Working conditions

Key Elements

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.

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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.

Staffing policy

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.

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Questions for monitors

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?

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Further reading