Surge in prison officer absences due to mental health reasons

Posted: 30th June 2023

Source: BBC News

The number of prison officers in England and Wales who took sick days for mental health reasons nearly doubled over five years.

Staff taking time off rose from 1,456 in 2016/17 to 2,879 in 2021/22, Ministry of Justice data obtained by BBC Radio Kent shows.

The Prison Officers’ Association (POA) says long hours, violence and poor pay are causing staff burnout.

The government says it is providing extensive mental health support.

The data, obtained by a BBC Freedom of Information (FOI) request, does not include prisons which were non-operational or private.

The Ministry of Justice says the number of prison officers only rose by 18% during the five-year time period. In December 2022 there were 21,633 officers, up from 18,402 in March 2017.

Mark Fairhurst, national chair of the POA, says “violence, the threat of violence and a hyper vigilant state, all contribute to a working environment that is becoming less and less attractive”.

He said: “These issues are causing a high attrition rate and more staff being diagnosed with PTSD. Sadly we are witnessing increased levels of mental health disorders that tragically, on occasion, end in suicide.”

Tom Hill was a prison officer for 32 years at HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire. He says the austerity cuts from 2010 have meant that experienced staff have left the service.

“Once we lost vast swathes of staff, regimes were cut, prisoners were locked up inside their cells for 23 hours a day in a lot of prisons and that leads to boredom for the prisoners, boredom for the staff and ultimately we then get violence, drug misuse and self harm.

“It even shocked me after 30 years the amount of violence that one human being can inflict on another human being. And on top of that you have got suicide of prisoners and some staff.”

Half of prison officers in England and Wales said they do not feel safe at the prisons they work in, a large-scale survey of prison staff by the cross-party parliamentary Justice Committee has revealed.

But the Prison Service said it was taking steps to improve the safety of prisons, increasing the number of band 3-5 officers by 3,662 between October 2016 and September 2022.

‘More protection’

Gordon Henderson, the Conservative MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, who has three prisons in his constituency, said there had been a campaign to give staff more protection.

He said: “Prison officers are now allowed, as a matter of course, to carry PAVA spray. They are also being provided with body cameras, which has been a great help in terms of reducing the level of hostility and violence in prisons.”

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “We take the wellbeing of our hardworking staff very seriously which is why we provide extensive mental health support, including a 24-hour helpline, confidential counselling and specialised therapy after traumatic incidents.

“This is an important and demanding job which is why we are also boosting prison officer pay to at least £30,000, with an extra £3,000 for some of the lowest paid to help us hire and retain more prison officers.”

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