This piece is work in progress, but it looks at the history of the POA and how it has changed over time, particularly moving to the left in recent years. I've written more recent things about prisons elsewhere on the blog.
Just like the Police Federation, the Prison Officers Association was created as a result of the defeat of NUPPO – although it was in the form of a representative board until 1939 when the POA was formally recognised.
The first coming to prominence of the POA was in the 1970’s. This was in the aftermath of several high profile escapes from prison in the 60’s which led to the imposition of a security culture. The most important part of this was the creation of long-term dispersal prisons for the highest security classification of prisoners.
This led to the creation of the Prisoners Rights Organisation (PROP – Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners) being created by ex-long term prisoners on the outside and finding considerable support from long term prisoners still inside. PROP organised and at least inspired several prisoners strikes, including a national one. Despite PROP’s support only being about 25% or less of the whole prison population it eventually won concessions after riots eventually broke out in some prisons – with violence perpetrated by both prisoners and prison officers.
There is no question that these protests influenced the POA – however, initially this was in the direction of demanding a tougher prison regime. Given the understaffing and overstretching of the prison estate – with overcrowding common as it is now – prison officers were frustrated with the Home Office and even more frustrated when prisoners started disobeying them too.
But the POA had a weapon in its hands, the prison system effectively relied on compulsory overtime. By using what effectively was a work-to-rule policy, local POA branches could extract concessions out of prison management, but this was often at the expense of prisoners themselves. Needless to say the POA and PROP were very hostile to each other.
However, in the aftermath of the concessions in the prison regime granted by the Home Office, PROP withered away. The POA discovered a new tactic too. In a dispute over payments for loss of breakfast breaks, the local branch at HMP Walton refused to accept prisoners over the Certified Normal Accomodation (CNA) level. This was one of the tactics used by prison officers to deal with rising overcrowding in prisons in the 90’s (which of course means staff are stretched even further).
In 1993, the POA balloted over action short of strike in response to crowded prisons whilst suffering from staff shortages. However, the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard took out an injunction against the POA taking industrial action on the basis that whilst working they had the status of a police constable. The right to strike was re-instated by New Labour (but not in private prisons or in Northern Ireland) after the POA signed up to a voluntary no-strike agreement, but after the POA decided to leave the agreement and take unofficial strike action in August 2007 have seen legislation fairly quickly passed to ban strike action again.
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