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Prison officers need people skills

I am writing in response to a speech given by Sir Martin Narey at the Annual Conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association, which took place in October. Sir Martin, former Director General of HM Prison Service for England & Wales, set out his beliefs as to what prisons should be like and the changes that should take place.

Sir Martin’s belief is that prisons shouldn’t bother with trying to rehabilitate prisoners, but instead they should be made into decent places to stay. He argues: ‘Forget all the cures and innovations.  Just make prisons decent and respectful places where perhaps, our children could safely live. And as you do so, some prisoners will take the opportunity to change’.

I am a prisoner serving a 2-year sentence for fraud, so not your average prisoner, I’m 22-years old, Enhanced and at an open prison. After 3-weeks in custody I was already here at an open prison. That took hard work and dedication and I’ve lost count of how many letters I’ve sent to governors, the IMB and my Offender Supervisor. This taught me that if you want something in prison then you have to fight for it and liase with staff.

Before coming to prison, I worked extensively across the criminal justice system and within prisons. I have seen both sides of the system, and I have always believed in rehabilitation and supporting prisoners to prepare for release, which is what the Prison Service purpose statement stands for. I agree with Sir Martin that prisons need to be decent and that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. But, I would say to Sir Martin that staff treating prisoners with dignity and respect is rehabilitation in itself.

Staff act as role-models and subsequently create a rehabilitative culture. I have always driven for prison reform to better support changing the lives of prisoners and prevent reoffending. In my opinion, this change lies with prison officers themselves. They have the ultimate role to play and I would argue this point until I go blue in the face.

We need prison officers that focus on rehabilitation of prisoners and their impact on the wider rehabilitation agenda. During my work in prisons I have seen how good prison officers have changed lives and prisoners’ way of thinking. For example; a 5-minute chat could change a prisoner’s view, encourage engagement with staff, encourage engagement with rehabilitative activities like education or job searches, therefore preparing that prisoner for release.

So, how about we train prison officers in having good people skills? I would argue that this could have the biggest effect in rehabilitating prisoners. For Sir Martin to say, ‘Rehabilitation in prison is virtually impossible’, is, I feel, a wrong assumption. We should at least try to rehabilitate and not just give up on prisoners. By prison officers having a 5-minute chat to a prisoner, they can find the barriers to their rehabilitation and then work hard to overcome these in order to create the rehabilitative culture that prisons should be striving for.

Prison officers are on the front line and are the information gatherers. Key workers, personal officers and ACCT assessors all have a role to play in the daily interventions they have with prisoners, but if these conversations are not recorded and shared with others, then how can we expect the adequate individual rehabilitative needs of that prisoner to be ever met?

My point is that just positively interacting with prisoners can make a massive impact on how they view staff and their willingness to engage. For example, if a prisoner tells staff that he/she would like to start up a business on release, then the prison officer may be aware of a business course running and make the prisoner aware of it. That 5-minute chat could change a prisoner’s life, but what that prison officer has contributed towards is the wider rehabilitative agenda. By that I mean by preventing the prisoner from reoffending brings down the associated cost of reoffending (currently at £18.1 billion annually according to a House of Commons speech by Bob Neil MP, Chairman of the Justice Select Committee), it reduces crime and victims, makes the public safer, increases public confidence, brings down the prison population, which in turn prevents overcrowding, which means we can then have the decent conditions Sir Narey talks about.

Although Sir Martin has good intentions and I agree with the need to have decent conditions, I feel that rehabilitation is vital and that prison officers need to use their people skills to implement this effectively.

This article has been initially published in Inside Time Newspaper on 8 December 2019:

You can watch Sir Martin Narey’s presentation here: 

Author: Jack D, HMP North Sea Camp

Image: Singapore Prison Service

Published on: 10/01/2020