The sound of our new teletext system has dominated my last ten days. Ring-ring, buzz-buzz-buzz, and then one carefully marshalled fact after another is spewed onto the page from South-East Regional Office. Ring-ring, buzz-buzz-buzz: ‘crisis’, ‘POA’, ‘management’, ‘overtime’, ‘warnings’, ‘intransigence’, ‘position’, ‘violence’, ‘danger’, ‘contingency planning’, ‘riot’, ‘fire’, ‘stand by’, ‘stand down’, ‘prisoners’, ‘escape’, ‘abscond’ and ‘Home Secretary’. To many of these words it is necessary to respond. With deliberate gravity, so as to impress John, with whom I share an office, and who almost wrecked the whole teletext system by using his shaver from the adjoining socket, I move the teletext out of ‘answerback’ and into ‘send’.

John and I debate on how to answer with Fred, the new Governor. Fred eventually dictates what he thinks is appropriate, balancing the reality of our local situation, where relations with the POA (Prison Officers’ Association) are good, with an outline of our plans should things change in the next few days. I push the ‘data’ button on the modum in, tap a few keys, and almost instantaneously everything we’ve just sent is ‘Acknowledged’ by Head Office. As the problems worsened, I was able to judge how bad things were elsewhere by timing how long it took for our messages to be ‘Acknowledged’. That day, Tuesday 22 April, the first of my ten days on duty with Fred, the battle-lines were still being drawn. By the 29th our messages weren’t being acknowledged at all, and I was reduced to merely telephoning Head Office to dictate ‘situation reports’, the teletext having jammed ‘temporarily’, according to David in the ‘ops’ room. I thought, perhaps, that with all the bad news, it had simply shown some human feeling and committed suicide.

St George’s Day was my 28th birthday. This meant that my salary increased by one increment on the Assistant Governor grade scale. In celebration, Fred, a Governor III, offered me a pint at The Three Horse Shoes in Benson. One pint became two as we went over again and again costs and figures, and the current positions in the dispute.

The media coverage had begun to move from ‘feature on page 9’ to front page, and friends and colleagues started popping up here and there carefully presenting their side of the argument. By and large, prisons, prison officers and prisoners don’t usually get a good press, despite the fact that the excesses of the latter group are a staple media diet. The public image of the prison therefore, until the events of last week, is either, at the popular end of the market, firmly stuck in Porridge, or, on the more serious New Statesman and Guardian front, dominated by the exposé. The debate between these two sides normally goes something like this. Prisons let people escape/abscond: prisons keep people in unnecessarily secure environments. Prisoners are treated too softly (especially over Christmas!): prisoners are treated badly. Prisons don’t have any effect on the prisoner: prisoners are psychologically and emotionally damaged by the experience of imprisonment. You pay your money and you take your choice, but at the moment at least, there seems to be an urgent and genuine desire at both ends of the market to investigate the underlying causes of what was happening.

Disputes/strikes are usually seen as a contest between two sides, with the issues clear and easy to grasp. The miners, for example, were battling with the National Coal Board, while, more recently, the teachers were fighting against the Department of Education. At a basic level these analyses can be accepted as accurate, although they ignore the cause of the working miner, and the teacher who refused to strike or who believed in, for example, professional assessments. The present dispute is also being presented as if it conformed to the two-sides formula. The POA is fighting Management, and the issue centres on ‘the right to manage’ by defining manning levels. This is accurate, but doesn’t take us very far. ‘Management’, for example, is never properly identified. Is it the Home Office, the Prison Department, Douglas Hurd, Chris Train (Director General of the Prison Service) or individual institutional governors who are being referred to?

Some measure of how complex and how important careful identification can be is perhaps gained from the directive issued by the Governors’ Branch of the Society of Civil and Public Servants, which was only very narrowly reported, to the effect that governors and assistant governors should not do the work of a prison officer during the dispute. Thankfully this was modified when the implications of the problem at Gloucester became apparent. Individual governors are just as concerned about working conditions in the service, about overcrowding and the newly introduced institutional budgets, as the POA. Nor has it been widely reported that many individual POA members and several POA branches returned to normal working as soon as it became clear that the situation was getting out of hand, long before the National Executive of the POA approved their doing so.

Costs and figures? In 1984 it cost on average £234 to keep one inmate inside for a week. In some prisons the figure has risen to £478. In a closed youth custody centre such as Hunter-combe it costs more than twice as much to keep a boy in custody than it would have done to have sent him to Eton. Over 70 per cent of the total prison expenditure goes on staff costs, and this figure continues to rise. Since 1950 the rate of increase in the number of prison officers has increased by twice the rate of the prison population. In the first five years after the Second World War the ratio of prison officers to prisoners was one to seven: just after the bombing of Libya it was one to less than three. If we have more officers to fewer prisoners why does the amount spent on officers’ overtime continue to rise, and why has management allowed a shift-system to develop which is almost totally dependent on work done outside of scheduled hours? Overtime accounts for about 40 per cent of the earnings of most of the basic and senior officer grades. They work on average between 13 and 16 hours’ overtime per week, paid at roughly double their normal hourly scale. Not surprisingly, they can earn a great deal of money, and it is considered normal for many of the basic grades to earn as much as – or more than – the governor grades. Governors also work overtime, but as ‘salaried grades’ this goes unpaid.

No one can deny that consistently working such long hours makes the quality of life for officers much poorer, despite the financial reward. Working conditions aren’t exactly wonderful either. Prisons are dirty and sometimes very violent places. Officers have difficult and usually thankless tasks to perform, which, more often than not, are carried out with remarkable skill and-let’s break a stereotype – sensitivity. Neither can it be denied that prisons are vastly overcrowded. For the first time ever, in July 1985 the prison population exceeded 48,000, although the system itself can cater only for 39,666 prisoners. Since 1984 the prison population has risen by over three thousand, despite the introduction of measures – such as the lowering of the minimum qualifying period for parole – aimed at its reduction. In particular, local prisons and remand centres – notably Oxford, Leeds, Bedford, Birmingham and Lincoln – are devastatingly overcrowded, holding, in Oxford’s case, more than double the number of prisoners it should. The Home Office itself didn’t think that the prison population would reach 48,000 until 1991, and consequently has had to speed up its building and rebuilding programme on a spiralling supply-and-demand curve. The reality of that overcrowding falls most immediately on the prisoner and the prison officer.

Thursday through until Monday the 28th were relatively quiet, although by then I was on ‘stand-by’ for Gloucester, which was being manned by assistant governors. The officers at Gloucester had simply walked out, refusing to work under the Governor’s orders. Our own situation looked fairly stable, although every working minute was now dominated by the dispute, hardly giving us time to run the institution. We were beginning to work later and later into the evening, usually timing our arrival at home to coincide with Newsnight. Then on Tuesday and Wednesday nights all hell seemed to break loose. A perfect example of the domino theory, one incident sparked off another as news of the disturbances spread from jail to jail, mostly through radio broadcasts. We survived unscathed at Huntercombe: but, in no particular order, Pentonville, Deerbolt, Castington, Leicester, Pucklechurch, Highpoint, Ashford, Norwich, Northallerton, Stafford, Bristol, Lewes, Wymott, Wayland, Erlestoke and Northeye all experienced some form of disturbance. Northeye was completely destroyed, and there was major damage to wings at Lewes and Bristol. Some fifty prisoners escaped, and several staff were injured. What has been a surprise is that none of the ‘dispersal’ prisons, such as Long Lartin and Wakefield, which house the more notorious and violent inmates, have been troubled, whilst Northeye, with its relatively low level of security, and Erlestoke, a youth custody centre, have had major difficulties. Again I would have imagined that those prisons which are the most overcrowded would have been among the first to have had problems. Yet, as far as I am aware, Oxford, Leeds, Birmingham, Durham and Liverpool, all with more than 50 per cent overcrowding, escaped relatively lightly. The newly-opened, fully modernised Wayland had just as many problems as Lewes Gaol, opened in the 1850s, which has no integral sanitation, and where prisoners continue to have to ‘slop out’ their pots.

Thursday 1 May was my tenth day on duty, and Fred and I were beginning to look forward to a break. We spent the day gradually re-forging our ties with the local POA and preparing for the weekend. The events of the previous night had brought the National Executive of the POA and the Prison Department back to the negotiating table, and I remain rather hopeful about a positive outcome. The ends of disputes always see bridges being rebuilt, and there should be enough common ground among all the various groups to allow one to think that the problems faced by some Yorkshire mining communities won’t trouble the prison service. It will be interesting, however, to watch how those assistant governors who manned Gloucester are treated in the months to come. The problems still exist, but perhaps everybody, including the inmates, have seen enough to want to prevent a repeat of last Wednesday night. Optimism has always been the failing of the prison service. Ring-ring, buzz-buzz-buzz.

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