Research Project

In November 2016, the (then) Secretary of State for Justice announced a recruitment drive for ex-Services personnel to join the Prison Service, intending them to assist in prison reform, and two years later, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart called for military-style training for prison governors. Despite these high-profile connections being proposed between the military and the prison service, and the fact, well-known anecdotally to most prison researchers – that many prison personnel (including officers, members of senior management teams, and governors) have a military background, their role in the prison service remains almost entirely overlooked in the academic literature.

Whilst prior research (eg this Howard League report) has focused on ex-Services personnel amongst the UK prisoner population (‘Veterans in Custody’), the other route taken into prison, i.e. as prison staff, remains unresearched. This project aims to fill this research gap, addressing numerous unanswered questions about prison work as a means to bridge the military-civilian divide, whilst also engaging much broader questions about the contributions made to the prison system by Armed Forces Leavers, and the nature of both life transitions and reform of institutions.

At its essence, the project asks whether prison work can ‘rehabilitate’ ex-Service personnel for civilian life, whilst they attempt to rehabilitate prisoners, (including the increasing numbers with whom they share a military background), and whether reform of the prison service can be catalysed by its staff. This question is particularly pertinent since policy discourse suggests that ex-Services personnel are intended to inject ‘military discipline’, whilst at the same time themselves transitioning out of military life.

This project directly addresses this research gap, asking key questions about the role of ex-Service personnel during a critical period of UK prison reform, when they have been directly targeted as a means to bring the ‘virtue of discipline’ to a Prison Service facing  unprecedented levels of violence and self-harm. At the same time, the Ministry of Defence is moving towards smaller standing Forces, meaning that the task of resettling Services leavers is very real, with heightened public awareness of the challenges faced (e.g. through charities such as ‘Help for Heroes’).

There is no consolidated knowledge base about the experiences of ex-Services prison officers; we know very little about the ways in which they adapt to prison work, how they are deployed, how their military background is perceived by managers, colleagues, and prisoners, the career paths they take, and the nature of their leadership within this setting. If, as suggested by previous academic research, they have been present in large numbers within the Prison Service, this raises questions about ‘critical mass’ within the workforce, with a variety of possible effects in terms of organisational culture and the ‘tone’ of establishments. At a time of flux and reform of the UK prison system, against a backdrop of perceptions of increased ‘militarisation’ of society, with a direct appeal being made to ex-Services personnel to assist in implementing change, there are important questions to answer about the difference a military background makes.

Supported by pump-priming funds from the University of Liverpool, this project aims to enable better understandings of:

  • military-civilian transition for ex-Services prison personnel
  • the role of the prison as a site of military-civilian transition, and
  • the impact of ex-Services personnel on the Prison Service, in relation to its overall rehabilitative intent

The project was initially carried forward via two parallel online surveys – one for former UK prison staff (whether ex-military or not), and one for current UK prison staff. (The current staff survey was approved by the National Research Committee of HM Prisons and Probation Service, Ref. 2019-087).