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Weeding out the bad prison and probation staff

Russell Webster explains the new Counter Corruption Unit

Last Friday Justice Secretary David Gauke announced the establishment of a specialist task force to tackle staff corruption in prison.

The new Counter Corruption Unit has been set up to “proactively pursue those suspected of corrupt activity in prison and probation services across England and Wales”.

Staff in the new unit will work closely with police forces to investigate and disrupt criminality and bring to justice more staff “causing harm behind bars”.

The units is made up of 29 specialist staff split into a national team and five regional teams - the teams include expert intelligence analysts who will examine threats to the prison and probation services.

The accompanying guidance lists the sorts of behaviour the unit is seeking to crack down on:

  • Smuggling restricted items into or out of a prison
  • Helping a prisoner to escape
  • Transferring or reclassifying prisoners inappropriately
  • Forming inappropriate relationships with offenders, offenders’ families or criminal groups
  • Sexually assaulting a prisoner or offender
  • Disclosing personal, sensitive or restricted information
  • Influencing or blackmailing staff, including to engage in criminal activity
  • Accepting or seeking bribes or favours
  • Failure to discharge duties or follow procedures to the required standard (such as performing searches poorly so as not to find contraband)
  • Theft of HMPPS money or property, or offender’s money or property

I jointly led a research study into prison drug markets 20 years ago. At the time, the main ways of smuggling drugs into prison were: concealing them in the body (mainly in the rectum); sending them through the post or throwing them over the prison walls concealed in oranges or dead pigeons. Drones were not even invented then and, although there was the odd rumour about corrupt prison officers, this was seen as a very occasional rather than mainstream method.

However, stories about corrupt officers have become ever more frequent over the last 20 years. It remains true, of course, that the vast majority of prison staff are honest and committed to their jobs. Nonetheless, the recent rush to recruit thousands of frontline staff to replace those who were laid off in the first round of austerity cuts appears to have revealed some vulnerabilities in recruitment and security procedures.

Just last week, the Guardian ran a story based on Freedom of Information data which revealed that more than 2,500 prison staff have been disciplined in the previous five years. The disciplinary action was for a wide range of reasons including, relationships with inmates, assaulting prisoners and racism. The data released to the Guardian showed the prison service launched 6,597 investigations into misconduct in the five-year period ending in the middle of 2018. These investigations included 2,270 into breaches of security, 718 into assault or unnecessary use of force against a prisoner and 174 into inappropriate relationships with prisoners. A total of 567 officers were sacked in the same period, including 84 for breach of security, 68 for unnecessary use of force and 39 for inappropriate relationships.

We shall have to wait and see what impact the new unit has. As always, it will be difficult to judge. If the number of prison and probation staff disciplined shoots up, does that mean that our penal system is becoming more corrupt or that the new unit is doing a great job at uncovering hitherto hidden abuses?

However, the main reaction to the establishment of the new Counter Corruption Unit has been praised from prison reform organisations who feel that the government should have grasped this particular nettle some years ago.