Prison guards 'leaving profession in droves' fuelled by inmate overcrowding

One in seven prison officers left their roles in the last year - half had been in the job less than three years. ITV News' Nick Smith reports.

There are stark warnings that we face a looming crisis in our prisons as recent figures show that one in seven prison officers left their roles over the last year.

The government wants to increase the number of those incarcerated by almost a quarter by 2026.

However, justice reform charities such as the Prison Reform Trust say that overcrowding is already a huge issue, and without more staff and prison capacity, the safety of those who live and work there is in serious jeopardy.

Chris Atkins, a journalist and filmmaker, was jailed for fraud in 2016 and spent two years in prison. After his release, he published a book and a podcast about the realities of prison life, and said working conditions for the guards became steadily worse.

"The sort of trauma and abuse that prison officers faced on a daily basis was absolutely horrendous," he said.

"There was a joke that we were all there as prisoners cause we were forced to be there.

"But the poor officers obviously had to be there through choice. And you can see that a lot of them are choosing just to leave, in some cases, after a matter of a few weeks.

"Add to that fact that prisoners aren't doing anything during the day except just being locked in their cells.

"So the idea is that they're supposed to get out and do some kind of purposeful activity like education or training or exercise. None of that's happening because of the overcrowding and because of the lack of staff, and it means when they're let out of their cells for a short amount of association, it's always guaranteed to lead to violence."

Roughly half of prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded, meaning prisoner time outside cells is limited. Credit: ITV News

Almost half of prisons nationwide are overcrowded and the current prison population in England and Wales is approximately 80,000, is set to rise to 98,000 by 2026.

At the same time, staffing levels could move in the opposite direction. One in seven prison officers left their roles in the last year according to figures from the Ministry of Justice.

More than half had been in the job less than three years.

The Prison Officers Association claims if these trends continue, there are serious questions over the safety of inmates and prison staff.

"You can't increase a prison population when you can't staff the prison population," The Prison Governors Association President Andrea Albutt said.

"So when you have lower staffing levels, the relationships between staff and prisoners is compromised.

"Violence and safety issues increase, staff leave or staff sickness increases, and so it becomes this vicious cycle. It is the perfect storm and people don't want to work in really challenging complex, unsafe places."

The Prison Governors Association claims that prison officers are working in increasingly dangerous environments due to overcrowding.

Prison Reform Trust says understaffing and overcrowding should concern us all, as problems on the inside can filter out into wider society.

"Prison officers are like the oil in the machine," Prison Reform Trust Director Peter Dawson said.

"They spend an awful lot of time, when numbers are tight, just going around locking and unlocking cell doors, it's an incredibly wasteful use of a skilled trained officer's time.

"Overcrowding makes for a very dysfunctional system and it increases the risk to all of us because people are coming out without having had the help they should have without preparation for their release, and also, frankly, very disillusioned by a system which locked them up, but then treated them without justice once they were in prison."

In a statement the Ministry of Justice told ITV News: "Pay has increased by more than £6,000 a year for trained officers and they plan to recruit an additional 5000 by the mid 2020s.

"We are opening three new prisons over the course of the next few years and building on existing sites to offer places for another 7,700 inmates."

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