she must be aware of the dire and dysfunctional state of the Ministry of Justice – a relatively new and not much loved Blairite confection of all the policy and operational odds-and-sods the Home Office didn’t want. To her credit, Truss did fight the Treasury for an emergency uplifted in the number of prison officers, whose ranks were decimated under her predecessor Chris Grayling.

So what ought to be top of the next Lord Chancellor’s in-tray?

Let’s stick with four priority challenges posed by prisons – by far the MoJ’s biggest item in terms of both headcount and expenditure.

The first is front line attrition and safety. The leaving rate of operational prison officers is an overlooked catastrophe that the Titanic senior leadership of that service seem helpless to prevent. The annual leaving rate is now 15%, including many expensively recruited and trained new staff who don’t even make it out of probation.

The reasons? The service is fishing in the same pond as buoyant police recruitment, while offering poor salaries, poorer leadership and appalling working conditions where violence is endemic. There should be an immediate and fundamental review of recruitment and training doctrine, together with a national strategy for recruiting and retaining staff in so-called ‘black sites’ – prisons, mostly in the south-east, that simply cannot compete with other employers for salaries, let alone working conditions. This matters. The Chief Inspector of Prisons wrote recently about HMP Woodhill in Milton Keynes, a prison that separates and holds the most dangerous and sophisticated terrorists we have, which is blighted by chronic staff shortages. That’s a completely unacceptable risk to national security. 

The second and related challenge is staff welfare. Front line staff sickness rates are running at an average of 16 days a year. It’s closer to 19 days for staff working with young offenders. We know that at least 50% of this is due to stress. Not only is this colossally wasteful and dangerous, it means that prisoners who should be unlocked to get on with training, education and offending behaviour programmes are stuck behind their doors well after the excuse of Covid lockdown fastened them there.

It’s no wonder that rates of self-harm and violence against staff are rising. On average nearly two prison staff a day are seriously assaulted – a definition that includes stabbing, crushing, scalding or the loss of an eye. Yet this national organisation with a headcount of over 58,000, deploying people to one of the most hostile working environments in Europe, still does not have an integrated staff welfare service worth the name. A new Secretary of State willing to force through radical staff welfare improvements – on a service that sometimes gives the impression it regards its uniformed workforce as a necessary inconvenience – would simultaneously boost badly flagging morale and reverse the fiscal drain of sickness and resignations. Couple that with a national and independently chaired prison officer safety taskforce with the ministerial authority and resources to make change and the impact will be consequential. You can’t help fix broken people with broken staff.

The third challenge is organisational. Getting the right people in the right numbers in the right places in our prisons working safely to rehabilitate offenders is an enormous challenge. It requires huge qualities from senior leaders. The current Prison and Probation Service Headquarters with an eye-watering headcount of over 5,000 people ought to contain the talent to do this surely?

Maybe not. This after all is an organisation that boasts about the recruitment of 48 ‘strategic housing specialists’ costing around £1.5m a year to replicate and confuse the work of already existing probation officers and already empowered local authorities to house homeless people leaving prison. If the only answer to a problem is more fatuous and costly layers of bureaucracy – the job descriptions are a classic of the genre – then it’s a metaphor for a failing organisational culture.

At the senior management level, there are more changes than a Paris fashion show. Chief Operating officers fall over, Chief Executive Officers, Directors General, Executive Directors and Prison Group Directors swap places in an ever-changing closed shop of mediocrity.

Before ministers are briefed into submission and learned helplessness by this lot, it might be worth asking three things. Firstly, what the hell are all these people for? Secondly, do we have the people and structures that will deliver safety and stability on the prison landings? Finally, in an allegedly uniformed law enforcement agency, why aren’t operational prison Governors at the top of this toppling hierarchy? In an organisation that likes its senior management coronations at moments of maximum opportunity, it may be worth contrasting this with the fact that we spent over £1bn on prisons and have the worst reoffending rates in the developed world. But this is always someone else’s fault. 

The final challenge after a well-led, well-protected and high morale professional workforce is the ratio of staff to inmates. We are on track to lock up more people for longer in institutions that are structurally and morally failing people either side of the cell door. We can and should arrest and convict our way out of an upsurge in violent crime. The only way we can safely deal with these people is by punishment and reform for those who harm others. The idea that two or three harried and fearful prison officers looking after 120 prisoners in a wing with rocketing levels of distress can achieve this is simply delusional.

The only way we can feasibly rehabilitate the people we are frightened of is by clearing prisons of people like non-violent, drug addicted, acquisitive offenders whose sole purpose in custody, you’d be forgiven for thinking, is to be made worse. Otherwise we can never have enough men and women who are willing to put on a uniform to work in our prisons, unseen and unremarked. Until it’s your turn to be the next victim.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.