Prison officers

Critical Issues in Scottish Penal Policy: Prison Officers

This week, HLS has invited a group of leading experts to reflect upon critical issues in Scottish penal policy. Below, Dr Katrina Morrison argues that we can make prisons more humane by professionally evolving the role of the prison officer, who can and should be someone who is trained to support people in custody. 


Why penal reform should care about prison officers

In efforts to reduce the carceral net, and to make prisons better places for those held in custody, I want to argue that those interested in penal reform should also pay attention to the staff who work within prisons. If we want to minimise the harms of imprisonment as much as is possible within an institution that is coercive and inflicts pain, we must not forget those who give shape to the practices and experiences within the organisation. This may be especially important in an organisation in which its objectives are so conflicted, and the emotional dimensions of the work so heightened. 

It is therefore important that penal reform should also include those who work within prisons within their remit, as well as on those who are in custody. Supporting staff in prisons, whether this be through better education, training or improved working cultures, may not initially seem like it should be high on the list of priorities for penal reform. However, progressive penal reform must also celebrate and support an investment in prison officers, in order that they be better placed to support the aspirations of imprisonment to care for those in custody and not be solely attentive to managing risk and ensuring less eligibility within prisons. Ultimately, it is prison officers who can support a return to citizenship, and the importance of this role has tended to be overlooked in the Scottish context.

Investing in better prisons – putting lipstick on a pig? 

Arguing that penal reform should include attention on prison staff (implying investment of time and financial resources), may be difficult for some to agree with. This perhaps reflects a wider debate between penal reductionism and penal abolitionism, and whether it is possible to accept that there could ever be such a thing as a ‘good’ prison. Some may argue that investing in prisons, whether the buildings, conditions, or staff, is like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’. Whether prisons can ever be ‘normalised’ is long debated within criminology, but I take the view that, while prisons exist, they must be supported to do what positive work they can. This is within the boundaries of an institution which is fundamentally organised to inflict psychological, if no longer physical, harm (Crewe, 2011). 

There is of course a danger in investing in prisons to improve the conditions therein. Investing in prisons leads to prisons being recast as places of care, respite and rehabilitation, with a real danger that the judiciary will send people there forrespite and care, when other non-custodial sanctions would be more suitable. Traditionally, this has particularly been an issue for the female population, and this is a delicate balance which must not be forgotten as the women’s estate is reconfigured and the Community Custody Unitsare built. Prison should never be an option where people are sent for rehabilitation

The aims of imprisonment will always be multiple and complex, but prisons must also be able to support desistance by building hope, as well as providing access to services which support improved health, employability etc. both within and after prison. While care canand shouldbe provided in prison, it must nonetheless never be forgotten that prisons will also always be places of punishment, dislocation, and separation. The deprivation of liberty, control over movement, removal of key tenets of citizenship (ability to work, to vote, limit of family life and relationships), will always be the imposition of pain, no matter how positive the penal regime. 

Prison Officers – from Turnkey to Professional Prison Officers

Officers perform tasks underpinned by conflicting rationales, in a demanding environment with some of the most vulnerable and challenging individuals in our society. Officers are required to monitor risk and security and to maintain order, whilst at the same time empathising, supporting, building hope, and demonstrating personal resilience (Crawley, 2004Bennett et al., 2008Liebling et al, 2010). The balance between ‘custody’ and ‘order’ with ‘care’ and ‘opportunity’ requires officers who can think critically about imprisonment and who can care in the most challenging contexts. 

Following the publication of the Organisational Review in 2013, it is now recognised that staff must have the right knowledge, understanding and skills so that they too can support the positive change of those in custody (SPS, 2013). Since then, reforms aimed at professionalising the service are underway in order to create a degree of skill and professionalism that has not before existed in the prison setting’ (SPS, 2016:1). In the future, prison officers are expected to play a central role in helping to ‘unlock the potential’ of those in custody, by taking a greater role as: ‘counsellors, role models, coaches and advocates of the people in their care’ (SPS, 2016).

Professionalising prison officers is not a new agenda for the Scottish Prison Service. In 1991, Andrew Coyleclaimed that ‘we may now be at the beginning of a fundamental reassessment of how the prison officer carries out this task. In the not too distant future the prison officer might properly be described as a professional worker’ (p242). Over 25 years later, the inclusion in the 2017 Programme for Government of professionalization within the SPS, has put it firmly at the centre of Scottish prisons policy again. 

There is no single definition of professionalism, but two key aspects of ‘professional practice’ are the ability to make ‘complex decisions’ drawing on ‘technical knowledge, skills and informed judgement’ (Sullivan, 2005), adherence to an ethical code which can be enshrined in a (regulated) code of practice, and engage in specialised formal learning throughout their career (Sparks et al, unpublished).

Within a prisons setting, professionalization can mean different things. According to Crawley, professional prison officers do their job in a ‘fair, legal, confident and neutral manner’ with the ability to ‘relate to, and deal with difficult, truculent people’ (2004: 112). Liebling et alcite Gilbert’s definition of ‘the professional’ prison officer as ‘open and non-defensive, makes exceptions when warranted, prefers to gain cooperation and compliance through communication, but is willing to use coercive power or force as a last resort’ (1997, in 2010). For Sparks et al (unpublished), professional prison officers are able to form the right sorts of relationships and to work in and through these relationships to support desistance, which require both the right ‘personal qualities and values’, and a ‘wider body of knowledge’ relating to crime and desistance. 

What is clear, is that the ambitious aspirations for the SPS contained in the Organisational Review, have to place staff at the core of organisational change. Supporting staff within prisons to do their job to the best of their abilities, is compatible with an associated concern with people in custody. For those who want to reduce Scotland’s extensive penal state and radically improve penal outcomes, these concerns are symbiotic.


Author bio: Dr Katrina Morrison is a lecturer in Criminology at Napier University and was a part-time Learning and Development Researcher with the Scottish Prison Service, developing prison officer professionalization.








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