The prison population must be cut and the public persuaded that incarceration is not always the answer, according to a senior figure in the Prison Officers Association who fears staff will have to die before politicians take action on the prisons crisis.

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the POA union – representing 35,000 public and private sector prison officers – said there is no way the Government can reform prisons without a genuine mea culpa of the mess created by politicians “obsessed with budget costs and driving down costs”.

Speaking days after David Gauke was announced as the sixth justice secretary in eight years – after David Lidington, Liz Truss, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Ken Clarke – Mr Gillan said constant changes at the top showed that prisons are a “forgotten service”.

“There is no consistency whatsoever,” he told me. “It just seems to me like ‘well, we’ll chuck someone in there, don’t worry about it’.

“We’re at a tipping point. Swapping secretaries of state every five minutes is not the solution. It shows how much contempt politicians have for the criminal justice system.”

Mr Gillan lays the blame for the crisis squarely at the door of the Coalition Government, under which prison officer numbers were slashed by a third in the name of spending cuts. 

Prisons are still reeling from the huge loss of expertise as thousands of long-serving prison officers hung up their key chains for voluntary redundancy in 2013.

The Government’s repeated aim of recruiting an extra 2,500 new officers – many of them graduates – will not plug the gap in numbers, experience or support already lost, Mr Gillan. 

“Every time there’s an assault or a riot, they trot out the same garbage. It’s smoke and mirrors, that’s all it is.

“They’ve effectively taken a profession and made it into a job where young people are now joining with no intention of ever staying. As fast as people are being recruited, they’re leaving.”

He recalled an incident the day before in which a prison officer was “throttled unconscious” in a cell nine days after completing her training. The police are investigating it as attempted murder.

“A prison officer described to me a couple of weeks ago that it’s come to the stage now when you’re looking at your family when you leave your house and wondering whether you’re going to be in one piece when you return to see them in the evening,” he said. “And this was a guy who had 20 years’ service in him and he said ‘I’m not sure I want to put my family through that anymore’.

According to the Government’s own statistics, self-harm, serious assaults inflicted by prisoners on other prisoners, and assaults against prison staff are all at “record highs”.  

Mr Gillan said he understood why people would “rather go and work in Tesco or Morrisons” for more pay and without the fear of getting assaulted every day.  

“I wonder when the next riot will be and whether we do see deaths,” he said when I asked what it would take for politicians to sit-up and take notice.


The basics of the job – once taken for granted by prison officers – have all but withered away, according to Mr Gillan.

Staff no longer have the time to understand prisoners’ needs, detect changes in their moods or talk to them so vulnerable inmates go unidentified. Officers are also provided with no official mental health training, he said.

Regular searching of cells for drugs, mobile phones and weapons is being left, as are perimeter searches around the grounds of prisons.

Prisoners are often on ‘lockdown’ in their cells so mere basics can be delivered. Further disruption is caused when officers need to be taken to hospital after inhaling the psychoactive drug Spice, he added.

“It’s a culture shock for the people coming in.” 

Quite. Particularly when the starting salary for a prison officer in some parts of the country is £19,000.

Training is also an issue.

“If you look at the Scandinavian model, it takes two years to fully train a prison officer to a degree standard,” Mr Gillan said. “Here, they’re rushing people through in nine weeks. They will take them through the basics – some prison service orders and instructions, first aid, race relations. They’re not on the wings. It should be properly structured over a two-year period to get you to a certain grade of educational standard so that it professionalises the job.”

He admitted that “the rot set in” when the POA agreed to benchmark public sector prisons against the private sector in order to reduce costs and keep Chris Grayling from privatising the majority of prisons in 2013 – the only move he felt would keep most of the service publicly-run.

“It’s a scandal that we have private prisons where shareholders are making a profit out of incarceration,” he added.

He said prison officers will not be able to deliver the Government’s reform agenda – assigning prison officers as ‘key workers’ to a set number of prisoners – even though many of them want to rehabilitate offenders.

Mr Gillan was keen to emphasise that some of the excellent relationships between staff and prisoners which remain is a testament to the dedication of prison officers.

But he added: “’Key workers’ is nothing new, it’s just regurgitated using different language. It used to be called the ‘personal officers’ scheme in the 1990s. In 1994, there were 43,000 prisoners. Now, there’s 86,000 prisoners with less staff than we had in 1994. So, it’s not going to work because prison officers will not have the time to do it properly.

“Prison officers do want to do a good job, but they don’t have the tools to do it. It’s a bit like asking someone to build a Rolls Royce and giving them a hammer and chisel.”


More staff and a broader shift in attitudes are the solutions, he believes.

“You’ve got to persuade the public that not everyone deserves to go to prison. Those who do need to go to prison should be the ones that society needs protecting from.

“We have to take the bull by the horns and reduce the prison population, divert people from prison and spend more money on communities rather than simply warehousing people and hoping for the best.

“I don’t think we should allow the Sun newspaper, the Daily Mail and the Murdoch empire to effectively tell us what our criminal justice should look like.”

He said politicians must show leadership to change public opinion and every MP with a prison in their constituency should visit it.

“There shouldn’t be politics in the criminal justice system. It should be all parties working together for the best outcomes because it’s in everyone’s interest to stop people coming to prison.

“And the reality is that the public do need to be told that 98% of prisoners at some stage will be released and surely it’s better to have someone who has been persuaded away from a life of crime and has been rehabilitated.

“Society needs to wake up to prison not always being the answer.

“When I see debates in the House of Commons on prisons, it’s a scandal that those green seats are empty.”


He said the narrative on prison reform must take into account victims and legitimate public concern.

“You’re always going to have to protect the public and I’ve got a lot of sympathy for victims of crime and I think sometimes they’re forgotten in the bigger picture when people are saying ‘we’ve got to do this for prisoners’,” he said. “It’s very difficult when you’ve got an 85-year-old woman who’s just been assaulted in her home – that poor woman is not going to feel anything towards those prisoners except ‘I want them banged up for a long, long time’ and I can understand that. The victims get forgotten about.

“I don’t think the public have the confidence in community sentencing because they see it as a very soft option.

“But I’ve seen the people with mental illness that shouldn’t be in prison, the people that perhaps in society we haven’t got to grips with to try to encourage them away from a life of crime and get them off drugs and alcohol. When I worked in the female estate, there were some poor souls in there who had been sexually abused by their fathers, their uncles and they self-harmed dreadfully.

“But, what do we do as a country? We lock them up. Just to keep locking people up and giving them no hope is not the answer. In society, if we don’t get crucial things right  decent housing, jobs, prospects, education  then we shouldn’t be surprised that people end up in prison.

“We will always need prisons. But do we need 86,000 in prisons? It’s a scandal on this country that we are locking up so many people.”

Mr Gillan said the Government is “setting itself up to fail” with its continued rhetoric on reform, without any extra funding. If anything, more cuts are understood to be on the way.

“They should take a step back and get back to basics and say ‘actually, it is out of control, we now need to determine a way forward with a plan of action this year and then we’ll measure it in 12 months’ time to see if we’re on the right track’. And not trying to be too ambitious in doing that.

“Admit that things are wrong – that, yes, they’ve cut too deep – and then move on and say ‘but we are now going to put it right’.

“But the only way they can do that is through investment. I know it’s difficult out there and everyone wants money, but unless you invest in your public services, we’re not going to have any public services left. Maybe that’s the idea of it. That this Government wants it all hived off to the private sector.”

Follow me on Twitter for prisons and criminal justice updates @Hardeep_Matharu