• The Prison Officer by Alison Leibling & David Price - cover image

The Prison Officer

by Alison Leibling & David Price


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ISBN 9780952841326 Category: Tags: , ,


Origins and research base

The role of the prison officer is probably the most important in a prison. But the precise nature of that role and, more importantly, how it is performed have not been clearly understood. There is an important gap in the literature, in research and the Prison Service’s own recognition of what it is that makes the prison officer’s job so highly skilled. The Prison Service Journal commissioned this book to help fill that gap. The commission arose from the findings from several key pieces of research undertaken for the Prison Service and others by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology in recent years. This body of research includes the evaluation of the Prison Service’s Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme (IEP) and a literature review on prisoner officers. More influential were three very informative and detailed analyses of staff-prisoner relationships and prison officer behaviour: one conducted in a high security prison (Whitemoor) and the other two in large local prisons (Wandsworth and Manchester). Central to the success of all three was the use of the Appreciative Inquiry’ approach which critically engaged prison officers themselves and other staff in discussing the nature of their complex role.
Synopsis of the book

The first chapter provides an introduction to the Appreciative Inquiry approach and outlines the important ‘peacekeeping’ role of officers. The second chapter examines who prison officers are – their characteristics and attitudes compared to those of other groups such as police officers. In the third chapter the work of the prison officer is described and the ‘role model’ of the officer is outlined. The fourth chapter looks at the difficulties of the role – assaults and stress and the role of women prison officers in prisons holding male prisoners; and it also looks at the diversity of the officer’s role comparing it with that of officers in other countries. The fifth chapter focuses upon staff-prisoner relationships which are at the heart of prison work. It describes what the ‘right’ sort of relationships are and explains how they are established and maintained. It also discusses the consequences of when these relationships are not ‘right’ and power is misused.

Devetoping this theme, the sixth chapter examines the importance of discretion in the officer’s role and how, paradoxically, that discretion is often be used when power is under-used. The seventh chapter talks about the culture of prison officers and the influence of the Prison Officers’ Association. The penultimate chapter places the prison officer’s role in the context of the Prison Service and the managerial changes introduced over the past decade; and the last chapter draws conclusions.

Defining the role of the Prison Officer

The book shows that the prison officer’s role is not simple, cannot be taken for granted and involves more than just common sense. That it is has been regarded in these terms is because the work of the prison officer is, even within the prison, ‘low visibility’ work, the complexities of which are not easily observed and thus not readily appreciated. It discusses how officers may under-use their power more often (and to better effect) than they over use it. It shows how in performing their important peacekeeping role, which they do principally through talk, officers exercise an important discretion, not just a blunt form of coercive power.

The book identifies the ‘very hard work’ involved in establishing and re-establishing order, in defusing tension, and in keeping communication flowing to keep the peace, which have largely been absent from oral and written accounts of the prison officer’s work. It shows how being a good prison officer involves being good at not using force but still getting things done. It means being capable of using legitimate authority and being in control without resorting to the full extent of the officer’s powers. It means establishing relationships and investing those relationships with real aspects of one’s personality. These are parts of the officer’s work which officers highly value themselves but which are not often seen (or perceived to be seen) by those who manage and reward them.

The book explains that most officers describe ‘life at its best’ for them as officers as ‘the absence of trouble’ – a day without tension and confrontation, when there is a feeling of teamwork of taking part and being involved. And it means feeling supported, mainly from immediate colleagues but also from their managers.

However, this ‘absence of trouble’ is not a ‘negative’ concept implying contentment with doing nothing or dealing merely with routine administration. The book shows that it involves a variety of actions requiring skill, foresight, diplomacy and humour. Furthermore, officers are highly motivated to and derive considerable satisfaction from ‘getting relationships right’. They are proud when they manage to ‘create a pleasant atmosphere on the wing’. Relationship building establishes credit which officers expect to (and often successfully) draw on at difficult or testing times.

In short, the book represents an authoritative explanation of aspects of the prison officer’s role which have been unrecognised or, if they have been recognised, not fully appreciated. It is a book which all staff in the Service could usefully read and which should be required reading for a great many.


‘The most important book for HM Prison Service of the past 30 years’: Phil Wheatley, Deputy Director

‘This outstanding book will be a major source of reference’: Martin Narey, Director General

Additional information

Weight460 g
Dimensions234 × 156 × 17 mm


Prison Service Journal


Publication date




Place of origin

United Kingdom

Year of publication


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