"It is most urgent to recruit more staff, it is vital to keep our prison officers safe" Justice Secretary Liz Truss says after fact finding visit to Whitemoor Prison in March Cambridgeshire
PUBLISHED: 14:33 03 March 2017
At least 40 more officers are to be recruited to top security Whitemoor Prison in March, Justice Secretary Liz Truss revealed during a two hour visit today.
She said recruiting more prison officers is the top priority to improve safety within the country’s jails and to reduce re-offending.
Ms Truss agreed there were “serious issues” within the prison service but the government was taking action to address them as quickly as possible.
Part of that action is to recruit 2,500 more officers nationally with at least 40 of those being based at the March high security jail.
Hundreds of others will be based at jails throughout East Anglia.
The move comes in the wake of prison riots at jails such as Bedford and the threat of industrial action by prison officers.
On Tuesday (28) the justice secretary won a high court injunction blocking action by the Prison Officers’ Association which was due to happen on Wednesday (1) over pay and conditions.
Ms Truss, the MP for South West Norfolk and the first female Lord Chancellor, spent nearly two hours inside Whitemoor visiting the prison’s IT suite, workshops, meeting the governor, Will Styles and talking to prison officers. Afterwards she said recruiting staff is “most urgent” in improving staff safety.
She said: “It is most urgent to recruit more staff, it is vital to keep our prison officers safe.”
Reducing drug use within prisons is also a priority to help address the levels of violence and having the right number of staff will help that aim.
“Having the right number of staff, deployed in the right way is not something we are going to sort out in weeks or months but I am confident we can make a difference,” said Ms Truss.
She said: “What we are doing right across the prison estate is to create 2,500 new jobs and increasing senior officers’ pay to £30,000. We are determined to make sure we reward and recognise the experience of officers with important skills. We want to retain our experienced officers.
“There are real issues in London, the South East and East Anglia that is why we are offering additional pay allowances to recruit and retain officers in this area.”
She said investment in prisons includes giving additional annual allowances of £3,000 to £5,000 for staff at 31 prisons, including Whitemoor, that are facing particular recruitment and retention difficulties.
Ms Truss said she wants prisons to be places that help turn “prisoners’ lives around” and so cut re-offending, which she said costs £15 billion a year to society.
The aim is to have one officer per six prisoners, which will help make prisons safer, as well as provide support for prisoners to learn new skills so they can find jobs when they come out of prison and make a fresh start.
Prison officers are to be given better training especially in mental health issues and effective training to help prevent suicides. Officers will receive extra pay for having those skills.
Better training in suicide prevention follows the case of Dean Saunders, 25, who died at Chelmsford Prison in January 2016.
An inquest jury found Mr Saunders had been let down both the prison service and the NHS.
Ms Truss acknowledged lessons had been learned both by the prison service and by the NHS in the wake of the Saunders’ case and said Mr Saunders’ family had asked to be involved in the policy making process to help safe-guard prisoners with mental health issues in the future.
Ms Truss was impressed with how Whitemoor is tackling the recruitment issue - there are currently 20 vacancies at the jail, but there are currently 10 candidates going through the process towards becoming officers.
It is hoped the £3,000 additional allowance at the March jail will further improve recruitment.
Ms Truss said the officers she met at the prison had a number of concerns including wanting better career progression opportunities.
“They want higher status for prison officers and to be better valued. Creating Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service will help towards that goal.
“I have huge admiration for the work prison officers do, particularly in this case, where they are dealing high security, high risk offenders,” she said.
Jill Whiley, head of business assurance at Whitemoor, explained the recruitment drive has been successful with a lot of younger people coming forward, but there are still vacancies.
The 10 recruits are nearing the end of the process and it is hoped they will join the staff shortly.