Effective prison officer – prisoner relationships

A summary of evidence relating to how the prison officer - prisoner relationship can support rehabilitation.

To support rehabilitation, staff and prisoner interaction should be meaningful, consistent and constructive. Staff need the skills to tackle criminal attitudes and coach self-management and self-motivation. They need to be able to pass on hope and optimism to the people in their care.

What makes an effective prison officer?

Effective prison officers…

Are courteous and respectful. Even when things are tense, they continue to speak with patience and courtesy. They have good listening skills. They keep order by asking not ordering. They take care to avoid insult and humiliation. They continue to recognise people’s humanity.

Get things done. They sort things out, and they respond honestly and without undue delay

Are rehabilitation-orientated. They believe rehabilitation is possible and part of their role. They have the skills to help people change

Use legitimate authority. Prisoners do not want prisons to be over-permissive where it is too easy to get into trouble. They expect and want limits to be set. They want protection from their own impulses and from each other. Effective prison officers use authority wisely and professionally. They are fair and transparent in how they expect people to abide by the rules. They gain compliance through respect, not through threats and punishments.

Are resilient. Being a prison officer is a difficult and demanding job. Poor prison conditions affect staff as well as prisoners. The effects carry over into their private lives. Effective prison officers know when to step aside and let someone else take over. They are self-aware and able to talk about how their work affects them, and they look out for each other.

Are morally conscious. Being a prison officer is a morally challenging job. Officers have power over people. People who are sometimes vulnerable, sometimes dangerous, and sometimes both. Morally conscious behaviour is thinking about the consequences of their actions. It’s also talking about moral issues. This helps resilience and their effectiveness at providing support, structure and motivating prisoners

Have rehabilitative communication skills. They know how to make every contact matter to promote and support someone in taking steps to a better future. They coach people in problem-solving and thinking about consequences. They help people find new identities other than the criminal identity. They get people thinking and talking positively about their futures.

What is not effective?

Overly heavy authority. Prison officers who rely on punishment to gain compliance are less respected. Officers who negotiate and communicate are more respected.

Overly light authority. Some prison officers may be uncomfortable with their authority. They may defer all decisions to senior managers. They can appear vulnerable and easier to intimidate.

Further reading

Five Minute Interventions (FMI) (2015). Prison officers trained in rehabilitative conversations with prisoners reported improved job satisfaction. They could also observe benefits in the prisoners they worked with.

Five Minute Interventions (2017) (2017). Prisoners’ perceptions of care and rehabilitation from prison officers trained in rehabilitative conversations. This may not only improve staff-prisoner relationships. This could help staff step beyond a custodial role to provide prisoners with skills and hope to make positive differences in their lives.

Liebling, A., Price, D. and Shefer, G. (2011) The Prison Officer, 2nd edition, Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing. Professor Liebling was a witness for the House of Commons Justice Committee inquiry into the role of the Role of the Prison Officer (2008-09), and several other members of the PRC provided written submissions. The testimony, and the written submissions, are also documented in the official report: Role of the Prison Officer; Twelfth Report of Session 2008-09

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 15 May 2019