Overcrowded jails, poor pay, Prison Service legal actions against the union, a majority of prisoners with mental and drug problems, and the risks of assault from an increasingly disgruntled prison population. These are just a few of the many grievances held by Britain's prison officers that led to yesterday's sudden strike action.
An increase in foreign inmates who speak no English, creeping privatisation, and a sense that their efforts go unappreciated by government, media and public all add to the atmosphere of revolt which burst into the open with a moment's notice.
Although the timing of the strike took the prison service and the government by surprise, the warning signs have been on the horizon for months, if not years. In May, at the Prison Officers Association's annual conference in Southport, general secretary Brian Caton spoke despairingly of the apparently relentless expansion of a prison population towards an estimated 93,000 by 2009 and the effect this was having on his membership. "We believe that if the current trend continues and significant investment is not made to deliver new prison places then prisons will return to the dark days of the late 80s/early 90s and serious disturbances will occur," he said. He and others in the POA feel their words have not been heeded.
The government's decision to restrict the officers' pay increase to 2.5% and to stagger its timing was the final straw. The average annual salary for a prison officer is now just over £26,000, up from the £19,000 they were receiving a decade ago but still well below that of police officers and secondary school teachers and now just below that of nurses. Officers feel that they have fallen far behind their fellow workers in the public sector.
In tandem with the row over pay has been the dispute between the Prison Service and the POA over work to rule issues which have led to six separate clashes between the two sides in the high court. Colin Moses, the POA national chairman, said on the last occasion earlier this summer: "It is a sad day when the director general of the Prison Service takes this union to court rather than conducting industrial relations through a partnership approach and acceptable methods."
Overcrowding has produced its own tensions. There are now more than 80,000 inmates against 61,467 10 years ago. This puts extra pressure on inmates and officers. Prisoners may be unable to leave their cells for exercise or recreation and, if staff are not available, may be unable to take the courses, such an anger management, necessary to qualify for parole. This leads to frustration and tension.
The introduction of the indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) has exacerbated the problem. Last month the Prison Reform Trust claimed that "thousands of people are sentenced to a bureaucratic limbo where they have no means to work towards their release". Many will take out their frustration on staff. Prison suicides are at high levels, too, highlighted by yesterday's claim that already one prisoner had died as a result of the action. There are about two suicides a week. Jail privatisation remains a sensitive issue. The POA's position is that all private jails should be returned to the public sector.
Many officers feel that their role is under-appreciated. "People don't realise that around 80% or 90% of the prisoners have some sort of mental illness through substance abuse, either drugs or alcohol," an officer in Bedford prison told the Guardian this summer. Another officer said that while other public servants such as the police, nurses and teachers would be mentioned in the Queen's Christmas speech, prison officers never were. "It's never really recognised that we're working Christmas Day and every day," he said.
Compared with, for instance, Scandinavia, where prison officers take diplomas in social studies, the status of the "screw" in British society remains low. There is a feeling among officers that neither the government nor the general public understand the daily pressures they face.
The injunction obtained by the Ministry of Justice yesterday prevents the POA from inducing, authorising or supporting any industrial action which would disrupt the operation of the Prison Service in England and Wales. "We expect prison officers to return to work with immediate effect," said a spokesman. But most prison officers ignored the court ruling, staying out on strike for several hours until the union's executive ruled to call off the action last night after the government offered fresh talks.