Her Majesty's Prison Service

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Clive House, the current head office of HM Prison Service, the same building as HM Prison and Probation Service.
Cleland House (now demolished), the former head office of HM Prison Service

Her Majesty's Prison Service is a part of the National Offender Management Service of Her Majesty's Government tasked with managing most of the prisons within England and Wales. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own prison services: the Scottish Prison Service and the Northern Ireland Prison Service, respectively.)

The CEO of the National Offender Management Service, currently Michael Spurr, is the administrator of the prison service. The CEO reports to the Secretary of State for Justice and also works closely with the Prisons Minister, a junior ministerial post within the Ministry of Justice.

It has its head office in Clive House.[1] It formerly had its head office in Cleland House in the City of Westminster, London.[2]

The British Overseas Territory of Bermuda's HM Prison Service (renamed the Department of Corrections in 2002) was a separate organisation.


In 2004, the Prison Service was responsible for 130 prisons and employed around 44,000 staff. As of 2009 the number of prisons had increased to 131, including 11 privately owned prisons.[3]

The Service's statement of purpose states "Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release." The Ministry of Justice's objective for prisons seeks "Effective execution of the sentences of the courts so as to reduce re-offending and protect the public".

Population statistics for the Service are published weekly. Statistics available for 24 June 2016 showed the service housed 85,130 prisoners: 81,274 males and 3,856 females.[4]

The over 60s are the fastest growing age category and Professor David Wilson, of Birmingham City University is concerned that there is no strategy to deal with them.[5]


Early in 2004, it was announced that the Prison Service would be integrated into a new National Offender Management Service later in the year.[citation needed]

As of 2008, rationalisation of the prison management system is underway with the advent of the Titan Prison concept.[citation needed]

Six new reform prisons are to be built with prison governors in charge of operation and budget. Penal charities claimed reforms would fail if prisoners were "crammed into filthy institutions with no staff".[6]


In 2015 the Justice Select Committee, following a year long prison inquiry, were critical of Justice ministers for apparent complacency about a 38% rise in prison deaths since 2012. The committee concluded that efficiency savings and staffing shortages had made "a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety" in prisons.[7][8] A prison "benchmarking" programme had been introduced in 2012 by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to reduce the costs of public sector prisons to match comparable private sector prisons, along with associated new core standards intended to result in prisoners having similar amounts of time spent outside their cells across similar prisons.[9] Prison officer numbers had been reduced from about 23,000 in 2012, already reduced from about 25,000 in 2010, to about 18,000 in 2015.[10]

Prisons are overcrowded and understaffed leading to riots, prison escapes and poor supervision of prisoners. It is suggested that alternative punishments should be found for less serious offenders. Also mental health issues of prisoners are usually not addressed.[11] Prison assaults have been increasing year on year reaching 22,195 from March 2015 to March 2016. Assaults by prisoners on staff are rising with just under 700 causing serious injury.[12] Assaults by prisoners on other prisoners are also rising. Deaths in custody are rising as well. Prison murders are at the highest level since records began.[13] Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons described prisons as "unacceptably violent and dangerous places". Staffing levels have fallen by a quarter over six years.[14] Clarke said there has been a, 'staggering decline' in youth prisons and no Young Offenders Institution or youth training centre inspected in 2017 was safe to hold children or young people.[15] Clarke also said, "The current state of affairs is dangerous, counter-productive and will inevitably end in tragedy unless urgent corrective action is taken".[16] A MOJ report claimed, "The rise in assaults since 2012 has coincided with major changes to the regime, operating arrangements and culture in public sector prisons. For example, resthttps://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jul/18/youth-jails-staggering-decline-standards-england-wales-peter-clarke-prisons-inspector-reportrhttps://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jul/18/youth-jails-staggering-decline-standards-england-wales-peter-clarke-prisons-inspector-reportucturing of the prison estate including staff reductions, which have reduced overall running costs, and an increasing awareness of gang culture and illicit psychoactive drugs in prisons. As well as the dangers to both physical and mental health, trading in these illicit drugs can lead to debt, violence and intimidation."[12]

The Chief Inspector of prisons claims English and Welsh prisons have become unacceptably violent and dangerous.[17] Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, claimed it was "no mystery that violence, self-harm and suicide rise when you overcrowd prisons, reduce staff by almost one-third, cut time out of cell and purposeful activity".[13] Mark Day, also of the Prison Reform Trust, stated, "Today's figures reveal a hidden emergency unfolding in our prison system. This cannot be allowed to become the new normal."[12] Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform said, "I have been around a long time, and I don't think I have ever seen prisons in such a state ... [in terms of] overcrowding, murders, suicides, prisoner self-harm and assaults on staff." Cook claims prisons are overcrowded and understaffed due to Chris Grayling (formerly in charge of the Ministry of Justice) closing prisons, closing prison wings and cutting prison staff.[18] There is concern that not enough is being done to prevent suicides among vulnerable women prisoners. Nigel Newcomen, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman said, “I find it disheartening that many of the lessons we identify to prevent women in custody from taking their own lives repeat those in previous publications from my office. This suggests it is not knowledge that is the issue, but a lack of concerted and sustained action.” Suicides among women prisoners have risen, there was good care from some prison staff but there were, “weak practice” and “basic failings”. There was also lack of coordination between mental health services and prison staff. Self-harm was sometimes punished.[19] Prison suicides in 2016 at 119 were the highest since records began. This is the highest number since 1978. Professor Pamela Taylor of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' forensic faculty, said that the prison estates' mental health teams were understaffed and struggling to help prisoners in "desperate need".[20] Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) research revealed prison psychiatrists are so frightened many cannot give basic care. There are assaults on psychiatrists and as many as 30 healthcare appointments daily are cancelled in some prisons due to lack of prison officers to escort staff between cells and clinics. Large scale resignations of psychiatrists are feared mainly due to safety concerns as in some prisons there will be only one staff member to 50 inmates.[21]

The Howard League claims staffing cuts and budget cuts "created a toxic mix of violence, death and human misery".[22]

Nick Hardwick, chief prison inspector in 2015 criticised lack of prisoner rehabilitation despite the government promising a, "rehabilitation revolution". "It is hard to imagine anything less likely to rehabilitate prisoners than days spent mostly lying on their bunks in squalid cells watching daytime TV. For too many prisoners, this was the reality and the 'rehabilitation revolution' had yet to start," Hardwick added.[13] Hardwick also advises reducing the prison population, he believes prison violence, suicide and self-harm is increasing at an accelerating rate. Ministers were warned. Hardwick believes new prison officers cannot be trained and become effective in time to prevent further trouble. Alex Cavendish fears newly recruited staff may not stay in the prison service and also fears new staff will not be trained in time to stop further riots.[23][24] Peter Clarke said "Far too often I have seen men sharing a cell in which they are locked up for as much as 23 hours a day, in which they are required to eat all their meals, and in which there is an unscreened lavatory."[16]

Vicky Pryce points out that crime rates are falling while the numbers in prison rise. Price maintains too many people guilty of minor offenses end up in prison when alternative punishments would work better and other European nations imprison fewer people per capita.[25] Price believes high rates of incarceration in Britain are due to political preessure from tabloid newspapers. Price advocates tackling causes of crime at source, that includes alcohol dependency and drug abuse, domestic abuse, poor education and unemployment.[26] Ken Clarke, Nick Clegg and Jacqui Smith wrote a joint letter claiming the prison population should be cut by half. They maintain large numbers of prisoners do not serve society as too many are re-convicted within a year of release. They maintain further prisons have become unacceptably violent and dangerous. If the prison crisis is not solved soon they maintain wider society will be harmed.[27] Nick Clegg claims prisons have become large, overcrowded, dangerous and ineffective.[28]

Re-offending by former prisoners is estimated to cost society £15bn per year. Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss said, "Governors and staff cannot lead and manage change in an environment where they fear violence. Likewise, offenders cannot be expected to turn their life around while they are dependent on drugs or in fear of being assaulted." Drugs, notably legal highs smuggled into prisons destabilize the prisons, add to violence and are a serious problem. 39 prison deaths from 2013 to 2015 were related to legal highs.[17] The number of prison staff is set to increase but will remain below 2010 levels. There are doubts if new staff can be recruited since there are better starting salaries in less stressful and less dangerous environments.[29] There are concerns that not enough is being done to rehabilitate offenders and that there is no consistent policy on rehabilitation. There is a call for a national rehabilitation strategy, also a call for a rehabilitation requirement for prison and probation service together with a requirement to track progress of individuals and institutions and a return to frontline staffing levels of 2010. Michael Gove, former justice secretary claimed failure to reduce re-offending rates was "horrifying".[30]

Following a significant rise in prison violence incidents in 2015 and 2016,[31] in November 2016 Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss announced a £1.3 billion investment programme in the prison service and the recruitment of 2,500 additional prison officers, partly reversing the cuts made under the previous coalition government.[10][32] The National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards warned repeatedly about low prison staffing levels and they see riots at the riot at Birmingham Prison as yet more reason for concern. There were also riots like Bedford Prison and Lewes Prison.[33]

Phil Wheatley blamed budget cuts and excessive changes in government policy for the state of prisons. Wheatley claims Ken Clark cut prison expenditure intending to reduce the prison population. Clark's successor, Chris Grayling had a brief to reverse the policy of reducing the prison population without increasing prison funding. Michael Gove scaled back policies of being tough on prisoners but did not increase funding. Experienced prison staff were lost. Phil Wheatley wrote:

This current crisis is a failure of major proportions for the government. Managing prisons is a difficult and highly skilled task that requires adequate resourcing and a stable policy environment. Since 2010 the government has failed on both counts. (...) The responsibility of ministers in bringing our custodial system to the brink of collapse needs to be understood and openly acknowledged if there is to be any chance of recovering from the current disaster

Wheatley credits Elizabeth Truss for realizing prison staffing levels are too low and for trying to recruit more prison staff but fears relatively low salaries for prison staff will make recruitment difficult.[34]

Karl Turner said, "Since 2010, [the government] slashed the numbers of prison officers by 7,000 and, clearly, the prison system cannot cope. They’re replaced highly experienced prison officers with people who are inexperienced in order to save cash. (...) They need to put money into the prison system urgently and they need to recruit … It’s not good enough for the coalition to sack 7,000 experienced officers and then announce the recruitment of 2,500 between now and 2020. (...) It’s the government policy – cut now and think later – that’s failed prison officers and prisons."[35]

The prison population in England and Wales has risen because politicians of both parties wanted to show they were tough on criminals. This led to overcrowding and increase in other problems like violence, self-harm and suicide.[36] Council of Europe figures demonstrated England and Wales have the largest incarceration rate in western Europe. Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust said, “massive investment in new prisons is not matched by a credible plan to reduce our reckless overuse of prison in the first place. The prison estate certainly needs an overhaul, but reducing demand would mean closing prisons, not opening them. The government has admitted that it has no idea when overcrowding will cease, and this announcement takes us no closer to an answer to that crucial question.” There are plans to build four new very large prisons housing a total of 5,000 inmates. Lord Woolf following the 1990 Strangeways Prison riot advised prisons should normally hold at most 400 prisoners. He said: “The evidence suggests that if these figures are exceeded, there can be a marked fall-off in all aspects of the performance of a prison.”[37]

A European human rights watchdog, the 'Council of Europe’s committee for the prevention of torture' reported all the prisons it visited were unsafe for both inmates and staff. The committee reported further it thought the, “alarmingly high” official figures for violence within British jails actually underate the real severity of conditions. They reported unless there was determined action to reduce the numbers in prison in England and Wales, improved regimes the government’s overhaul hoped for could not be achieved. They showed “deep concerns” over the “severe generalised violence” clearly demonstrated at each prison they visited and said funding cuts had reduced the frontline staff by 30%, which compromised operational safety due to low staffing on wings.[38]

Mark Fairhurst of the Prison Officers Association said staffing was a national problem. “[Salaries] are just not competitive enough with other public sector bodies or private industry. So we need to increase the starting salary to incentivise people to join and then we need to give them regular increments to incentivise them to stay. That’s not happening at the moment.” Fairhurst said difficulties retaining staff were “a combination of adverse working conditions, the violence that they face, and the poor salary.”[39]

Andrea Albutt of the Prison Governors Association said prison riots caused "grave concern" and further governors faced "unacceptable stress and anxiety". Ms Albutt said her members saw "nothing tangible" from the MoJ to relieve prison population pressures or the burden staff faced. She added that "unsuitable people" were being selected as prison officers and training was, "poor". The PGA maintains there are 40 prisons of concern and 10 of them are very concerning. MoJ data revealed a rise in prison violence with 26,643 assaults during the year to March 2017 - 20% up on the previous year. Of those, 7,159 were assaults on staff amounting to 20 every day.[40][41] There has been an unexpected rise in the prison population adding to the pressure on overcrowded and understaffed prisons.[42]

Health care is unsafe for prisoners. Urgent hospital appointments regularly have to be cancelled due to lack of staff to escort prisoners there. This may cause avoidable deaths.[43]

Mobile phones[edit]

Mobile phones are smuggled into prisons and prisoners use them to plot crimes. Automatic firearms and drugs were imported, escapes were planned, and even murder was commissioned according to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). Techniques exist to jam mobile signals or make the phones unusable. These are not currently used in England though Scotland is running pilot schemes.[44] Corrupt prison officers smuggle illegal drugs and mobile into prisons. Most prison officers do their work with integrity but there are typically two or three corrupt prison officers in each prison who have disproportionate influence. Low pay and lack of training dealing with prisoners are factors that can make a prison officer become corrupt.[45]

Prison officers[edit]


There were close to 6,000 assaults on prison officers in the year to June 2016, a 43% increase.[46] In August 2016 a prison governor was assaulted.[47] Steve Gillan of the Prison Officers Association said "The reality is this government has caused the problem - they've cut the staffing levels, they've taken so much money out of the system that the system is broken. My union will not stand by and watch our members become punch bags."[46]

Recent development[edit]

Historically, uniformed prison staff were under the supervision of a small number of very senior and experienced officers who held one of three Chief Officer ranks; however, reorganisation in the 1980s termed "A Fresh Start" saw these Chief Officer ranks abolished, and their role taken by junior grade prison Governors.

From 2000 onwards, as part of a process to increase accountability within the prison service, all operational officers have been assigned a 3-digit unique identification number, worn on all items of uniform (typically as an embroidered epaulette) along with the 2-digit LIDS identification code of the specific prison or institution. From 2010 onwards, attempts were made to replace the Principal Officer rank with non-uniformed junior managers (Developing Prison Service Managers - DPSM), although this process was neither entirely successful nor fully implemented.

Further restructuring in 2013 named 'Fair & Sustainable' saw the remaining historic ranks and rank insignia phased out in favour of a new structure, and simple stripes on uniform epaulettes to indicate grades.

Powers and structure[edit]

Public sector prison officers (historically known as warders) have "all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a constable" whilst acting as such.[48]

Although the system is flexible in operation, most Prison Officers work in small teams, either assigned to a specific duty, or providing one shift of staff for the supervision of a particular wing within a prison. Each such team is led by a Supervising Officer. There will be an overall manager of the wing with the title of Custodial Manager. Custodial Managers (CM) will have direct management of the wing and the line management of the Officers and Supervising Officers (SO).

Her Majesty's Prison Service rank insignia
Historic rank insignia in use until 1987
Rank Prison Officer Senior Prison Officer Principal Prison Officer Assistant Chief Officer Chief Officer
(Grade II)
Chief Officer
(Grade I)
Prison historic 01.jpg Prison historic 02.jpg Prison historic 03.jpg Prison historic 04.jpg Prison historic 05.jpg Prison historic 06.jpg
Rank insignia from the "A Fresh Start" initiative, 1987
Rank Prison Officer Senior Officer Principal Officer
to 2000
UK-hmps-oa.jpg UK-hmps-ob.jpg UK-hmps-oc.jpg The Chief Officer grades were abolished
and replaced with junior Governor grades.
Revised rank insignia with LIDS code and unique identification numbers, introduced in 2000
Rank Operational Support Grade (OSG) Prison Officer Senior Officer Principal Officer (Specialist Officer)
to 2013
Prison interim 01.jpg Prison interim 01.jpg Prison interim 02.jpg Prison interim 03.jpg Additionally authorised letters could be used
to indicate specialist functions:
DH - dog handler
W - works officer
H - healthcare officer
Current rank insignia introduced from April 2013
Rank Operational Support Grade (OSG) Prison Officer Supervising Officer Custodial Manager (Specialist Officer)
Prison service 01.jpg Prison service 02.jpg Prison service 03.jpg Prison service 04.jpg Specialist Officers have role identification
letters on their epaulettes:
DH - dog handler
W - works officer
H - healthcare officer

Specialist roles[edit]

In addition to uniformed officers carrying out security and custodial roles, a number of specialist functions exist within every prison. Some are assigned to uniformed Specialist Officers, whilst others are carried out by non-uniformed support staff.

Before the "Fresh Start" initiative of the mid-1980s there were more uniformed specialist officer roles, including dog handlers, works officers, hospital officers, catering officers, physical education officers, and officer instructors. Today the uniformed Specialist Officer roles include dog handlers (DH), works officers (W), and healthcare officers (H) who are the successors of the former hospital officers. The roles of the former catering officers, PE officers, and officer instructors are today taken by non-uniformed caterers, PE instructors, and educational/vocational instructors.[49]

Other key non-uniformed roles within the staff of a prison include chaplains, psychologists, and administrators.[49]

Private prisons[edit]

The Prison Service does not manage all prisons within England and Wales. Currently there are eleven prisons that have been designed, constructed, managed and financed (so-called DCMF prisons) privately. In addition, three prisons that were built with public money are managed by private companies under contract. During 2012 one further prison opened under private sector management: HMP Oakwood (Featherstone 2), built by the public sector. Private prisons are subject to scrutiny by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in a similar manner to prisons run by the public Prison Service.

Ban on industrial action[edit]

Questions were raised about the POA's status in the 1990s. In 1994, a legal decision determined that it was illegal to induce prison officers to take industrial action - a law which had applied to police officers since 1919 - meaning that the POA could not call strike action amongst its members. New labour legislation introduced by the Conservative government in 1992 laid down that the POA could no longer be a trade union. This was reversed in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, but prison officers were still denied the right to take industrial action. This right was restored in 2004 to prison officers in the public sector in England, Wales and Scotland, but not in Northern Ireland or to prison officers in the private sector.

On 29 August 2007, the POA started a 24-hour walkout of prisons, picketing establishments asking prison officers not to attend work for their shift. This was the first ever national strike action taken by the POA. The POA reported that 90% of its members (27,000) went on strike that day.

In January 2008, the Home Secretary announced that the government was to introduce legislation to remove the right for Prison Officers in England and Wales to take strike action.[50] In November 2016, the High Court approved a Government request to stop industrial action taking place.[51] In July 2017 the Government won a High Court bid to obtain a permanent ban on industrial action by prison officers.[52]

Independent Monitoring Board[edit]

Every prison and immigration removal centre has an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), formerly known as a Board of Visitors. Members of the IMB, who are volunteers, are appointed by the Home Secretary and act as 'watchdogs' for both the Minister of Prisons and the general public, to ensure that proper standards of care and decency are maintained.[53]

HMPS in the National Offender Management Service[edit]

On 6 January 2004, then Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that the Prison Service, together with the National Probation Service, is to be integrated into a new National Offender Management Service. The Service, Blunkett said, will be "a new body to provide end-to-end management of all offenders".

On 1 April 2008, NOMS was reorganised as part of a shake-up in the Ministry of Justice. The headquarters and regional structures of NOMS and HMPS were merged into a single HQ structure with Phil Wheatly as Director General of NOMS. This brings HMPS and the National Probation Service under a single headquarters structure for the first time ever.[54]

On 1 June 2011, NOMS was merged with the wider MoJ (HMCTS etc.) to form one organisation. Although HMCTS and NOMS are working under different terms and conditions, they are now managed together and HR is dealt with by one Shared Service centre. A review of terms and conditions for all MoJ staff, including NOMS, is currently in progress with view to bringing all staff terms and conditions across NOMS and HMCTS in line.

Old prisons[edit]

The Prison Governors Association said:

The old Victorian prisons are squalid and vermin-infested and governors do not have direct access to the funds to tackle it. Prison cells have been vandalised and prisoners have access to drugs and mobile phones, some delivered by drones. [The PGA feared Pentonville's management or a junior member of staff would be scapegoated over a prison escape but the “finger of blame” should point at the government.] The fact is that there is a complete disconnect between the operational frontline and the policymakers, and countless warnings that the system was creaking was not acted on. It is with profound sincerity [they hope] that the following prediction is wrong but this feels very much like on the beginning of the things to come.[55]

Old prisons are also more expensive to run and do not facilitate rehabilitation of prisoners. Newer prisons can, "design out the dark corners which too often facilitate violence and drug-taking."[56]

See also[edit]

Her Majesty's prison service collection is held at the Galleries of Justice Museum in Nottingham.


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External links[edit]