Her Majesty's Prison Service

Her Majesty's Prison Service (HMPS) is a part of Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (formerly the National Offender Management Service), which is the part of Her Majesty's Government charged with managing most of the prisons within England and Wales. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own prison services: the Scottish Prison Service and the Northern Ireland Prison Service, respectively.)

The CEO of HMPS, currently Dr. Jo Farrar, is the administrator of the prison service. The CEO reports to the Secretary of State for Justice and also works closely with the Prisons Minister, a junior ministerial post within the Ministry of Justice.

It has its head office in Clive House in London,[1] and previously its head office was in Cleland House in the City of Westminster, London.[2]

The British Overseas Territory of Bermuda's HM Prison Service (renamed the Department of Corrections in 2002) was a separate organization.


In 2004, the Prison Service was responsible for 130 prisons and employed around 44,000 staff. As of 2009 the number of prisons had increased to 131, including 11 privately owned prisons.[3]

The Service's statement of purpose states "Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release." The Ministry of Justice's objective for prisons seeks "Effective execution of the sentences of the courts so as to reduce re-offending and protect the public".

Population statistics for the Service are published weekly. Statistics available for 24 June 2016 showed the service housed 85,130 prisoners: 81,274 males and 3,856 females.[4]


18th century

During the eighteenth century, British justice used a wide variety of measures to punish crime, including fines, the pillory and whipping. Transportation to The United States of America was often offered, until 1776, as an alternative to the death penalty, which could be imposed for many offenses including pilfering. When they ran out of prisons in 1776 they used old sailing vessels which came to be called hulks as places of temporary confinement.[5][6]

The most notable reformer was John Howard who, having visited several hundred prisons across England and Europe, beginning when he was high sheriff of Bedfordshire, published The State of the Prisons in 1777.[7] He was particularly appalled to discover prisoners who had been acquitted but were still confined because they couldn't pay the jailer's fees. He proposed that each prisoner should be in a separate cell with separate sections for women felons, men felons, young offenders and debtors. The prison reform charity, the Howard League for Penal Reform, takes its name from John Howard.

The Penitentiary Act which passed in 1779 following his agitation introduced solitary confinement, religious instruction and a labor regime and proposed two state penitentiaries, one for men and one for women. These were never built due to disagreements in the committee and pressures from wars with France and jails remained a local responsibility. But other measures passed in the next few years provided magistrates with the powers to implement many of these reforms and eventually in 1815 jail fees were abolished.[8]

Early 19th century

Quakers such as Elizabeth Fry continued to publicize the dire state of prisons as did Charles Dickens in his novels David Copperfield and Little Dorrit about the Marshalsea.[9] Samuel Romilly managed to repeal the death penalty for theft in 1806, but repealing it for other similar offences brought in a political element that had previously been absent. The Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline, founded in 1816, supported both the Panopticon for the design of prisons and the use of the treadwheel as a means of hard labor. By 1824, 54 prisons had adopted this means of discipline.[10] Robert Peel's Gaols Act of 1823 attempted to impose uniformity in the country but local prisons remained under the control of magistrates until the Prison Act of 1877.

The American separate system attracted the attention of some reformers and led to the creation of Millbank Prison in 1816 and Pentonville prison in 1842. By now the end of transportation to Australia and the use of hulks was in sight and Joshua Jebb set an ambitious program of prison building with one large prison opening per year.[11]


The main principles were separation and hard labour for serious crimes, using treadwheels and cranks. However, by the 1860s public opinion was calling for harsher measures in reaction to an increase in crime which was perceived to come from the 'flood of criminals' released under the penal servitude system. The reaction from the committee set up under the commissioner of prisons, Colonel Edmund Frederick du Cane, was to increase minimum sentences for many offences with deterrent principles of 'hard labour, hard fare, and a hard bed'.[12] In 1877 he encouraged Disraeli's government to remove all prisons from local government and held a firm grip on the prison system till his forced retirement in 1895. He also established a tradition of secrecy which lasted till the 1970s so that even magistrates and investigators were unable to see the insides of prisons.[13] By the 1890s the prison population was over 20,000. The British penal system underwent a transition from harsh punishment to reform, education, and training for post-prison livelihoods. The reforms were controversial and contested. In 1877-1914 era a series of major legislative reforms enabled significant improvement in the penal system. In 1877, the previously localized prisons were nationalized in the Home Office under a Prison Commission. The Prison Act of 1898 enabled the Home Secretary to and multiple reforms on his own initiative, without going through the politicized process of Parliament. The Probation of Offenders Act of 1907 introduced a new probation system that drastically cut down the prison population, while providing a mechanism for transition back to normal life. The Criminal Justice Administration Act of 1914 required courts to allow a reasonable time before imprisonment was ordered for people who did not pay their fines. Previously tens of thousands of prisoners had been sentenced solely for that reason. The Borstal system after 1908 was organized to reclaim young offenders, and the Children Act of 1908 prohibited imprisonment under age 14, and strictly limited that of ages 14 to 16. The principal reformer was Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise. the chair of the Prison Commission.[14][15]

Winston Churchill

Major reforms were championed by the Liberal Party government in 1906-14. The key player was Winston Churchill when he was the Liberal Home Secretary, 1910-11.[16] He first achieved fame as a prisoner in the Boer war in 1899. He escaped after 28 days and the media, and his own book, made him a national hero overnight.[17] He later wrote, "I certainly hated my captivity more than I have ever hated any other in my whole life....Looking back on those days I've always felt the keenest pity for prisoners and captives."[18] As Home Secretary he was in charge of the nation's penal system. Biographer Paul Addison says. "More than any other Home Secretary of the 20th century, Churchill was the prisoner's friend. He arrived at the Home Office with the firm conviction that the penal system was excessively harsh.” He worked to reduce the number sent to prison in the first place, especially those imprisoned for their delay in paying fines, or for debts. He shortened their terms, and made life in prison more tolerable, and rehabilitation more likely.[19] His reforms were not politically popular, but they had a major long-term impact on the British penal system.[20][21]

Borstal system

In 1894-5 Herbert Gladstone's Committee on Prisons showed that criminal propensity peaked from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties. He took the view that central government should break the cycle of offending and imprisonment by establishing a new type of reformatory, that was called Borstal after the village in Kent which housed the first one. The movement reached its peak after the first world war when Alexander Paterson became commissioner, delegating authority and encouraging personal responsibility in the fashion of the English Public school: cellblocks were designated as 'houses' by name and had a housemaster. Cross-country walks were encouraged, and no one ran away. Prison populations remained at a low level until after the Second World War when Paterson died and the movement was unable to update itself. Some aspects of Borstal found their way into the main prison system, including open prisons and housemasters, renamed assistant governors and many Borstal-trained prison officers used their experience in the wider service. But in general the prison system in the twentieth century remained in Victorian buildings which steadily became more and more overcrowded with inevitable results.[22]


Early in 2004, it was announced that the Prison Service would be integrated into a new National Offender Management Service later in the year.

As of 2008, rationalisation of the prison management system is underway with the advent of the Titan Prison concept.

Six new reform prisons are to be built with prison governors in charge of operation and budget. Penal charities claimed reforms would fail if prisoners were "crammed into filthy institutions with no staff".[23]

In 2017 the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) became Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).

Current issues

The imprisonment rate for England and Wales is the highest in western Europe,[24] and at roughly the "midpoint" worldwide.[25] The prison population currently numbers 83,165 in August 2018. The Ministry of Justice currently projects that this will rise to 86,400 by March 2023.[26] Government plans to increase the time some prisoners spend in prison have been criticised, Chris Daw QC, an expert on crime and fraud wrote, “Make no mistake, the current Tory approach to crime and punishment is just dangerous, populist electioneering. Nowhere in the free world do longer and longer prison sentences do anything good for society.”[27]

Despite a fall in crime rates between 2010 and 2016, the prison population continued to rise, while staff numbers were reduced,[28] with the number of prison officers being reduced from 25,000 in 2010 to about 18,000 in 2015.[29] There has been a particularly sharp rise in the number of prisoners above the age of 60.[30]

In 2017, two-thirds of prisons were found to be unsatisfactory in at least one respect. Problems include overcrowding, prisoners committing assaults and self-harm and the smuggling of mobile phones and illegal drugs into prisons.[31] Following a significant rise in prison disorder in 2015 and 2016,[32] in November 2016 Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss announced a £1.3 billion investment programme in the prison service and the recruitment of 2,500 additional prison officers, partly reversing the cuts made under the previous coalition government.[29][33] A number of prison riots in late 2016 (including at Bedford, Lewes, Birmingham and Swaleside prisons)[34] drew further media attention to the issue. Andrea Albutt of the Prison Governors Association said prison riots caused "grave concern" and further governors faced "unacceptable stress and anxiety". The PGA maintains there are 40 prisons of concern and 10 of them are very concerning.[35] Lack of staff prevents prisoners attending hospital appointments so cancers are missed. Shortage of nurses prevents prisoners who need mental health care getting it. This causes self harm and suicide.[36]

The Justice Select Committee[37][38] and agencies such as the National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards, the Prison Governors Association,[35] Prison Officers' Association[39] and Council of Europe[40] have attributed the rise of disorder in prisons to understaffing and budget cuts. Other factors include the increased availability of synthetic cannabinoids[41] and drones for smuggling. The PGA also suggested that the recruitment of "unsuitable people" as prison officers and poor training were other factors. Albutt suggested that prison sentences of less than a year should be replaced with alternative punishments.[35]

The prison service does not meet the needs of aging prisoners who are, for example, frequently put in cells high up when they cannot climb stairs. Prison officers are not trained to deal with the needs of older, frail prisoners.[42]

Another issue is the age of several prisons. A 2015 announcement from the government agreed that old prisons are more expensive to run and often unsuitable in design, such as having "dark corners which too often facilitate violence and drug-taking."[43]

In 2018-2019 prison suicides rose by 23% and drug abuse continues to be a serious problem. Prison deaths overall rose by 6% in 2018-2019.[44] There were 90 self-inflicted deaths during the year to September 2019 and there were 60,594 cases of self-harm - an increase of 22% during the year to June 2019. Dozens of prisons in England and Wales do not run emergency telephone lines, which can help stop self harm and suicide. In over a third of prisons a hotline for prisoners' relatives to use if they are concerned about an inmate was left unanswered or had not been installed. Where there were emergency lines most frequently the call went to an answering machine.[45]

The House of Commons Justice Select Committee claimed the government was making, “policy by press release” and failing to address long-term issues leading to violence and reoffending. Prisons are often overcrowded and vermin infested, prisoners spend too little time on purposeful activity, which does not rehablitate them or prepare them for life in society when they have completed their sentences. There is a high turnover of prison officers leading to a demoralised and inexperienced work force. The Justice Committee maintained there was, no “clear or coherent vision” for the system, or how to better rehabilitate the criminals inside it." Bob Neill, MP, chair of the committee said, “New prison places might be welcome, but they do nothing to improve the appalling condition of much of the current prison estate, nor the prospect of offering a safe environment in which to rehabilitate offenders. Prisons will not become less violent without proper investment in purposeful activity for prisoners to support rehabilitation.” MPs said longer prison sentences could increase overcrowding that correlates with disorder and bad conditions. Campaigners maintain 9.000 extra prison places are needed just to end overcrowding. The Comittee maintained, “We are particularly concerned by the focus on creating additional places, rather than on replacing dilapidated and decrepit prisons in the current estate. Prisons should be safe and decent environments that rehabilitate offenders but this not currently the case.” The report stated further even when failures are detected, prisons do not get extra funding and help that is needed, adding, “Too often, prisons are identified as needing extra support, but their performance continues to decline. There is little point in identifying poor performance if the necessary resources are not then provided to drive improvement.” Reoffending is estimated to cost £18 billion. The committee stated guarantees were lacking that, “necessary infrastructure” would be developed to prevent future prison overcrowding. Neill stated, “At any rate, given government’s poor track record in building prisons, we now want to see the detailed plans for the promised £2.5bn for 10,000 more places, what they’ll look like and when they’ll be up and running,”[46][47]

Prison officers

Recent development

Historically, uniformed prison staff were under the supervision of a small number of very senior and experienced officers who held one of three chief officer ranks. Below these were the ranks of principal officer (rank badge  two Bath stars) and senior officer (rank badge  single Bath star). However, as a reorganisation in the 1980s, termed "A Fresh Start", saw these chief officer ranks abolished, and their role taken by junior grade prison governors.

From 2000 onwards, as part of a process to increase accountability within the prison service, all operational officers have been assigned a 3-digit unique identification number, worn on all items of uniform (typically as an embroidered epaulette) along with the 2-digit LIDS identification code of the specific prison or institution. From 2010 onwards, attempts were made to replace the principal officer rank with non-uniformed junior managers (developing prison service managers - DPSM), although this process was neither entirely successful nor fully implemented. Further restructuring in 2013, known as "Fair & Sustainable", saw the remaining historic ranks and rank insignia phased out in favour of a new structure, and simple stripes on uniform epaulettes to indicate grades.


Prison officers wear a white shirt and black tie, black trousers, black boots, black 'woolly-pully' jumper or black soft shell fleece-jacket.[48] Stab vests may be worn. Prison Officers working in the Juvenile or Immigration Detention estate wear a ‘soft uniform’ consisting of a polo shirt opposed to white shirt with black tie.[49] For formal occasions, a dark tunic with whistle chain is worn with a peaked cap and tie for men and bowler cap and open collar for women. Black gloves and shoes are worn, as are any medal ribbons and medals that have been awarded.[50][51] Rank is worn on epaulettes and on the shoulders of uniforms.

Powers and structure

Public sector prison officers (historically known as warders) have "all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a constable" whilst acting as such.[52]

Although the system is flexible in operation, most prison officers work in small teams, either assigned to a specific duty, or providing one shift of staff for the supervision of a particular wing within a prison. Each such team is, in many instances, led by a supervising officer. There will be an overall manager of the wing with the title of custodial manager. Custodial managers will have direct management of the wing and the line management of the officers and supervising officers

Her Majesty's Prison Service rank insignia
Historic rank insignia in use until 1987
Rank Prison Officer Senior Prison Officer Principal Prison Officer Assistant Chief Officer Chief Officer
(Grade II)
Chief Officer
(Grade I)
Rank insignia from the "A Fresh Start" initiative, 1987–2000
Rank Prison Officer Senior Officer Principal Officer
Insignia The Chief Officer grades were abolished
and replaced with junior Governor grades.
Revised rank insignia with LIDS code and unique identification numbers, 2000–2013
Rank Operational Support Grade (OSG)Prison OfficerSenior OfficerPrincipal Officer(Specialist Officer)
Insignia Additionally authorised letters could be used
to indicate specialist functions:
DH - dog handler
W - works officer
H - healthcare officer
Current rank insignia introduced from April 2013
Rank Operational Support Grade (OSG)Prison OfficerSupervising OfficerCustodial Manager(Specialist Officer)
Insignia Specialist Officers have role identification
letters on their epaulettes:
DH - dog handler
W - works officer
H - healthcare officer

Specialist roles

In addition to uniformed officers carrying out security and custodial roles, a number of specialist functions exist within every prison. Some are assigned to uniformed specialist officers, while others are carried out by non-uniformed support staff.

Before the "Fresh Start" initiative there were more uniformed specialist officer roles, including dog handlers, works officers, hospital officers, catering officers, physical education officers, and officer instructors. Today the uniformed Specialist Officer roles include dog handlers (DH), works officers (W), and healthcare officers (H) who are the successors of the former hospital officers. The roles of the former catering officers, PE officers, and officer instructors are today taken by non-uniformed caterers, PE instructors, and educational/vocational instructors.[53] Other key non-uniformed roles within the staff of a prison include chaplains, psychologists, and administrators.[53]

Private prisons

The Prison Service does not manage all prisons within England and Wales. Currently there are eleven prisons that have been designed, constructed, managed and financed (so-called DCMF prisons) privately. In addition, three prisons that were built with public money are managed by private companies under contract. During 2012 one further prison opened under private sector management: HMP Oakwood (Featherstone 2), built by the public sector. Private prisons are subject to scrutiny by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in a similar manner to prisons run by the public Prison Service.

Ban on industrial action

Questions were raised about the POA's status in the 1990s. In 1994, a legal decision determined that it was illegal to induce prison officers to take industrial action - a law which had applied to police officers since 1919 - meaning that the POA could not call strike action amongst its members. New labour legislation introduced by the Conservative government in 1992 laid down that the POA could no longer be a trade union. This was reversed in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, but prison officers were still denied the right to take industrial action. This right was restored in 2004 to prison officers in the public sector in England, Wales and Scotland, but not in Northern Ireland or to prison custody officers in the private sector.

On 29 August 2007, the POA started a 24-hour walkout of prisons, picketing establishments asking prison officers not to attend work for their shift. This was the first ever national strike action taken by the POA. The POA reported that 90% of its members (27,000) went on strike that day.

In January 2008, the Home Secretary announced that the government was to introduce legislation to remove the right for Prison Officers in England and Wales to take strike action.[54] In November 2016, the High Court approved a Government request to stop industrial action taking place.[55] In July 2017 the Government won a High Court bid to obtain a permanent ban on industrial action by prison officers.[56]

Independent Monitoring Board

Every prison and immigration removal centre has an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), formerly known as a Board of Visitors. Members of the IMB, who are volunteers, are appointed by the Home Secretary and act as 'watchdogs' for both the Minister of Prisons and the general public, to ensure that proper standards of care and decency are maintained.[57] An analysis of the reporting of IMBs found that while there may be some problems with their training and undertaking of duties, their monitoring and surveillance of the detention estate can be more than symbolic and may further the humane and just treatment of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.[58]

HMPS in the National Offender Management Service

On 6 January 2004, then Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that the Prison Service, together with the National Probation Service, is to be integrated into a new National Offender Management Service. The Service, Blunkett said, will be "a new body to provide end-to-end management of all offenders".

On 1 April 2008, NOMS was reorganised as part of a shake-up in the Ministry of Justice. The headquarters and regional structures of NOMS and HMPS were merged into a single HQ structure with Phil Wheatly as Director General of NOMS. This brings HMPS and the National Probation Service under a single headquarters structure for the first time ever.[59]

On 1 June 2011, NOMS was merged with the wider MoJ (HMCTS etc.) to form one organisation. Although HMCTS and NOMS are working under different terms and conditions, they are now managed together and HR is dealt with by one Shared Service centre. A review of terms and conditions for all MoJ staff, including NOMS, is currently in progress with view to bringing all staff terms and conditions across NOMS and HMCTS in line.

See also

Her Majesty's prison service collection is held at the Galleries of Justice Museum in Nottingham.


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