Arming prison officers

Prison officers demand Tasers to defend themselves

I heard on the radio this morning that prison officers are calling for better protection against violent prisoners.

Currently, I understand there are 19 attacks on prison staff every single day in British prisons. Understandably, those on the receiving end of it want to be able to protect themselves from such attacks.

The suggestion is that prison officers be armed with taser guns and CS spray in addition to the batons they already carry, which many seem to feel is inadequate. In addition, they want stab vests and body worn cameras. The last is presumably to deter violence against them and capture evidence of it when it does occur.

You can understand why they would want such protection when you hear stories of prisoners attacking each other over the most minor provocation and prison officers having to step in to break up the ensuing mess. As one anonymous prison officer says, "I've seen it first hand where a prisoner has attacked another prisoner with a razor blade over a packet of tobacco. If you're on your own and you see something like that, which we did, you could be trying to split 15 to 20 blokes up."

Prison officers are reporting serious stress that leads them to drink to excess to cope, another prison officer told the BBC, "I hate it. And I just hope that at end of day I come away in one piece. I didn't drink before. But I drink most days just to get through. When I'm on holiday, I'm fine. [I drink] a lot, too much. Probably a bottle of spirits a night. Then we get up in the morning and pretend nothing is wrong as we have to put on a front."

The violence in prisons may well be related to drug abuse, which now seems to be rife with prison offers reporting three or four drug related incidents every day leading to ambulances being called to deal with the casualties.

With respect to the prison officers calling for new weapons I think they are barking up the wrong tree. Dolling out violence to control the prison population doesn’t seem to be very effective in the USA where 19% of prisoners claim to have been assaulted by other inmates and 21% claim to be victims of prison staff. Up to 9% of the male prison population claim to have been sexually assaulted behind bars – that equates to 180,000 male victims. The chances of a female prisoner being sexually assaulted are even higher. Although, women make up just 7% of the US prison population they account for 22% of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual violence and 33% of staff-on-prisoner sexual violence.

At the Winn Correctional Center, immediate force is used by prison staff 40 times more frequently than at other similar sized institutions and yet it still experienced 12 stabbings in two-months and 114 weapons were found, which is three-times as many as at other similar sized institutions.

In my opinion, prison officers call for more weaponry is misjudged. What the prison service needs it more prison officers. The government promised an extra 2,500 prison officers last November but so far it doesn’t look as if any have been delivered. If you read the final paragraph of this story, which is also where many of the quotes I’ve used come from, you’ll note that the Ministry of Justice reminds us of its promise to provide more staff, had they recruited any significant numbers you’d think they would have told us about it!

But let’s put that 2,500 in perspective anyway because since 2010 there has been a cull of 7,000 prison officers, meaning that even with the promised new staff the prison service will still be 4,500 officers below its strength in 2010! 

I would suggest that what is needed is not more weapons but either more prison officers or fewer prisoners.

Too few staff (or too many prisoners for the available staff) means people are not searched properly on arrival at prison and the walls cannot be properly patrolled meaning drugs, phones and other contraband can sneak it – or just be thrown over the wall! Too few staff also means that prisoners cannot be treated properly inside the prison so it is harder to work with them, monitor them and generally do all the things prison officers should be doing.

It’s not just about numbers though, it’s also about training and the quality of people you hire. Currently, prison officer training takes 10-weeks to put that in perspective Essex Police training takes 48 weeks and in Scotland it’s 104 weeks!

So, while the prison service could tool up its staff experience from other jurisdictions suggests that may do little to kerb violence in prisons, which isn’t a surprise since it seems pretty common sense to treat the cause of a problem rather than the symptoms. In this case, the cause is drugs and a lack of staff to properly police the prisons. The cure is to either give the prison service the staff necessary to do the job or cut back on the number of people in prison. The problem with the first is that the government has cut back in so many areas that to restore them all to an effective level is now prohibitively expensive and reducing the prison population never goes down well with the tabloids or Tory party members

How do you effectively reduce the prison population? You sentence more people to community sentences and let probation do their thing to prevent future offending. The only problem with that is that the government has cut probation and botched the privatisation of probation services by fibbing to bidding companies about how much money they could make and so causing them to reduce staff, which in turn inhibits their ability to address reoffending.

Who said cuts don’t have consequences?


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