Far from safe and sound in secure settings

The results of a psychologist-led survey reveal the pressures facing prison officers and workers in psychiatric hospitals. Ella Rhodes reports.

Many prison officers and workers in secure psychiatric hospitals feel unable to seek help for psychological problems, and the majority feel pressurised to come to work when sick due to fear of repercussions and loyalty to colleagues. Proposed changes to the pensionable age of prison workers mean that many fear having to continue working under such conditions until the age of 68. These are the results of a psychologist-led survey of more than 1,500 such staff, which has now been debated in the House of Commons.

The survey was conducted by British Psychological Society Fellow and Occupational Health Psychologist Professor Gail Kinman, along with University of Bedfordshire colleagues Andrew Clements and Jacqui Hart. It was commissioned by the POA, which is the trade union for prison, correctional and psychiatric workers. After results were published, a seminar was held at the House of Commons, chaired by Elfyn Llwyd MP, chair of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group. Several MPs attended along with representatives from bodies such as the National Offender Management Service. The findings of the survey were the subject of an Early Day Motion and subsequently debated in the House of Commons and a meeting of the Justice Parliamentary Group and the Minister was recommended and agreed by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Andrew Selous.

Kinman said she had been alarmed by the results of the study. She said: ‘I’ve worked with people in stressful and emotionally demanding jobs for many years but I was shocked by the results. I have particular concerns about the high levels of mental health problems: 72 per cent achieved scores which were indicative of the need for some intervention.’ Of the 1,682 people questioned (85 per cent male) only just under one-third said they had never been harassed at work and only 40 per cent never experience bullying at work. Three respondents out of ten had been physically assaulted by a prisoner while seven out of ten said they regretted their choice of job.’

The survey used HSE Management Standards Indicator Tool to assess members’ perceptions of their job, as well as measures of mental health, burnout, work-life conflict and job satisfaction. Lower than average levels of wellbeing were found for all of the HSE’s work stressor categories. The biggest ‘well-being gaps’ relate to demands, job control, manager support, change management and relationships.

Due to government changes, prison officers, who made up the majority of those surveyed (72 per cent), will be made to work until they are 68, a prospect which seems daunting to many in the job. Kinman said: ‘The government has decided that jobs in prisons are not “unique”. It is argued that the fire service and police should retire at 60 because of the inherent pressures of those jobs, but prison officer jobs are not deemed to have those unique characteristics. So people will have to work in the front line of the prison service until they are 68. Many older prison officers and their younger colleagues are extremely concerned about dealing with potentially violent young prisoners when they are over 60.’

Many of the people surveyed felt that any support available to them to deal with assaults or stress was not confidential. They also commonly reported that workplace stress was highly stigmatised in their institution and could not be discussed openly. Similarly, many felt guilty for taking time off sick and 84 per cent said they felt under pressure to come to work while unwell. Kinman said: ‘The fact that workplace stress was not a topic for discussion in prisons was a thread which ran through our findings. This means that support services are either not offered or not taken up. Almost half of the sample didn’t even know if there were support services available to them.’

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