Skip to main content

UK: Prisons officers protest over staff shortages and safety concerns

United Kingdom

Thousands of prison officers across England and Wales began a 24-hour day of protest on 15 November 2016 over health and safety concerns, after negotiations with the government on staffing failed. UK law proscribes industrial action by prison officers, and they were forced back to work the same day by a High Court injunction.

Thousands of prison officers across England and Wales began a 24-hour day of protest on 15 November 2016 over health and safety concerns, after negotiations with the government on staffing failed. UK law proscribes industrial action by prison officers, and they were forced back to work the same day by a High Court injunction. 


Prison officers protested on 15 November 2016 over concerns about their health and safety and that of prisoners. The Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the union that represents workers in the penal and secure psychiatric sector, claimed the service was in meltdown, citing a continued surge in violence by prisoners and unprecedented levels of suicide and acts of self-harm by inmates.

Numerous suggestions have been made about the underlying causes of these trends. These include a rise in the prison population alongside major staff shortages, attributed largely to ongoing funding cuts. The POA points out that although the prison population has increased over the past five years, there has been a 28% reduction in the numbers of frontline operational staff.

Other sources also cite a cut in officer numbers from 25,000 to fewer than 18,000 since 2010. Lower staffing levels mean that officers cannot prevent illegal drugs entering prisons. There have been instances of drugs being delivered to inmates by drones or thrown over prison walls.

The wide availability of drugs (including the psychoactive substance known as ‘spice’) has been closely associated with the rise in violence and assaults. There are also reports of knives being brought in by drones. In 2015, the annual report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons said the UK’s prisons were in their worst state for 10 years, confirming that the use of drugs was fuelling violence. The report said  the accelerating increase in serious assaults was the most alarming feature of deteriorating standards. The number of murders in prisons is also at its highest level since records began.

The Ministry of Justice’s own data for incidents between March 2015 and March 2016 confirm this picture of increasing violence. They show that assaults on prison officers in England and Wales had, by March 2016, risen to the highest level ever recorded. In the 12-month period up to that point, there were 5,423 assaults on prison staff, an average of 15 a day – a rise of 40% on the previous 12 months.  

‘Safety in Custody’ statistics released by the Ministry of Justice (PDF) in October 2016 for the 12 months up to June 2016 showed a further increase in assaults on staff from 4,177 to 5,954, an increase of 43% compared to the previous June-to-June 12-month period. Analysed in the context of staff-inmate ratios, this constitutes a rate of 70 ‘assault on staff’ incidents per 1,000 prisoners, up from 49 in the previous year.  Of those assaults, 697 were categorised as ‘serious’, an increase of 20% compared with the previous 12 months.

The official data also raise concerns about prisoner safety. Figures to the end of June 2016 show that prisoner suicides had risen by 28% compared with the previous 12-month period, from 82 to 105. Deaths among those in custody rose by 30% to 321 during the 12 months to the end of June 2016.

During the same period, there was a 32% increase in violent assaults on prisoners by other prisoners. A total of 17,782 such assaults were recorded, and 2,462 of these were classed as ‘serious’, a rise of 28% from the previous year. There were also 36,440 reported incidents of self-harm among prisoners, an increase of 7,509 (26%). In all, 10,544 individuals self-harmed, an increase of 1,943 (23%).

Response to Safety in Custody data

In response to these figures, the 2015–2016 annual report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons concluded that jails had become unacceptably violent and dangerous.

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the figures pointed to ‘the urgent need for prison reform’. He added that an increasing number of prisons had been awarded the worst possible performance rating, arguing that this provided a further indication of system failure after years of rising numbers, chronic overcrowding and deep staff cuts.

The Justice Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, responded to the data by stating that the level of violence in the UK’s prisons was ‘unacceptable’. She said that improving safety in prisons was a fundamental element of the government’s intended reforms.

In a press statement, the POA said the data showed that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) is failing in its duty of care to its employees and prisoners. The POA also attributed the system’s failings to the ‘savage’ funding cuts made by the Ministry of Justice and the Treasury, which have led to the deterioration in service delivery. The POA said the prison service was in crisis, rapidly approaching a precipice from which it will be unable to recover unless urgent action is taken.

Union resorts to industrial action

For some months before the protest staged by prison officers on 15 November 2016, the POA had been attempting to publicise the escalation in violence and members’ concerns about prison safety, and to raise awareness of the confirmation of their concerns offered by the official statistics.

As part of their campaign to improve safety for their members, the POA won a landmark victory at the High Court in July 2016. The union brought the case on behalf of a member who had been assaulted by a prisoner at Coldingley Prison, Surrey, in January. The prisoner had punched the officer and had attempted to gouge out his eye. The police had decided it was not in the public interest to prosecute because the attacker was already serving a long sentence and had been moved to a higher security prison as a result of the attack. However, the High Court ruled that it was important that prisoners should be prosecuted for acts of violence against officers to protect staff.

While the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 prohibits prison officers from taking industrial action, there had been a number of instances earlier in 2016 when prison officers had withdrawn their labour or staged unofficial walkouts in protest over safety concerns. In May, four members of staff refused to carry out their duties at Mount Prison in Hertfordshire and a further 40 prison officers walked out in protest at safety concerns at Holme House Prison, Stockton-on-Tees. On 6 May 2016, POA members at Wormwood Scrubs refused to enter the prison because of safety fears. A Chief Inspector’s report published at the time had said the prison was unsafe, with prisoners easily able to access drugs and alcohol. In June, officers on two wings at Swinfen Hall in Staffordshire had left prisoners locked in their cells because of safety concerns. A POA statement said that staff there feared a ‘significant and imminent’ threat to their health and safety.

Incidents in the lead-up to the walk-out

A number of serious incidents occurred in the weeks before the protests of 15 November.

On 18 October, Pentonville prisoner Jamal Mahmoud died after being stabbed and two other prisoners were critically injured in the incident. Following the attack, about half of the 200 prison officers at the jail passed a vote of no confidence in its governor and said that they were unable to prevent weapons and drugs coming into the prison.

A riot by prisoners at Bedford prison on 6 November caused damage worth GBP 1 million (€1,154,810 as at 8 March 2017). A report published the previous May by HM Inspectorate of Prisons had found that use of the synthetic drug known as ‘spice’ was widespread in the prison. Prisoners told inspectors that it was easier to obtain illegal drugs than to get clothes or sheets and the report concluded that the use of drugs was having a ‘serious impact’ on safety. On 10 November, just four days after the riot at Bedford, an inmate at the Isle of Wight prison slashed an officer’s throat with a razor blade.

These violent incidents were cited as evidence for a continuing crisis in the UK’s prisons by the POA.

The POA had planned an earlier day of protest action over safety concerns, due to be held on 1 November. Members were asked to convene meetings outside every prison establishment in England and Wales. This action had been suspended when NOMS requested a meeting with the POA, and it was agreed by NOMS and the Secretary of State that POA meetings to discuss safety issues could take place in every prison on 2 November 2016. It was also agreed that national negotiations on safety issues would begin immediately with the aim of reaching an agreement by 11 November.

The POA’s call for action on 15 November was prompted by claims that the discussions had failed to address the union’s fears and did not provide sufficient safeguards.

In a press statement released at the start of the day of protest on 15 November, the union stated that it had ‘consistently raised the volatile and dangerous state of prisons, as chronic staff shortages and impoverished regimes have resulted in staff no longer being safe, a lack of discipline and prisoners taking control of areas’.   As a result of these unresolved concerns, the POA instructed its members to protest on 15 November. It is estimated that 10,000 officers in England and Wales participated.

Government response

The Government’s immediate response to the protest was to seek a High Court injunction. The POA lawyer told the court of a series of incidents that had occurred in the previous two weeks, including 30 assaults by inmates on officers, 14 hostage situations and 13 instances of abscondment, attempted escape or successful escape. The government's lawyers, in turn, accused the POA of ‘seeking to take over the control of jails from governors and run them on a controlled lock-down basis’.

The Justice Secretary, in a speech to the House of Commons that morning, had said that the POA had failed to respond to government proposals aimed at tackling their concerns and had called the unlawful action ‘without notice’. The Justice Secretary claimed that the POA’s actions would exacerbate the situation inside prisons, adding that the POA had refused to continue with talks scheduled for 15 November.

The POA denied this, publishing circulars and press statements to support its assertion that NOMS had agreed all talks would be ‘time bound’ and completed by 11 November, and that if matters were not resolved by then, the POA’s suspended action would take place.

However, the court granted the injunction that ordered the officers back to work. The Ministry of Justice said it welcomed the decision to stop the ‘unlawful industrial action’, reiterating its commitment to improving safety and the steps it had already taken to achieve this.

On 4 October, the Justice Secretary had announced an investment of £14 million to recruit 400 additional frontline staff in 10 of the ‘most challenging’ prisons. On 3 November, a White Paper setting out reforms to the system had been published. This outlined a £1.3 billion (€1.5 billion as at 8 March 2017) investment in new prisons over the next five years and plans for 2,100 extra officers, drug tests and more autonomy for governors. The Justice Secretary also promised a zero-tolerance approach to attacks on prison staff, promising body cameras for prison officers.

The 2,100 extra officers announced in the White Paper are in addition to the 400 new staff announced in October, taking the service’s recruitment goal to 2,500 new officers who are due to be in place by the end of 2018. However, even if the target is met, this will still leave staffing short of pre-2010 levels. There are also doubts about whether sufficient staff will be willing to stay in the job when the salary – starting at £20,500 – can be bettered in less stressful and dangerous environments.

The POA says it has little confidence in the recruitment and retention plan. Latest Ministry of Justice figures show that between 30 September 2015 and 30 September 2016, the number of prison officers fell by the equivalent of 585 full-time members of staff.

Recent developments

On 16 February, it emerged that the number of frontline prison staff in England and Wales had fallen further in 2016. The Justice Secretary argued that, due to digitisation and changes in the way prisons are managed, previous levels of staffing are no longer necessary.

On 19 February, the Ministry of Justice announced that ‘Band 3’ prison officers (who make up the majority of frontline officers) at 31 prisons across London and south-east England are to receive pay rises of between £3,000 and £5,000 to boost staffing levels. The 31 prisons are those identified as having severe recruitment and retention problems.

The POA described the move as ‘papering over the cracks’ and said the increase was ‘divisive and destructive’ as it didn’t apply to all staff. The union had not been consulted and was informed of the pay increase only on 16 February. The POA added that the pay rise covered only 31 of more than 100 prisons in England and Wales and excluded many other grades of staff, particularly those on lower grades. Pay, said the POA, was not the only concern of members: violence and staff health and safety remain of prime concern.


English (34.03 KB - DOCX)


English (31.97 KB - DOCX)