Prison staff recruitment drive undermined as record number of officers leave
Last year witnessed both the highest prison officer recruitment and departure levels in years, new government statistics have revealed. The new figures demonstrate how the gradual impact of government recruitment drives has been undermined by the large number of staff deciding to leave the service.
A Ministry of Justice bulletin details how 2,314 band 3 officers were appointed to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) during the 12 months up to March 2017 – the second highest annual figure since current records began in 2010. This included a record number of joiners in a single quarter. At the same time, 1,834 band 3 to 5 officers left the service – the highest number to date (excluding periods when voluntary exit schemes were offered).
High recruitment and departure levels pose complex issues for the service with almost a quarter of current officers with just two years of experience or less – an increase from 16% last year. At the same time, the proportion of officers with 10 or more years of experience has dropped from 63% a year ago to 61%.
Experienced officers play an essential role in managing complex scenarios and successfully mentoring new recruits. For example, as many officers have pointed out, those with low experience are often poorly equipped to deal with complex mental health-related incidents, an issue which partly contributed to a record number of prisoners taking their own lives in the last year.
Prisons continue to face staffing shortages. According to the MoJ, the total service boasts just 75 additional band 3 to 5 officers compared to this time last year including HMP Berwyn, the new ‘super prison’ in Wales, which opened earlier this year. Even discounting this caveat, such a slight rise is alarmingly insufficient for a service that has been actively recruiting since numbers hit a record low in 2014.
Low staffing levels have contributed to escalating violence, inadequate attention for vulnerable prisoners, and reduced capacity to educate and train inmates. Staff shortages also place often unbearable pressure on staff themselves. Indeed, the statistics show that mental and behavioural disorders, which include stress related absences, accounted for almost a third of staff sick days (32%) in the last year.
Such struggles often also lead to decisions to abandon the post. Leaving rates across NOMS have been on the rise since 2010 and in the past year rose to 9.4% – an increase of 2% compared to the previous year. Staff resignations account for almost half of staff leaving the service. This trend is also highly regional, with staff departing prisons in Kent, Surrey and Essex at the particularly high rate of 15.7%.
The Prison Officers Association has highlighted the issues of low pay and poor safety levels to explain the ongoing issues around employee recruitment and retention. A key focus of the proposed Prisons and Courts Bill, which was abandoned last month, fell on increasing prison staffing levels through the recruitment of an additional 2,500 officers. It also planned to introduce special mental health training for staff in order to tackle the escalating levels of violence and self-harm levels behind bars. New initiatives such as the new Unlocked Graduates programme, meanwhile, aims to increase the prestige of the role among young people leaving university.
The statistics also illustrate a reduction in operational prison staff numbers and a 20% increase in the amount of probation officer departures compared to the previous year.
Piers is presently working for a charity which promotes children's rights. He was online editor at Not Shut Up, a magazine celebrating prisoner creativity