Chief Inspector's blog: short-staffing in prisons must be tackled

HMP/YOI Woodhill near Milton Keynes and HMP Swaleside on the Isle of Sheppey are similar-sized men’s prisons that are part of the long-term, high-secure estate. Both house prisoners mainly from London and the South East who are often serving long sentences. Both jails have recently been in the headlines: Woodhill has been forced to close temporarily its high security separation centre, where prisoners are moved to prevent them radicalising other inmates. Swaleside, meanwhile, experienced serious, concerted indiscipline requiring the intervention of specialist tornado teams to restore order.

In the last 18 months we have conducted full inspections of both prisons and, more recently, followed up with shorter independent reviews of progress. Both establishments were, and continued to be, seriously short-staffed.

So serious was the situation at Woodhill, that we considered making just one overarching recommendation – get enough officers.

This situation was not new. Reports going back many years describe a similar picture at the jail. In 2014, we said that the amount of time prisoners were spending out of their cells ‘was very limited and reduced by staff shortages’. Likewise, in 2018, we described the staffing situation as ‘underpinning nearly all the concerns raised in this report’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when we returned to Woodhill in April for our interim review, staff shortages continued to inhibit progress despite significant effort from the leadership team.

The lack of staff at Swaleside had also severely affected prison life. In our report in 2021, our first key concern was that: ‘Only around three-quarters of prison officers were available and there was a severe shortage of workshop instructors, programme delivery facilitators, health care staff, probation officers, operational support grades and caterers.’

When we returned last month for an interim review of progress, we found that the staffing situation was even worse, and the prison was still running a heavily restricted regime. Some staff and prisoners told us they felt unsafe, and levels of prisoner-on-prisoner violence had increased.

As at Woodhill, the problem of recruitment and retention was not new. The 2014 inspection report said of the offender management unit: ‘acute staff shortages had completely undermined this crucial function’ while in 2019 we said the unit was ‘chronically understaffed’.

Both prisons hold men who are serving long sentences, some of whom were in prison long before the pandemic struck. In many cases they have spent far more time in jail than the staff who are looking after them. They have also experienced past prison regimes that were less constricted with more time out of cell and better opportunities to work or attend education. Sentence plans, that set out what the prisoner needs to do to progress to less secure jails, often demand that they attend an accredited programme designed to reduce their level of risk, but shortages of staff to deliver this work mean that prisoners feel stuck and a key incentive for good behaviour is lost.

The risk for both prisons is that, as staffing levels fall, violence increases as prisoners become more frustrated. This can mean more officers leave because they feel unsafe, further adding to the difficulties at the jail.

The situation at Woodhill and Swaleside is particularly acute, with long-term, often high-risk prisoners becoming increasingly disgruntled. But we see similar difficulties with staffing in most prisons in the South East of England, where prisons have to compete with local businesses able to offer higher wages or greater flexibility, and there is competition from other prisons for staff. Jails in more remote parts of the country also struggle. Swaleside, of course, suffers from both factors.

Questions must be asked about the recruitment process, given that so many officers leave so quickly. Governors say that they can often tell very quickly which new recruits do not have the capabilities to be successful and some appear to have no idea what the job will entail. This suggests that not enough filtering is done by the prison service during the recruitment process. It also seems bizarre to me, as a former headteacher, that governors have no say over the officers who come to work in their prison and the first time they meet their new recruits is when they walk through the door on day one. The work of a prison officer is highly skilled, difficult, and at times dangerous. It also varies greatly between different prisons. Given the importance to governors of having the right team in place, this practice seems archaic.

Prison staff tell me that new recruits are getting younger. While, previously, many joined in their mid-twenties after working elsewhere – often in the forces – some new staff members have only recently left school. Prison leaders have begun to recognise that, although many of these recruits have the potential to become outstanding officers, they need more support than in the past. There is some promising work in jails such as Featherstone to put in place more comprehensive mentoring for new officers, with the aim of reducing the high numbers who currently quit within their first year.

Existing, experienced staff also need appropriate support. The prison service seems to suffer from high levels of staff sickness, with some jails particularly affected. On my visits I have been surprised by how little input officers receive, compared with their contemporaries in secure mental health settings who get weekly clinical supervision. Of course, prison officers need to be resilient, but I have been encouraged to see examples where more thought has gone into the effect that dealing with violence and aggression has on staff. In the segregation unit at Thameside, officers were given regular opportunities to talk with members of the psychology team, which they found invaluable, particularly after they had dealt with a serious incident.

Other prisons are trying out new ways of increasing and maintaining the workforce. For example, at Onley, another jail with some serious recruitment issues, leaders are piloting the recruitment of more part-time workers and considering ways to make the working pattern more amenable to family life. At Portland, the prison is putting officers who live near each other onto the same shift so they can save money by sharing a car to work.

There have also been pay rises for officers, which at some grades have been quite considerable. It is too early to see the effect, but it should at least help to stem the flow of resignations and maintain a reasonably healthy pipeline of trainees.

Drastic measures in prisons as chronically understaffed as Swaleside and Woodhill could involve temporarily reducing prisoner numbers, but that would mean housing inmates further away from home and puts pressure on other, already stretched prisons.

It seems clear that successful prisons that are running well have fewer issues with retaining their best staff. The behaviour of prisoners also has a direct effect on the morale of officers, so making sure that there is a more open and productive daily regime with genuine opportunities to learn and work will help to make prisons happier and safer.

I do not pretend that there is an easy solution here. The scale of the task is huge. But situations as dire as those in Swaleside and Woodhill simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Read the reports:

HMP/YOI Woodhill

HMP Swaleside