The safety of Britain’s prison staff hit the headlines earlier this week, with concerns raised surrounding the issue of employees being expected to work alone at a time when some fear an increase in violence is pushing the system to breaking point.
It has emerged that following a change in working practices, contracted prison maintenance staff at HMP Liverpool were required to do jobs alone which had previously been allocated to pairs. Workers carrying out repairs felt this may put them at greater risk as prisoners could potentially steal their tools to use against them in a violent assault.
One former employee commented, “I see it as a bag of tools, somebody else will see it as a bag of weapons.”
It’s likely that this case is not isolated and the problem may be worse than immediately thought, as low staffing levels are reportedly commonplace in Britain’s prisons. Looking at the wider issue raises the question if lone working is appropriate in such a high-risk environment.
Officers and other employees within the prison service will testify that the unpredictable nature of dealing with dangerous individuals can be incredibly volatile. This often makes security measures reactionary as although the threat is constant, it can be hard to predict just how and when violence will flare up. Fulfilling the Duty of Care obligation to prison workers is therefore more challenging, but their employers still have a responsibility to measure the level of risk and take steps to reduce this where possible.
Discussing the situation faced by staff, Head of Prison Officer’s Association (POA), Mark Fairhurst explains: “It’s absolutely horrendous at the moment. Our members are getting assaulted at a rate of 19 per day. I’d like to see our members routinely issued with stab-proof vests, Tasers, PAVA (irritant) spray and rigid cuffs.”
Incidents of serious rioting are also occurring more often, with full-scale riots breaking out notably at HMP Birmingham and HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire. At HMP Birmingham 600 inmates took control of an entire wing, whilst in Worcestershire staff were attacked with pool balls forcing the Police to send in their Tornado Team to restore order.
Tornado Teams are specialist officers who are deployed in cases of major prison disturbances and the need for their intervention is becoming more frequent. In 2012, Tornado Teams were called to just two incidents, by 2017 this had increased to 19. Some have put the reason for this down to the availability of illegal drugs smuggled in by drones.
Speaking of the danger, Mark Fairhurst said: “When you attend riots it’s just like a war zone. You put your life on the line. It’s very frightening, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
In response, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice said: “We are committed to making prisons places of safety and reform. It is vital we do everything we can to tackle those issues that undermine security in our prisons and ensure they are safe environments for both staff and prisoners.”
They added, “We do not tolerate violence against our hardworking staff. Where incidents occur we will always work closely with the police to push for the strongest possible punishment.”
Summing things up, prison officer and POA Branch Secretary, David Tennick wrote on Twitter that prison officers “are not guards or wardens,” adding that he would personally “welcome any new measures brought in to protect staff.”
Given the current circumstances this is perhaps a sentiment that many working within Britain’s prison service would echo.