Detention Monitoring Tool Second edition
Staff working conditions
Addressing risk factors to prevent torture and ill-treatment
The General Controller has reported ‘consistently since the beginning of his mission, that respect for
human rights in prison … was also dependent on the working conditions of staff’.
(French General Controller of Places of Deprivation of Liberty)1
1. Definition and context
Prison officers come into contact with prisoners on
a daily basis and their influence on how prisoners
experience their detention cannot be overestimated.
The way prison officers perceive the quality of their
working life and how they are treated by managers and
colleagues has a significant impact on the atmosphere
in detention and the treatment of prisoners. Prison
officers who feel valued, trusted and respected at work
are more likely to apply these values to the treatment of
prisoners.2 While there are different kinds of staff who
work in prisons, including specialised staff (such as
social workers, medical staff and psychologists) or nonuniformed senior management, this paper focuses on
Prison officers carry out the operational task of running
prisons on a day-to-day basis. They have direct
contact with detainees and are responsible for their
custody, classification, daily routine, security measures,
programme of activities, their protection and access
to the outside world. They may also be involved in
determining rehabilitation and educational programmes.
Prison officers have almost absolute power over
detainees, who rely on staff for their basic needs and
to ensure that their rights are respected. Prison officers
therefore have an important duty of care to ensure that
detainees are treated with respect for their dignity and
humanity at all times.
There tends to be relatively little focus on prison officers
− their backgrounds, attitudes and experiences at work
− in the study of prisons. They often have low social
standing or may even be negatively stereotyped in public
opinion and media, and neglected in academic literature.
In some countries and contexts, prison officers are not
recruited but allocated to serve as prison officers, which
can impact negatively on their motivation.
In practice, the work of prison officers varies greatly
between prisons, countries and contexts. In some
places, prison officers rarely enter prisoners’ areas,4 while
in others they build positive relationships with prisoners
and use their interpersonal skills, discretion and authority
to diffuse tensions without using force.5
This Factsheet seeks to assist monitoring bodies to
identify factors relating to working conditions of prison
officers which impact negatively on the treatment of
prisoners, and therefore represent a risk factor for torture
and other ill-treatment. It adopts a broad understanding
of ‘working conditions’ to encompass all factors that can
affect the quality of the working life of prison officers.
2. What are the main standards?
A number of United Nations and regional instruments
contain provisions relating to prison officer working
conditions. These congruently provide that prison officers
should be professional civil servants with civilian status,
and include standards relating to their recruitment and
training. Some also explicitly require that prison officers
receive adequate remuneration and benefits.
1. Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté, ‘Avis du Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté du 17 juin 2011 relatif à la supervision
des personnels de surveillance et de sécurité’, Journal officiel de la République français, 12 juillet 2011, Texte 81 sur 134.
2. Liebling A, Prisons and Their Moral Performance, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp375-430; see also revised Standard Minimum Rules, Rule 38 (1),
encouraging prison administrations ‘to use, to the extent possible, conflict prevention, mediation or any other alternative dispute resolution mechanism
to prevent disciplinary offences or to resolve conflicts’.
3. Also known as correctional officers and detention officers. In this paper, ‘prison officer’ is used to mean all prison staff who carry out the role described
(they may be employed by different types of organisation, for example public authorities, private companies, military or police institutions).
4. Coyle A, Managing prisons in a time of change, International Centre for Prison Studies, 2002, p36.
5. Liebling A, Price D, & Shefer G, The prison officer, Routledge, 2012, pp8-9.
Penal Reform International | Staff working conditions: Addressing risk factors to prevent torture and ill-treatment