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27 January 2023

Healthy relationships between staff and prisoners key to delivering government ambitions for prisons

Evidence submitted to the House of Commons Justice Committee warns that the fundamental operating model for our prisons, built on relationships rather than coercion, is under threat as a generation of staff only experience a way of working that rarely sees prisoners unlocked.

Our evidence to the Justice Committee inquiry on the prison workforce, which has just been published, draws heavily on contributions from members of the Prisoner Policy Network. It’s striking that their contributions are very sympathetic to the challenges that officers face. They understand that the way officers treat prisoners depends on the way the prison service treats officers. As one member put it:

“[Officers] should receive in depth one-to-one sessions with superiors on a regular basis, just to ensure the wellbeing of staff. If they’re expected to deliver this to prisoners they should be offered it themselves.”

Prisoner Policy Network member

PPN members also endorsed a model of running prisons that depends on the relationships between the people who work in prisons and the people who have to live there:

“A settled regime is a settled person and a settled person can think about what needs to be done to get through the sentence, to maintain sanity and to be a better person on release and in the prison sentence. For all of that you need to be around people, you need to be exposed to new ways of thinking, you need to be challenged, you would need to have relationships, and you would need to feel safe enough to reach out for help.”

Prisoner Policy Network member

It’s all too obvious that the disastrous rate at which new recruits are leaving, compounded by sick absence, mean that staffing shortages are crippling prison regimes. But it’s also apparent that the current situation owes more to the mismanagement of prison policy by governments over the last decade than to the temporary impact of the pandemic. Our evidence reminds the committee both of its sensible conclusions the last time it considered these issues in 2009 — and of the then government’s complacent response. No workforce strategy can overcome the obstacles of running a service in a state of perpetual crisis and an overcrowded and dilapidated estate.

Our evidence warns that the fundamental operating model for our prisons, built on relationships rather than coercion, is under threat as a generation of staff only experience a way of working that rarely sees prisoners unlocked. None of the government’s many ambitions for prisons can be realised if that threat turns into reality.

Justice Committee evidence

Read our evidence to the Justice Committee’s inquiry on the prison operational workforce.

Read here