Wed 22 September 2021

The Government is warned that it must do more to prioritise the mental health of prison officers as new figures reveal thousands have been referred for mental health assessments.

Thousands of prison officers have been referred for mental health-related assessments in the past year-and-a-half – almost one in eight (12%) of the total number in the role, according to new figures obtained by the Byline Times.

Under Freedom of Information, HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) has revealed that, since October 2017 to present, mental health-related referrals have been made for 2,760 prison officers, out of a total 22,722 who are currently in post, according to the latest available statistics.

HMPPS said it does not hold any data relating to occupational mental health referrals prior to October 2017 and could not say how many of the referrals were due to work-related issues.

The figures are revealed at a time when continued staff shortages and rising violence, self-harm and drug use in our prisons demand a frank and urgent assessment of the effects of such an environment on the mental health of prisoners, as well as those working inside jails – an issue not often put under the spotlight.

Psychologically, the rule of thumb is, if one half of your life is working okay, you can normally deal with a whole bunch of difficulties in the other half.

Byline Times source working in prisons

When asked how many of the referrals were specifically for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), HMPPS said it was “unable to advise how many employees were referred due to PTSD” but stated that “two types of therapy are offered to employees suffering from PTSD” – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR).

Since October 2017 to present, 892 prison officers – 4% of the total number currently in the role – were referred amid CBT and EMDR-related concerns.

“Depending on the context surrounding the traumatic incident, one of these therapies could be recommended,” HMPPS said. “However, CBT and EMDR can also be provided to staff for other reasons other than PTSD.”

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said the figures were “very significant” and that he is “confident” that the vast majority of the referrals will have been for work-related issues.

“Over a prolonged period of time, there have been studies which show that prison officers work in one of the most stressful of occupations,” he told the Byline Times.

“It doesn’t surprise me, with the cuts to budgets and lack of staff, the stress and the violence that goes with the job, that it is affecting prison officers’ mental health. They are working in a hostile environment.”

The answer lies in properly resourced prisons for a smaller number of prisoners.

Peter Dawson, director, Prison Reform Trust

He said he believes the figures to be merely “the tip of the iceberg” as many prison officers will be reluctant to seek help for their mental health at work due to stigma.

Mr Gillan said the Government needs to do a lot more on the issue and criticised it for being “very slow to react”.

“There now needs to be a study by the Government into the effects on the health and safety of prison staff and decent packages in place where prison officers can seek help,” he added.

The Government’s latest ‘safety in custody’ statistics, published today, reveal that violence in prisons continues to escalate, with assaults between prisoners and on staff, suicides and self-harm incidents all continuing to increase in 2018, with some at ‘record highs’. Assaults on staff rose by 29% on the previous year.

A source working within the prison service conducting occupational mental health assessments said many of the referrals they have seen are due to “mental health issues around operational problems and incidents that happen at work causing staff upset and anxiety”.

“You’ve also got the cohort where there is a lot of stuff going on away from work,” the source said.

“Psychologically, the rule of thumb is, if one half of your life is working okay, you can normally deal with a whole bunch of difficulties in the other half. If work’s going great, you can usually put up with difficulties at home and vice versa, but it’s when both sides start to encroach on one another, that’s when people tip into not being able to cope so well.”

The source added that referrals are made for both younger and older prison officers and both appear to have been impacted by the Government’s drive to recruit graduates to the role.

Young and inexperienced prison officers “think they are there to change prisoners’ lives”, when the reality is much harsher, the source said.

“There is this issue of the new recruitment policy, lots of new and inexperienced – in terms of life – young people are being recruited into the service and aren’t necessarily coping so well with the challenges it throws at them.

“If you’re a young person in your early 20s and you’re placed into a prison where prisoners are serving 10-year plus sentences with a lot of time on their hands, it’s quite easy to be able to get inside the heads of young people. They don’t have the resilience and it’s a chip-chip-chip away intimidation – something which for ex-serviceman would be water off a duck’s back.

Prison officers are working in a hostile environment.

Steve Gillan, Prison Officers Association

“If you talk to the older prison officers, they say, historically, it would be ex-service personnel and those people who work well within hierarchies, understand strong routine and backing one another up [working in prisons]. They feel that’s been lost with the change in recruitment.

“They’ve said you used to go into situations where you would feel very confident that fellow prison officers are beside you, but now they don’t know whether they can actually rely on their colleagues because of experience levels. They are having to manage very young people who, as they would say, are ‘wet behind the ears’. And it’s not a social work job first and foremost.”

Andy Bell, deputy chief executive at the Centre for Mental Health, said its research had found that little attention is being paid to the wellbeing of prison staff.

“Prison staff are working in a challenging environment and often bearing witness to traumatising events and experiences,” he said. “It is vital that prison services support the mental health of the people who work in them as well as of prisoners in order to create a safe and therapeutic environment for all.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, agreed and said “it’s not surprising that conditions in our prison system over the last few years have taken a toll on the mental health of the people working in it – just as they have for the people who have to live in it”.

“The answer lies in properly resourced prisons for a smaller number of prisoners,” he added.

There now needs to be a study by the Government into the effects on the health and safety of prison staff.

Steve Gillan, Prison Officers Association

For Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, “the fetid conditions and lack of outdoor exercise in prisons affects staff as well as prisoners”.

“Asking staff to impose and inflict those conditions on other human beings, which is likely to lead to self-injury and more crime, and when they know that treatment will be both hurtful and counter-productive, must inevitably harm their mental health. No one wants to go into work feeling that, whatever they do, they cannot do a good job.”

Byline Times asked the Ministry of Justice to respond to the figures obtained and whether the department is concerned about the number of referrals for mental health-related assessments.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “The well-being of our staff is paramount and, because prison officers work in a particularly demanding environment, we give all of them access to services including 24/7 counselling, trauma support and occupational health.

“We are also providing prison officers with extra tools to make their jobs safer including body-worn cameras, police-style restraints and PAVA incapacitant spray.

“These figures do not show the number of prison officers with PTSD – only those referred for treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which is used for a wide range of mental health issues including depression, anxiety and insomnia.”


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