Prison officer violence: The crisis of visibility

Dr David Scott
Thursday, 27 February 2020

In recent times there have been increasing calls for zero tolerance of physical violence in prisons in the UK.

These demands, largely from prison officers and their union The Prison Officers Association (POA), have pointed to the increasing risk of violence to prison officers from prisoners. Such calls, and the recorded data on prison officer assaults, has entered the public debate with very little controversy. Yet there is a glaring omission in contemporary debates about physical violence in prison – the violence of prison officers.

There is then a crisis of visibility when it comes to the recognition of the nature and extent of prison officer violence. This lack of acknowledgement is not new. Historically, violence by prison officers in prisons in the UK has been largely hidden. This invisibility has arisen for a number of reasons.  There have always been limited avenues for prisoners to officially report prison officer violence; some violence by prison officers will be masked through interventions to control prisoners – such as through control and restraint or those that arise during and after prisoner disturbances; and then there is the equally insidious problem of fear of repercussions if any violence is reported. 

Prison officer violence is the norm, not the exception

Yet, significantly, there is evidence that prison officer violence has been something that has characterised the reformed prisons since at least the mid-1800s.  Prisoner testimonies to official inquiries, such as for example the Gladstone Report of 1895 following the scandal of prison conditions or the Woolf Report of 1991 in response to prison disturbances at Strangeways in April 1990, are littered with claims by prisoners that violence from prison officers is rife.  Prisoner autobiographies, dating back to the 1860s all the way up to the present day, are also filled with accounts of sometimes brutal physical violence of prison officers.  Finally, there are also detailed accounts of prison officer violence in prison officer autobiographies. Prison officers have almost universally in their accounts of their prison working lives written about the perpetration of physical violence against prisoners by themselves or other officers.

It is time to challenge the invisible brutal hands of prison officers and widen the scope of debate about violence in prison. There are a number of things that can be done almost immediately to make the problem more visible.

  1. Taking the issue seriously: This would involve the development of a culture of ‘zero tolerance’ for all forms of violence and mechanisms put in place for the safe reporting and recording of prison officer violence and their appropriate investigation
  2. Challenging the normalisation of physical violence in existing prison officer occupational culture: This would include further training for prison officers in conflict resolution and non-violent forms of intervention; and awareness of mental health.
  3. Understanding the inherent antagonism of prison work: This would mean locating prison work within wider context of coercion, repression and domination and the use of physical violence in last instance to maintain control.
  4. Recognition of the shared humanity of prisoners: This would entail recognition of the harms, suffering, injury and violence of imprisonment; the indignity of prison for human beings; the pains and frustrations generated by prison on an everyday basis; and hearing the voice of the prisoner.

Dr David Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University. He is also one of the speakers at the conference on 1 April – After Strangeways: The past, present and future of prisons.