Guest article

Prison officers are on the coronavirus front line too, writes POA chair Mark Fairhurst

The SKWAWKBOX asked front-line workers for their experience of the government’s claim to have delivered personal protective equipment (PPE). Prison Officers’ Association chair Mark Fairhurst responded

During these troubling times it is easy to forget a section of our workforce that is continuing to work on the front line whilst facing the same dangers as other front-line public sector workers who receive the gratitude of the general public and our political figures.

You see, behind those big grey walls that make up our prisons lies a confined community that faces all the dangers and risks that we are all now facing, but compounded by the confines of wings, cells and the ever-prevalent threat of frustration and concerns spilling over into violence against staff.

We are the Prison Officers that hardly ever get a mention in the media or by leading political figures. We are the people who police our prisons maintaining law and order, who administer emergency medical care when one of our occupants attempts suicide, who act as social workers and carers for our elderly prisoners and who act as parents, teachers and role models for those young people who have so often been misguided and forgotten about.

We even fight fires and rescue people when prisoners decide to commit arson. Every emergency front-line duty is performed by Prison Officers, both public and private sector, in our secure hospitals and immigration removal centres and those who transport prisoners throughout the country, day by day , shift by shift.

“We need Personal Protective Equipment and COVID-19  testing and we need it now”

If nothing else this crisis highlights that our role is vital to the protection of the public and it is commendable that we are coping well dealing with the most vulnerable, violent, dangerous and damaged at a time of national crisis.

With all the dangers to front-line staff being regularly highlighted, prison staff find themselves in the same predicament as the NHS. We need Personal Protective Equipment and COVID-19  testing and we need it now!

It is unacceptable to expect staff in our prisons to only wear PPE when they are dealing with a prisoner either diagnosed or displaying the signs of coronavirus.

There is no capability of isolating all those that may have COVID-19 in one specific area, neither is there an opportunity to offer all those who are self-isolating the opportunity to do so in a single cell. We wish we could, but the chronic overcrowding which has plagued us for years is now stifling our efforts to halt the spread.

Imagine opening a cell door to a prisoner who is displaying the signs of coronavirus – without a face mask because there are none left.

Then imagine trying to give prisoners exercise in the open air whilst trying to convince then to stay 2 metres apart. Most wings house anything from 50-250 prisoners. We have to shower, exercise and give phone calls to them all in a day, every day.

“At the moment we are playing Russian roulette with our staff and prisoners”

Not only do we have to adhere to social distancing guidelines but we have to consider the cleanliness implications of so many prisoners accessing these facilities in a production line fashion. The risks are obvious and without PPE are multiplied beyond calculation.

If we are to continue to meet peoples needs then we need to ensure we are safe. That means adequate PPE in abundance, the ability to clean areas to prevent the spread and the vital testing that will enable staff to work safely and identify prisoners who need to isolate. At the moment we are playing Russian roulette with our staff and prisoners. We have to find a better way.

Finally, I would ask that you all consider the situation we all find ourselves in. It’s time to be kinder to each other.

Say a thank you to the person on the checkout instead of shouting at them because they have no toilet roll. Spare a thought for the delivery drivers that keep our supply chain stocked and the postal workers that continue as normal. The next time you see a policeman or nurse say thank you.

And the next time you listen or read about front-line emergency service workers who are doing a sterling job (which they are), spare a thought for our Prison Officers.

Mark Fairhurst
National Chair POA

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  1. The Govt refuses to release any prisoners in the UK, even the Over 80’s, pregnant women, those about to finish sentences, those still serving indeterminate sentences etc while some of the most totalitarian countries in the World are rushing to get rid of them before there are riots and mass escapes of infected people. Iran, 85000 including Kurdish ‘terrorists’, Turkey 100,000+ and even America are releasing tens of thousands. But the Prison Service here is adamant, these people are criminals who must serve their sentences – and in some cases extra time to satisfy the Daily Mail. Prison Officers do a very tough job at the best of times and it’s remarkable how little attention is given to what could become a major issue. In the circumstances where a lot of people are now receiving 80% of their income while not working at all there is surely a case that April’s salary for PO’s and NHS frontline staff be doubled?

  2. I emailed HMP Berwyn 4weeks ago about their plans for visitors (I was making a visit 12/03) and their duty of care to prisoners and staff alike.

    Having heard nothing for a week, I then sent a follow up email.

    I received a reply on 12/03 informing me they’d received the message, marked as number 1*60 on 04/03 and that the visits hub would be in touch regarding my enquiries

    …Which was pointless because the visit had already taken place by the time they’d sent the email.

    Needless to say, they haven’t bothered getting back in touch.

  3. I wonder – in a future (that I won’t see) of socialism, a generous universal basic income and idle hands – will there be vastly fewer people in prison, suggesting that today’s prisoners were just redressing society’s inequalities in their own way, or will those who steal today continue to steal tomorrow?

    1. The hostile environment in the criminal justice system was another race to the bottom by both blue and red Tories
      And led to a doubling of the prison population
      It costs £50,000 a year to lock some one up, do the maths, current prison population is about 80,000
      Largest per capita in western europe

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