The way prison staff perceive the quality of their working life and how they are treated by managers and colleagues has a significant impact on the atmosphere in detention and the treatment of prisoners. Prison officers who feel valued, trusted and respected at work are more likely to apply these values to the treatment of prisoners. Favourable prison working conditions are also important for attracting and retaining suitable staff.
International standards are clear that prison personnel should be appointed on a full-time basis with civilian status, adequate salaries and favourable employment benefits and conditions of service. In reality, it is not uncommon for prison staff to have a low standing in the community and receive low salaries which are sometimes paid irregularly, impacting negatively on motivation and performance of their duties. It can also encourage corruption.
Status, remuneration and benefits
In order to attract and retain suitable staff, prison officers should be professional civil servants with civilian status. They should receive remuneration and benefits that enable them and their families to have a decent standard of living, given the local context and price level. These should be in the range of other comparable public service professions such as police officers, teachers or nurses, and take into account the complex and sometimes dangerous nature of the role. The status and salary should also provide prison officers with a standing in the community that reflects the contribution they make to society. Staff should receive clear information about promotion possibilities. Promotion decisions should emphasise competence (work experience, effort and quality of work done) – they should not be automatic. Regular performance appraisals should help staff develop to their full potential.
Workplace location and transfers
Prisons are sometimes located in isolated places, away from urban settlements, making it difficult for prison officers to access services and facilities such as shops, doctors, social activities and schools for their children. In some contexts, prison officers are required to live in a community made up only of other prison officers, making it difficult for themselves and their families to lead a ‘normal’, diversified social life. They may also be required to transfer regularly to work in different prisons, with all the challenges of relocation. These circumstances may require additional subsidies such as for housing, travel, medical care and education for children, etc. in order to prevent inequitable living conditions of prison officers and their families.
Challenges and impact of prison work on staff
Prison work can have a significant emotional impact on staff. The prison environment is punitive and often violent, and staff may experience high levels of work related stress. Overcrowding and an inadequate staff/prisoner ratio make it more difficult for prison officers to carry out their functions and create an insecure environment within prisons. Prison staff are sometimes expected to undertake significant amounts of overtime and very long shifts in order to maintain basic security, which can lead to increased stress and premature burnout. The physical working environment can also be extremely difficult, including poor physical infrastructure, insufficient space, air and light, a lack of sewerage and waste disposal or other unhygienic conditions.
Support services and counselling
Prisons should therefore have a staff welfare policy. This should include the provision of independent support services, including counselling by trained professionals, with whom staff can speak voluntarily and in confidence about their work, challenges and concerns. It is important for prisons to proactively ensure that staff feel able to avail themselves of such services. It is recognised that mixed gender staffing can have a normalising influence and positive effect on the prison working environment.
Relationship with management
It is important for prison staff to feel they are treated with trust, legitimacy and fairness within the prison organisation. Prisons therefore require professional leadership, with effective communication and participatory management processes that take into account the voices of staff. In reality, it is not uncommon for prison staff to feel unsupported by management who they perceive as bureaucrats who do not understand the nature of the operational work, the dangers and difficulties involved. Prison staff have the right to be represented by unions, which can play an important role in representing staff interests towards management and improving working conditions.
Peer pressure and “esprit de corps”
Prison officers frequently have a strong “esprit de corps” which emphasises solidarity. While this can be a source of support, it can also involve peer pressure to conform to the way things are done, including “not being soft” on prisoners. Those that do not conform can suffer intimidation, harassment and ostracism. Prison should have a clear code of ethics and disciplinary procedures which are applied in a fair and transparent way. These can build staff confidence in the organisation and management and help to protect against inappropriate behaviour and abuse within the institution.
Discrimination at work
There should be no discrimination in the prison work place. Prisons should have clear regulations, policies and mechanisms to prevent and address discriminatory behaviour. Women prison officers and those from minority groups should have the same opportunities, professional encouragement and access to promotions and training opportunities as others. It should be clear that women can perform the prison officer role as well as men. Mixed staffing can have benefits in terms of the custodial ethos and fostering a degree of normality in the prison environment.
Given the importance of staffing issues, prisons should have an explicit policy written in formal documents relating to all aspects of staff selection, training, status, management responsibilities, conditions of work and mobility. This should emphasis the ethical nature of prisons and prison work and refer to human rights standards. The policy should be formulated in consultation with staff and/or their representatives and should be periodically reviewed and revised as necessary.
Legal standards (5) Print
United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules)
1. The prison administration shall provide for the careful selection of every grade of the personnel, since it is on their integrity, humanity, professional capacity and personal suitability for the work that the proper administration of prisons depends.
2. The prison administration shall constantly seek to awaken and maintain in the minds both of the personnel and of the public the conviction that this work is a social service of great importance, and to this end all appropriate means of informing the public should be used.
3. To secure the foregoing ends, personnel shall be appointed on a full-time basis as professional prison staff and have civil service status with security of tenure subject only to good conduct, efficiency and physical fitness. Salaries shall be adequate to attract and retain suitable men and women; employment benefits and conditions of service shall be favourable in view of the exacting nature of the work.
European prison rules
Salaries shall be adequate to attract and retain suitable staff.
Benefits and conditions of employment shall reflect the exacting nature of the work as part of a law enforcement agency.
Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the America
Principle XX – Personnel of places of deprivation of liberty
[…] The personnel of places of deprivation of liberty shall be provided with the necessary resources and equipment so as to allow them to perform their duties in suitable conditions, including fair and equitable remuneration, decent living conditions, and appropriate basic services.
Extract from the 10th General Report on the CPT's activities CPT/Inf (2000) 13]
As the CPT stressed in its 9th General Report, mixed gender staffing is an important safeguard against ill-treatment in places of detention. The presence of male and female staff can have a beneficial effect in terms of both the custodial ethos and in fostering a degree of normality in a place of detention.
Mixed gender staffing also allows for appropriate staff deployment when carrying out gender sensitive tasks, such as searches. In this context, the CPT wishes again to emphasise that persons deprived of their liberty should only be searched by staff of the same gender and that any search which requires an inmate to undress should be conducted out of the sight of custodial staff of the opposite gender
Extract from the 11th General Report on the CPT's activities [CPT/Inf (2001) 16]
[...] It should also be noted that, where staff complements are inadequate, significant amounts of overtime can prove necessary in order to maintain a basic level of security and regime delivery in the establishment. This state of affairs can easily result in high levels of stress in staff and their premature burnout, a situation which is likely to exacerbate the tension inherent in any prison environment.
Questions for monitors (15) Print
What is the salary for prison officers and how is it set? How does this compare to other comparable public services (such as the police service, nurses or teachers)?
How does the location of the prison or prison accommodation affect the lives of prison officers and their families (access to facilities, social opportunities etc)?
What is the benefits package for prison officers? Does this include subsidies for living costs and services (if necessary given location etc)?
Are prison officers subject to transfer? If so how are transfers decided upon and does this take into account the situation of the officer and their family at the time?
What do prison officers perceive as the best/most difficult aspects of their work?
What is the staff/prisoner ratio in the prison?
Is the prison overcrowded? How does this affect prison officers’ ability to carry out their tasks and develop positive relationships with prisoners?
What are the working hours for prison officers? Do they work in shifts? Are prison officers required to do overtime? Are they remunerated for it?
What are the physical working conditions of prison officers?
Does the prison have a staff welfare policy? Are there support services available for prison officers, including counselling to help them deal with challenges at work? Do prison officers feel able to make use of these?
Are prison officers unionised? What is the influence of the union on working conditions, industrial relations and the working atmosphere in prisons?
Are there indications of a punitive ‘esprit de corps’? Have prison officers felt pressure from colleagues to act a certain way towards prisoners?
Have prison officers experienced discrimination or abuse at work?
Are women prison officers given the same roles, opportunities and salary/benefits as men prison officers?
Are regulations, policies and mechanisms in place to prevent and address discriminatory practices? Do officers have confidence in these?
Further reading (9) Print
Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté & Association for the prevention of torture, Opinions and Recommendations of the French 'Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté' 2008-2014, Opinion of 17th June 2011 concerning supervision of monitoring and security staff, pp.94-98.
Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, Recommendation N° Rec(97)12E of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on staff concerned with the implementation of sanctions and measures (adopted 10 September 1997)
Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, Resolution N° Res66(26)E on the status, recruitment and training of prison staff, adopted by Minister’s Deputies on 30 April 1966
Andrew Coyle, A human rights approach to prison management: Handbook for prison staff (International Centre for Prison Studies, second edition, 2009), chapter 3
European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), 11th General Report on the CPT's activities (CPT/Inf (2001) 16), 2001, para 26
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Report of the IACHR on the situation of persons deprived of their liberty in Honduras, 2013, p33
Penal Reform International (PRI) & Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), Detention monitoring tool, Factsheet: Staff working conditions - Addressing risk factors to prevent torture and ill-treatment (2013).
Penal Reform International (PRI) & Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), Detention Monitoring Tool, Thematic paper: Institutional culture in detention - a framework for preventive monitoring (2013).
UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), Criminal Justice Assessment Toolkit: Custodial and Non-custodial measures, The Prison System (2006), section 6.4 on personnel