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Investigating the mental health, psychological wellbeing, and resilience of prison staff

About This PhD Project

Project Description


The prison estate in England and Wales is tasked with housing more than 85000 male and female prisoners. According to the Chief Inspector of Prisoners, too many of the establishments within the secure estate are “unacceptably violent and dangerous places” (2017, p7) that are unsafe for both prisoners and staff. In the 12 months to December 2016, assaults on staff rose by 38% to 6844 incidents, assaults in general increased by 27% to over 26000, while self-inflicted deaths in custody have doubled since 2013. The unsafe nature of the prison estate has undoubtedly been effected by the availability of drugs, overcrowding, and by staffing levels that are too low to provide a regime that keeps order, meets the basic needs of offenders, whilst also engendering a rehabilitative culture.

Despite a major recruitment drive to boost the number of officers by 2500 and a reported seven percent increase in number of establishment based prison officer FTEs from October 2016 to August 2017 (MoJ, 2017), the numbers of serving officers is still lower than those witnessed ten years ago (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2009). Further, the attrition of prisoner officers from the role is high, with many leaving during or soon after completing their training and there is also concern that a drive to increase officer numbers too rapidly may cause further issues within the service (Prison Governors Association, 2017).

Given the backdrop of an understaffed, violent, and complex work environment, it is unsurprising that morale amongst prison staff is low and that the mental health and psychological wellbeing of prison officers is suffering. The Times recently reported that prison officers have four times more absenteeism due to stress than the general population and that occupational stress has increased by 50% in the last four years (The Times, 2017).


The proposed project will investigate the mental health, psychological wellbeing and resilience of prison staff. In doing so, it will seek to determine the factors that make staff resilient to occupational stress and mental health problems and will provide policy and practice recommendations. Participants in the research will be sampled from prisons across the secure estate (private and public sector, and across category classifications). Importantly, the research will sample POELTs (new recruits in training), new graduate prison officers (Unlocked Graduates), established basic grade prison officers, promoted prison officers, and Governors. Never before has prison officer mental health, psychological wellbeing, and resilience been examined across such a wide staff group and a diverse mix of settings.
The project will utilise a mixed-methods design, including semi-structured interviews, focus groups and questionnaires with prison staff, as well as an analysis of documentary evidence.


This project will:
• Investigate the organisational and individual factors that affect the mental health, psychological wellbeing and resilience of prison staff thereby shaping the development of new theory.
• Provide project stakeholders (Ministry of Justice, Governors of individual establishments, etc.) with policy and practice recommendations relating to ways in which their staff can maintain/increase their resilience within the workplace, thereby reducing staff turnover and reducing time off due to stress.
• Build on existing and develop new collaborative links between the University and the prison estate. Not only are such links useful for future research, but they can be used to develop placement, volunteering and dissertation opportunities for students studying within CLS and CSSAH.

The proposed collaboration allows the student to be supervised by subject leaders who have combined expertise across a diverse range of methodological and theoretical perspectives.

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