Quality rehabilitation or ticking time bombs – the stark choice facing Europe’s prison services

After nearly a decade of imposed cuts in jobs and pay, the 630,000 or so workers who look after prison detainees in the European Union are close to breaking point. A recent workshop in Brussels held by the European Public Services Union (EPSU) underlined the urgent need for EU and national action – or we risk a growing crisis both inside and outside the prisons.

With 32 union representatives of prison staff from 14 European countries participating in EPSU’s Quality Jobs and Quality Public Services in Prisons meeting, speaker after speaker explained how ill thought-out austerity policies across EU member states continue to have a massively negative impact on those working in prisons, as well as on the inmates.

The 10 May meeting was part of a two-year European Commission-funded EPSU project examining quality employment and quality public services in light of the Commission’s relaunch of EU-wide quality indicators. It gives trade unionists working in the prison services the opportunity to discuss and formulate definitions of quality employment in their sector and highlight priority issues.

As well as defining the key aspects of what quality employment in the prison services should entail, the meeting set out to see how trade unions can play an integral part in ensuring that these definitions are put into effect. The meeting also looked to record the extent to which the quality of prison working environments have improved or deteriorated in recent years.

Opening the conference, EPSU policy officer Richard Pond stressed: “It is important that those who work in prisons have a role in defining what quality employment looks like in their sector.

“As with many public services the debate on prison employment cannot just be about the number of jobs or the cost of service provision. It has to take into consideration the quality of the public services provided and pay and conditions of those who work on the front line within prisons,” Pond said.

Strengthening collective bargaining systems also plays a major role in empowering prison staff and help them fulfil their rehabilitation role, he added.

EPSU believes that the issue of quality employment in prisons needs to be better addressed on a European level through raising awareness with governments and MEPs, as well as with the European Commission, not in least through the European Semester discussions that set out the EU’s macroeconomic framework.

Austerity within public services generally, and within the prison services sector in particular, manifests itself in understaffing, greater outsourcing of prison jobs and an increased use of short-term contracts. This in turn fuels job insecurity and adds to psychosocial risks in the workplace.

Prison services are an important focus for public services due to their links and essential partnerships with health care, probation and educational services and other elements of the justice system.

What kind of prison service do we want?

At the heart of the debate is whether we wish to create a quality prison service which actively contributes to the rehabilitation of prisoners back into society. Or do we want a resource-starved prison service which focuses on incarceration and control?

EPSU Policy Officer Nadja Salson presented a survey titled Impact of austerity in prison services, a prison staff perspective, carried out in 2015 by the Labour Research Department for EPSU. She noted that between 2008, when the crisis started, and 2013, “the prison population increased by 0.3 per cent whilst prison staff fell by 5 per cent in EEA [European Economic Area] countries. There are marked national variations, with the most severe job cuts in the UK and Latvia.”

Austerity has also failed to reduce prison overcrowding, a long-standing priority concern in countries such as Belgium, France, Portugal, England and Wales. This is a concern not only for staff and inmates but also for the Council of Europe, which repeatedly recommends that governments reduce pre-trial detention and imprisonment of vulnerable groups.

As a result, the study also noted an increase in the violence faced by prison staff, be that dealing with violence directed at them from prisoners or having to tackle the rise in violence amongst prisoners. It is clearly shown that understaffing is a major contribution to the upsurge in violence within the sector.

Against this background the research shows that staff stress levels have increased significantly. Surprisingly, this has not led to an increase of absenteeism as stressed staff are reluctant to take sick leave due to job insecurity or fears for the safety of colleagues or prisoners.

The crucial role of trade unions

Salson reaffirmed that a zero-violence working environment is the very least that Europe’s prison staff should expect, in terms of a quality employment conditions. Whilst trade unions play a major role in ensuring a safe and healthy workplace, anti-union policies have an undermining effect.

Researcher Monique Ramioul, from Leuven University in Belgium, is managing the two-year research which is at the heart of the job and employment quality in prisons project. In her outline at the meeting, she noted that the issues of employment quality and well-being within the prison services are integrally linked to employment conditions, the working environment, job content and having a voice and representation in relation to decision making within prison services.

Preliminary findings confirm that austerity measures undermine all these elements, which contribute to quality employment conditions with an increase in workloads, stress, burnouts, reduced job satisfaction and greater job insecurity.

The research will go on to explore whether Europe will adopt a ‘low road strategy’ which limits imprisonment to deprivation and a loss of liberty and the role of prison officers to guards. Or whether Europe will adopt a ‘high road strategy’ where imprisonment is seen as a welfare policy and prison officers as rehabilitation workers focusing on the reintegration of prisoners into mainstream society.

In order to take the high road, quality employment needs to be at the heart of Europe’s prison services sector. We must build upon examples where this has been the case for many years, such as in Sweden or Norway, which also have much better results in terms of reduced recidivism and reduced prison population.

For the sake of social justice, cohesion, integration and public security, we at EPSU deeply hope that Europe will take the high road.