What do you mean institutionalised? Part 3.

In previous blogs I have taken a very light-hearted look at David’s institutionalisation following his release from prison. However, there really isn’t a funny side to this blog.

It has long been recognised and accepted that prisoners can become institutionalised. But a closer look at some prison staff confirms that violence, corruption and abuse is endemic in our prisons.

Institutional Abuse 

It starts at the very top with the Ministry of Injustice and HMPPS. Institutionalised abuse isn’t restricted to physical or violent abuse. It can take many forms, including neglect, and poor professional practices as a result of the structure, policies, prison service orders and prison service instructions. This can be seen in the following areas: 

  • Lack of personal clothing or possessions.
  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Insufficient time outdoors
  • Inadequate purposeful activity
  • Unsafe, unhygienic and overcrowded conditions.
  • Lack of privacy and dignity
  • Insufficient contact with family, friends and loved ones.
  • Treating prisoners like children with arbitrary decision-making.

Institutionalised Violence 

Prison Service Order 1600 defines violence as “Any incident in which a person is abused, threatened or assaulted. This includes an explicit or implicit challenge to their safety, well-being or health. The resulting harm may be physical, emotional or psychological”. 

Many prison staff believe that power, and control can only be achieved through violence. We only need to look at the list of equipment (weapons) provided to manage non-compliance and disorderly behaviour.

  • Baton
  • Handcuffs
  • Control and restraint techniques
  • PAVA spray
  • Segregation
  • National Riot Squad

The message to staff and prisoners is loud and clear – violence is not the last resort it’s the first and only resort. 

But it’s not just the horror stories we hear and read of staff subjecting a prisoner to excessive violence. There are staff who deliberately incite violence by having a word in the ‘right ear’ of a prisoner, knowing an ‘undesirable’ prisoner will soon be on the receiving end of a violent attack. Why not handover a can of tuna & a sock while you’re at it?

There may not be a ‘Daddy’ on every wing anymore, but there will be an established hierarchy and an institutionalised prison officer will take advantage of this. Prison officers can manipulate individual prisoners by ‘looking after’ them; maybe ignoring any non-compliance, moving them to a single cell, arranging work in the preferred department and the occasional ‘treat’. In return the prisoner might help with keeping the wing calm and orderly providing information about activities on the wing. A prison officer ‘looking after’ the right prisoner is a tried and tested way of keeping a landing calm. How else can we expect prisoners to react when every day they witness confirmation that violence is the only way to achieve control?

Institutional Corruption.

Corruption is the abuse of trust by people in positions of authority or power, using dishonesty and illegal behaviour for personal gain. Perhaps the most well-known form of corruption is the prison officers who smuggle contraband into the prison for considerable amounts of money. Smuggling of contraband by UK prison staff is not a new thing, it’s been happening since the first prison opened its’ doors to ‘guests’.

The MOJ reported 2666 prison officers were subject to disciplinary action between 2013 and 2019. The most common reason for disciplinary action was breach of security, which can include bringing drugs and mobile phones into prisons, with 960 workers subject to this charge.

Other charges included assault or unnecessary use of force against prisoners, for which 204 staff were disciplined, inappropriate relationships with a prisoner (64), racial harassment (19) and trafficking (28). There was also action over abusive language, sexual harassment and being unfit for work due to drink or drugs.

Smuggling a basic mobile phone in for a prisoner to maintain contact with his family could be seen as an act of compassion. It’s still smuggling, it’s still illegal and it still shouldn’t happen, but maybe we can forgive genuine acts of compassion. 

What is NOT compassionate is charging a prisoner an absolute fortune for their own financial gain. Do they consider what prisoners have to do to get a few quid together? What of the stories we hear that a prisoner’s cell has been ‘spun’ within days of receiving a mobile? Prison officers repeatedly selling the same £20 mobile, many times over can easily generate a profit in the thousands.

Where is the compassion from prison officers who smuggle in drugs like spice, crack & heroin in the knowledge of the harm it could cause?  It’s not just the harmful effects on the user it’s the inevitable violence that goes hand in hand with dealing drugs in prison. It’s not just about smuggling it’s another example of how staff incite violence amongst prisoners, even bringing in weapons and their components to assist their success.

We only need to look in the staff car park of our prisons to see the money that can be made by smuggling contraband. The difference between the average £23,845 annual salary for a Prison Officer and the earning potential from smuggling can make corruption seem like an appealing option. 

Just one example of how much money can be made – a prison officer at HMP Coldingley was caught trying to smuggle £40,000 worth of drugs inside to prisoners, a nice little earner. We should also consider the number of other staff who are contributing to this corruption by turning a blind eye to allow contraband to reach the landings.

In fact, smuggling has become so institutionalised and accepted as the norm, in 2019 a senior police officer reported to the BBC:

‘There is growing evidence 
that members of organised
criminal gangs are getting
prison service jobs to
smuggle banned items.’

Institutionalised corruption doesn’t stop at smuggling. We hear of many inappropriate relationships between staff and prisoners. Not only is this a breach of their duty of care and abuse of power, such relationships can lead to further corruption whether it’s favourable treatment on the landings or smuggling in a mobile phone. Furthermore, whilst that member of staff is snogging the prisoner, who’s covering their work? Who’s keeping the landing safe? 

It’s not uncommon for an institutionalised member of staff to ‘spin’ a cell with the sole purpose of ‘planting’ contraband or just to cause maximum disruption to the prisoner. 

I don’t know of any prisoner who hasn’t had an app that went ‘missing’ or not received. The missed ACCT checks unrecorded and backdated. Staff who sign a witness statement denying all knowledge of an incident or the identity of the staff involved. Sudden ‘failure’ of body-worn cameras or the memory lapse of the member of staff who ‘forgot’ to turn it on. 

The culture of ‘I’ve got your back’ amongst prison staff leads to shielding and protecting colleagues to the detriment of our prisoners. Staff who are happy to turn a blind eye when their colleagues are being over-zealous in the ‘discipline’ of prisoners. 

Researching for this blog made me question whether it was just the culture of HMPPS or institutionalisation. Culture is often defined as ‘how we do things around here.’ However, to understand the ‘real’ culture we need to look at ‘how we do things around here when the boss isn’t looking’. Not only are the bosses looking; they are endorsing corruption by not taking action and in some cases actively promoting and encouraging corruption.

An institutional culture can be defined as a social system of meaning and custom that is developed within an institution to assure its adaptation and survival. These are characterised by a set of unspoken rules that shape values, beliefs, habits, patterns of thinking, behaviours, and styles of communication.

That’s not to say that all prison staff are institutionalised or influenced by ‘it’s the way we do things round here’. A good prison officer can help a prisoner to turn his life around. A bad prison officer will never contribute to a prisoner’s rehabilitation.

Any form of institutional corruption has a detrimental effect on our prisoners. I would like to think it’s possible one day that given time institutionalisation will become a thing of the past in our prisons.

Maybe, at some point in the future HMPPS will develop a culture of prisoner-centric values, behaviours and beliefs. A culture of rehabilitation aligned with strategy, PSOs, PSIs, processes and regime. It won’t be easy to influence staff to change behaviour and habits, but it can and should be done. It may be possible but is unlikely that it will happen in my lifetime. 

Our prisons where, by their own definition in PSO 1600, the risks of harm are deeply embedded within the prison regime. 

2 thoughts on “What do you mean institutionalised? Part 3.

  1. This is hard hitting, harsh and so true. You have raised an interesting question, Is the chaos and failure to resolve problems caused by the inadequate system of reporting and resolving problems within prison, or is the system deliberately kept inefficient so that this chaos is normal and the system in general fails allowing criminality and mistreatment. How can it be that the only way for someone inside to get a problem resolved is to carry out a demonstration such as climbing on the net, at which point the whole prison operation is paused and they are seen, instead of through a proper system of complaints and resolution? Stress and tension lead to violence, The control systems are inadequate leading to criminal smuggling. Officers are happy to look the other way whilst Spice is moved around wings, and Spice can be lethal. Shortage of staff and loss of experienced officers is leading new officers to be training even newer officers, and that is no good, Proper staffing, decent administrators and administrative systems, and controls. Deal with problems early, not when someone is driven to harmful action.


    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It wasn’t my intention to create a hard hitting and harsh blog. But the more I looked into it, I was just appalled and impossible to present my findings in a positive way. There is nothing positive about the institutional culture of our prisons.

      Just like those on the other side of the wall, we can only hope that one day we will have a prison system that puts prisoners first, without any of us having to climb on the netting!


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