Who is looking after the people in our prisons?

Today I spoke to a group of third year students on a prison and probation module at university. I spoke of my childhood, my offence and a brief of my experience in prison. I also had the pleasure of hearing from two probation officers who explained the complexity of their job roles and issues that have been faced since the privatisation of probation into NPS and CRC. We also heard from a prison officer. I wont mention names or their place of work, with that being said, the complete lack of preparation, apparent struggle with empathy and compassion and arguably a great deficiency of knowledge about an often complex, traumatised and vulnerable group of people within their ‘care’. I feel this is a very timely and sort after insight into the role of a prisoner officer.
As most, if not all people will know, who take an interest in anything to do with prisons. They are places of terror. Conditions are poor, resources are lacking, self-harm and suicide are at record levels and if I didn’t already thing staffing was poor, that changed today, in probably only 1 minute of a speech. Despite such a challenging environment, one thing that could and in my own experience has, brought calm to a storm, are the staff who are there offering an umbrella.
I can reflect on my own time in prison and probably raise concerns about some of the staff, despite me having personal feelings and opinions, I have to say, within the estate I was in the majority of prison officers were helpful, responsible and the most important thing, respectful. Respect, it really does go a long way. If you have been following my blogs, you may have read me touch upon my relationship with my personal officer. She was great. Supportive throughout my sentence, caring in her nature without being ‘soft’, she asked about my child, she spoke to my mum and sisters on visits and assisted me with most of the issues that I faced within the system. I never heard a disrespectful word leave her mouth for all of the time I was there, whether it be about myself or any other person being help in custody. I am sure she had her bad days, in fact, I know she did, but she never let her personal opinion, bias or prejudices interfere with her role.
So, what is the role of a prison officer?
I can only give an opinion on what traits and abilities I feel are beneficially to the role from my perspective as a former prisoner. I would like to think a lot of what I am about to say is common sense however after seeing what I think is common sense, more than lacking today, I’ll just go ahead with a list: Firstly, humanity. Working in every single job you do which involves interaction with people, be humane. This leads well onto a non-judgemental approach and through ‘common sense’ or professional practice learning, you need the ability to see the whole, not just what is presented before you at that present time, in that circumstance. As we move on from being humane and non-judgemental, we need to have respect. Regardless of our own inner feeling and thoughts on various crimes/offences. Now, I know this isn’t easy however, it is the most important skill in any work we do in a professional ‘care’ capacity. And for gods sake, if you don’t have respect, at least pretend you do when you are talking in that professional capacity. Humanity, the ability to work without judgement and respect for those who are in your ‘care’ I would argue are fundamental traits that make for healthy positive relationships within any work setting. I knew that before I began my degree, furthermore since the beginning of my degree it has been drummed into me every day.
What else? We need prisons to be a place of hope, without that, many people have nothing. With that being said, we need officers to be the driving force of hope when people are entering the system broken. We need officers who assist in facilitating change, who want to help, support and nurture change. I saw my personal officer more than I saw my own child and mother, for two years. Now, she didn’t treat me like a daughter, but she showed compassion to me, knowing I was somebody’s daughter and somebody’s mother.
There are a lot more things that officers need in order to protect, secure and maintain the prison environment as well as meet need for rehabilitation, care and support. I will move on now to probably the most shocking thing I have ever witnessed at any speaking event or conference. Now, I could pick these apart for days, but I don’t have time. I am just getting these out there for people to consider what roles professionals play while working with prisoners inside of and upon release from prison. I’ll call it, what not to do….
“They (prisoners) are a pain in the ass and so needy, don’t ever promise them anything”.
“They get everything they want don’t they, at healthcare, like if they have any problems with their teeth, its all for free”. (here, I should add….prisoners don’t get paid enough to afford dental care)
“we aren’t there to help them, even if we want to, we unlock and bang up”
“We have a Psychiatric wing, its like a nuthouse, they are psychitzo” (they being, one assumes, mental ill patients).
“Being a female officer has its advantages because male prisoners open up more, you can just walk in to him kicking off in his cell and be like ‘oi dickhead it’s me’ and the trouble stops UNLESS they (the prisoner) are from a different race and then they don’t talk to women”
“I’ve seen prisoners cut their ears off, people hanging, dead bodies don’t bother me”.

Hearing this is hurtful, harmful and harrowing. Who is challenging prison officer culture?

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