The work is far from glamorous and brutal misconduct is not unknown among those who carry it out. So when prison officers yesterday embarked on a wildcat strike they were poorly placed to win the sympathy that met the Fire Brigades Union when it took on the government in 2002. Indeed, the Prison Officers Association (POA) received a very hostile reaction from several quarters, starting with the high court, which did not take long to rule its action illegal. Ken Jones, the head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, joined the fray, warning further walkouts would pose dangers for the public. Before long, even the inmates were joining in - chanting to the staff assembled at Cardiff prison "you're breaking the law".
None of this, however, implies that the nine in 10 PAO members who signalled readiness to strike in a ballot do not have a real grievance. Their claim is that the pay for their job (which starts at just over £17,000) is not commensurate with its fierce demands. Like firefighters, prison officers are guardians of public safety. Yet instead of being seen as heroes, they spend their days with captives who understandably resent them. Teachers and police officers are familiar with the special strains that arise in working with people who would rather be elsewhere. But jailers are unique in that all those they deal with fall into this category. When there are eight assaults each day, it is little wonder that the research finds that an officer's job is the most stressful of the lot.
Adding to the misery is the sustained overcrowding that flows from the doubling of the prison population since the early 1990s. More inmates end up in the wrong places, and thus shunting them around and maintaining order takes precedence over the rehabilitative work that is what retains the best of the prison staff. Although the service prides itself on coping with the occasional crisis, managing a near-permanent state of crisis is another matter. The effects are seen in this year's increase in inmate suicides, in the gradual upward creep of reoffending rates - and in staff discontent.
Even though workers in private prisons earn less than the public employees in the PAO, in these awful circumstances the union's complaints should be dismissed. Where in 2002 the firefighters demanded an extravagant 40% rise, the final straw for prison officers was the move to cut the value of their mere 2.5% rise through phasing - sending it below the rise in living costs. The right of prison officers to strike has been curtailed, a position which the armed forces always argue must be balanced by fair wages. Ministers, however, can with equal rationality insist that no government can afford to cave in to pressure on wages. Many public sector workers can claim to be a special case. Granting a trickle of extra cash for the prison officers could provoke a deluge of other demands.
Fortunately, at least over the longer-term, a strategy is available which could help to reconcile justified but competing fiscal and payroll demands. Namely, restricting the costly use of prison to those criminals that cannot be dealt with in any other way. If the jails were no longer packed with minor offenders, resources would be freed to rehabilitate and cut reoffending as well as to pay staff decently. The justice secretary, Jack Straw, seems to understand the issue better than his predecessor, but he is yet to take the action needed to get properly to grips with it.
As for David Cameron, the ragbag of minimum sentences and other measures that he has been advancing this week push in precisely the wrong direction. This week's Guardian/ICM poll found that a majority no longer believe that prison works and instead want better ways found to deal with crime. The public, then, is ahead of politicians in recognising that the correctional system is itself in need of correction.