The Peculiarities Of Prison Officer Work

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Previously the role of a prison officer was merely a turnkey, expected to ensure that prisoners were behaving in a disciplined manner and safety was kept (Bennett et al., 2008). In the late nineteenth century and beyond, the role of the officer developed and changed, to a moral reformer. Previously seen as ‘invisible ghosts of penalty’ (Liebling, 200, p. 337), prison sociology depends on depiction of the guards as merely shadowy figure, peripheral influence (Sparks et al., 1996, p. 60) which would no longer be supported (Bennett et al., 2008).

In 1991 Lord Woolf and then Lord Chief Justice completed a review of the Prison Service (RT. Hon. Dell 1991), after the riots in HMP Strangeways. Lord Woolf found the problem that lies at the bottom of the heart of the work of the Prison Service. His results found a high standard and profound dedication of the majority of staff and their extreme devotion and passion to what they did (Coyle, 2016). The majority of prison staff were also very supportive of one another and had good relationship with prisoners. Majority of prison staff want to see positive changes to the prisons, although a disagreement was also noticed which occurred among all levels of Prison Service staff. They were crushed under a layer of depression (Coyle, 2016), as there was a not enough faith or belief in what they did was valuable. They harboured a profound feeling of disappointment that the work which they were dedicating to the service was not appreciated (Prison Disturbances: April 1990).

Due to the suggestions of the Woolf report, there have been many changes to the role of prison officers. The service seems to be more professionalised (Liebling et al., 2010) with one of the most positive changes being an improved arrangement among the main aims of the prison and the predispositions of prison staff. Since then, most officers seem to be more content with the public safety framework, and due to those changes, there is less role conflict and more understanding of a prison officer’s role in how to combine the security and care role. However, that has been obvious changes that has come with time: growth in population, the sentences have become more complex, therefore the demands on prison officers has grown, so the information about the prison staff is also not up to date anymore (Liebling et al., 2010).

In 2019 after the murder of two people at London Bridge, the Queen declared some changes in sentencing in her speech (they were murdered by convicted terrorist who has served only half of his sentenced). The new rules meant that the sentences for crimes that are more serious would be toughened, which includes terrorism (minimum time has increased to 14 years), murder and violent offences. From this point there would be no more half-way releases during the sentence. Criminals that have been given four or more years in prison (for the more serious crimes) would have to serve at least two-thirds of their sentence, before being able to be released. This also takes in consideration many people that potentially could spend their entire life in prison (UK Parliament, 2019).

And of course, there is as well competition from private sector, which results in competition with the numbers of staff to set the threshold, salary, compensation (Liebling et al., 2011). However, despite this research, prison staff have been neglected in academic literature. Hay and Sparks (1991, p. 1) questioned the role, as it seemed to them to have become inconsistent and barely defined. They felt that prison officer’s role does not really state what should be done on an everyday basis (cited in Liebling et al., 2010).

According to a former director general of the Prison Service, rehabilitation of criminals in prison is not successful and should be abolished (The Guardian, 2019). Sir Martin Narey (Narey, 2019) found in his research an underlying connection between rehabilitation and decreased recidivism is missing and short courses cannot repair issues produced by tough childhoods. According to him, the only thing prison can offer to the offenders is an environment where there is “decency and dignity” for them, as this provides them with the foundation to self- grow. He also said that dangerous prisons, with inappropriate environments, are stopping further growth and causing more damage for those who have to stay there (The Guardian, 2019).

Even though a crime committed in prison can be similar to the crime in society, there are some significant differences. Some prisoners that try to run illegal businesses, that have more entrepreneurial points of view, will attempt to make quick money and also aim to get as much as possible, and as those claims have to be carefully taken at face value, there are obviously prisoners that are getting richer from the business in prison. However as this is a big issue and goes beyond the problem of finding someone with possession of drugs or a mobile phone (Treadwell, 2019).

There are however things in place to try and control crime and protect both prisoners and staff members. Firstly, there was The Prison Act 1952, which has been updated since to Prison Rules 1999 (“the Prison Rules”). It contains rules for 29 crimes committed in prison and the punishment for them, that includes violating lawful instructions, declining a compulsory drug test, being in possession of an illegal item (drugs, phone), amongst others. If a prisoner has committed a crime, he potentially can face two justice and pseudo-justice procedures, depending on the severity of the crime (Treadwell, 2019).

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In August 2019, Boris Johnson initiated a £100m programme to try and tackle crime in prisons, alongside establishing ways to improve rehabilitation. This was an attempt to try and stop the drugs, weapons and mobile phones that are being smuggled into prisons, so victims and staff members can be safeguarded, and was supposed to make prisons appropriately prepared to reform and rehabilitate (BBC 08/2019).

According to the government website, to be good prison officer the person has to be respectful and considerate towards others (Government, 2019). In difficult situations, where tensions are high, they have to stay calm and civil. Also, they need to have good listening skills and be able to maintain order without ordering, to be able to recognise that prisoners are still people. A part of prisoner officer’s role is also to be positive towards rehabilitation, having that skill to support people while they want to make that change. An efficient officer uses authority sensibly and competently. They are reasonable and clear in how they require prisoners to accept the rules. By acting in this way, they are able to gain respect and trust (Liebling, 2011).

Modern prison staff provide professional treatment for prisoners and development programmes and perhaps have created an improved therapy intermediation role over the years. Research reveals, that if staff that have a constructive or human services orientation in their line of work, then they have a more rewarding work experience (Whitehead et al.,1987).

Prison staff have to work hard to meet standards of a good officer and gaining public support is a critical part of handling stress. When management have good systems in place, prison officers are able to provide prisoners with support and also able to access other forms of assistance. For staff, the ability to fulfil this part of their duty partly depends on their commitment to ask for this help from the prisoner.

According to data collected from 187 male maximum-security prisons, offenders barely ever ask for support; however, this also depends on the issue. It seems that prisoners seem to be more willing to report issues that are not based on emotional problems (Hobbs et al., 2000). The statistics indicate that inmates only access to assistance is through prison staff, so prisoners that need support would be hesitant to obtain help. Furthermore, if attempts to distinguish inmates at risk of self-harm were dependent on inmates' self-disclosure of distress, then these attempts may not be successful, as if they are committed to do it, they will (Hobbs et al., 2000).

Also, for the prisoner to approach the staff member, there has to be the bond of trust between them (Lombardo, 1989). However, this is only one of the issues between this bond. More ‘traditional culture’ and ‘punitiveness’ have different levels of thresholds, further than there are undesirable outcomes for prisoners. One of the big issues that occurs is when staff are too anti-management and anti-prisoner, with resilient and sceptical staff abusing their authority and holding off from inmates (Walker, 2017).There are however issues which arise when officers either abuse their position of power or establish personal relationships with certain prisoners. In those cases, the staff might be too trusting of prisoners, which is when corruption can occur (Coyle, 2003).

In some cases, personal circumstances can lead to wrong choices on the part of the officer. An officer’s cultural background can also affect how they look at crimes, opinions on situations can be impacted by numerous reasons involving mental health and different level of education. Where there is inconsistency, the officer may not be sure how to behave or what to do in a particular situation due to lack of knowledge or things not being in the right place (Walker, 2017).


As Logan (1992) stated, sometimes it seems that the prisoner officer is being too tough or not sympathetic enough towards the inmates, but in certain circumstances, this attitude leads to positive prisoner results. Certain approaches do not always translate into performance in a simple manner. As an alternative, they are reconciled by methods of expertise and competence, that are themselves linked to levels of knowledge and staffing relationships. The experience for prisoners is also affected by elements such as prison layout and material conditions, although they are less important and impactable then staff and their attitude in establishing the value of prison life for inmates.

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The Peculiarities Of Prison Officer Work. (2021, September 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from
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