On 14 September, members of the POA – the trade union for prison officers and secure psychiatric workers – took part in protests outside prisons around the country.
The Socialist spoke (below) to the POA’s deputy general secretary, Joe Simpson, as the action was unfolding that morning.
Later the same day, POA members returned to work following a commitment from the prisons minister to instruct the employer to meet the union and agree a plan of action to address the concerns of the POA.
On the action, how long did the protest last and what was the response like from POA members?
The response was very good from POA members, we started getting our members out to protest at 6am by contacting all our branch officials. The response has been very good, and the action is still ongoing.
There’s been a longstanding ban on prison officers taking strike action. Have you had any threats of legal action from the government?
Yes. We had a letter before our action saying that we are in breach of the court injunction of last year.
It said we’ve immediately got to repudiate the action and tell our members to go back to work. The general secretary Steve Gillan has turned around and said no.
This is a health and safety matter. The government is not abiding by the health and safety at work act.
It is not keeping our members safe while working in jails. It is not even keeping prisoners safe while we are looking after them.
So Steve said no, and we have instructed our solicitors that we will go to court. We are waiting to find out when we are going to be in court.
For readers of the Socialist who haven’t all followed what’s going on in the prison service, could you just explain why you felt it necessary to protest today and what it is that the prison service has failed to do to provide safe prisons?
No problem. What we’ve done is engage with the employer and ministers in an attempt to resolve the issues.
But as usual they just pay lip service to the health and safety of our members. We’ve demanded that they provide safe prisons, meet our demands to provide personal protective equipment, reduce the levels of violence and overcrowding as set out by Lord Justice Woolf in his report on the riots of 1990.
Just to give you a snapshot, assaults have been increasing. Prison violence has been increasing since the government introduced its austerity measures and took nearly 9,000 prison officers out of the system.
The number of assaults in all our prisons in 2010 stood at 14,916. That’s risen to 31,025 now, which equates to 85 a day. The figure’s increased 16% in this year alone. It’s up 108% since 2010.
Similarly, in 2010 the violence against our members numbered 3,027 incidents. Today, this figure stands at 9,003 – 24 assaults against our members every day. The number is up 25% since last year. Since 2007, it’s up 197%.
Self-harm incidents have also rocketed. People are coming into prison with mental health issues. We haven’t got the knowledge and experience to look after them as most of our members are not trained in mental health.
We are trying to keep them safe. But because of the staff cuts self-harm has gone up 77% since 2010. The number of self-harm incidents in 2010 was 24,964. They’re now up to 46,859. That is unacceptable to our members, it really is.
What we’ve also said to the government is that we want a reduction in prisoner numbers. We want to bring an end to what we describe as institutionalised prison overcrowding.
We believe that’s what’s also breeding discontent in prisons with prisoners. If they had brought down overcrowding and made it a rule, like Lord Justice Woolf recommended, that it is against the law to overcrowd a prison and to lock two prisoners up in a cell meant for one, then we wouldn’t be in the position that we are.
We’ve also said that we want a comprehensive, negotiated drug reduction strategy and violence reduction strategy in place.
Following on from today’s action what’s the next step? What’s the POA going to do next?
We’ve told the prisons minister we want to speak to him. We’ve said we want a comprehensive drug-reduction strategy.
We also want a plan put in place to reduce violence. We want to talk to the minister about staffing prisons properly.
That’s what we’re after: a proper regime in each prison which fits with the staffing levels they’ve got. Instead of what they’re currently trying to do with the staff that they’ve got, which is also breeding violence.
We’re happy to talk to the minister, as we’ve always been happy to talk to him. But he needs to talk to us in a meaningful engagement so that we can sort this out.
And if this doesn’t happen the NEC will be sitting round the table again, talking about what we can possibly do in the future. We would rule nothing in and nothing out.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
We’re getting quite a lot of messages of support from comrades in the Socialist Party and everywhere else.
Our members are up for the fight. And the reason they’re up for it is that they are pig sick – because they are living this life every single day.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 14 September 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.