Article first published in the Evening Standard on 21 May 2018.

The outsider perhaps thinks first of a prison in terms of walls and focuses on the prison officer as guard —searching at the gate, patrolling the perimeter, or locking prisoners in cells. But — as I discovered when I became prisons minister at the beginning of this year — daily life on the blocks is more difficult to imagine. Every conversation I have had, in every prison I have visited, has only increased my respect for the job done by the officers who work in them.

Take the wing I saw in Wormwood Scrubs recently, with more than 300 prisoners, arranged on four narrow landings. In a cell on the third landing was a chartered accountant, imprisoned for theft, writing a detailed criticism of the prison that houses him. In a nearby cell, not long before, a man had hanged himself — fuelled, perhaps, by an overdose of smuggled drugs. And in a cell on the fourth landing, a silent young man, who lived for the gym, was sharing bunkbeds with a much older man who was obsessively drawing designs for a hovercraft.

Some of those prisoners were there for long sentences, and prison officers develop connections with them, day in, day out, for years. A hundred others were just passing through, on remand before trial, or on their way to another prison.

One prisoner spent his mornings studying a Level 3 course in barbering. Another, who had been there for three months, thought the education programme a waste of time and spent almost all his day in his cell having — in defiance of the rules — blocked the observation panel and tried to bar the door from the inside.

At any one time, there could be just a handful of prison officers on a landing, managing as many as 80 individuals. There are several questions a new prison officer might ask, and many have been in the service less than a year.

How do I persuade this man to return to his cell, if he refuses? What do I do with someone who is threatening suicide? How do I deal with someone who is not violent but simply mutinous, or treat someone who might be very compliant, but who is in prison for sexually assaulting a toddler? When do I lean in, and when do I back off and call for support?

This is a vocation that requires remarkable decisiveness and resilience. And it takes great moral authority to act as a mentor, a teacher and, in some ways, a friend to help prisoners on the path to reformation.

It also requires physical courage. Violent assaults against prison officers — and against police officers and nurses — are rising. New psychoactive substances, most notably Spice, fuel aggression, and the criminal economy that surrounds those drugs makes violence worse. Our prison officers are, unacceptably, are victims of more than 8,000 attacks a year.

We are responding to these attacks by introducing body-worn cameras, trialling pepper spray, installing more CCTV cameras and enhancing security searches and training on violence.

And I was very pleased, as a minister, to recently put forward the Government case for a new Private Member’s Bill, to double the sentence for assaults on prison officers and other emergency workers. It passed unanimously and should become law this year.

A prison officer — outnumbered 30 to one on a landing — would never attempt to fight their way into control. They know that good protection can come from listening in the right way. One of the greatest recent impacts on violence has come from our new key-worker system, where each prison officer is assigned to six particular prisoners for regular private 45-minute conversations.

The prisoners will behave more rationally if they feel that they are in a fair regime — where people are treated equally and consistently; when they will get their phone call, or their shower, or a chance to mingle with other prisoners; if they have a chance of purposeful activity like education and employment. And if they themselves feel safe.

But equally, there is no point in endless targets exhorting the prison officer to transform offenders, change lives, and protect the public — or in volunteers offering theatre classes, and qualifications in catering, literacy and needlework — if the cells are filthy, the prisoners off their heads on drugs, and the prison officers so exposed that they can’t unlock the cell doors, or safely escort the prisoners to their activities.

The benefits of getting these basics right was demonstrated in the recent HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ report on Feltham, a Young Offenders Institution, which has seen a huge drop in violence as a result. You could see elements of a great police officer, teacher, soldier, social worker or even priest, in the best prison officers. But they can be none of those things unless the system allows them to flourish. We are recruiting many more to boost the levels of frontline staff.

With more than 20,000 prison officers, 84,000 prisoners, and more than 100 prisons, no minister should ever pretend to micro-manage what is happening on the landings. The kind of prisons we want will come from thousands of the right people, with the right morale and leadership; people who are trained not just at the beginning but throughout their careers, acknowledged for their skill, and made to feel part of a single elite service.

And I believe that will include bringing the profession out of prisons and into the public eye, whether in schools or at community events, so that we can see them, proud about the service they are performing for our nation, energetic, fulfilled in their daily work and determined to create the best prison service in the world.

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