Circle Opinion

The importance of scheduling prison officers across the UK prison system

Ollie Watson

Scheduling in prisons is vital across the entire infrastructure. Scheduling officers to rotas, scheduling inmates to activities and then monitoring and reporting on all activities opens a whole new level of insight. At present, much of the scheduling in the UK prison system is a box ticking exercise based on availability. But what if it could be more than that?Prison officer scheduling

Assigning staff and inmates to jobs and activities is only one side of the coin. The other is data analysis and understanding. Has the best use of an officer’s skills and experience been made? Are prisoners involved in suitable activities? What are the outcomes of the decisions made?

This blog takes a closer look at the benefits of scheduling staff and prisoners across the prison system. How can having a central system, offering a bird’s eye view of the entire network, work to the benefit of the system? How can it underpin an improvement in outcomes for everyone?

Prison officers

Fundamental to the running of any prison are the staff who work there. Understanding the skills and experience of the prison officer workforce is the first step. Having a holistic view of the officers in a single prison, as well as the wider prison network, instantly provides a view of the entire workforce.

Being able to factor in the skills and experience of a prison officer instantly means that schedulers and administrative staff can assign tasks not only quickly, but more appropriately. Randomly assigning officers to tasks within a prison fails to best utilise their skills and experiences. Different prisoner profiles require different approaches. Considering an officer’s preferences when assigning them to jobs is likely to improve morale, too. If an officer has worked closely with certain profiles, e.g. offenders struggling with substance abuse, and has experienced success in that area, it makes sense to utilise those skills and that experience appropriately.

According to statistics from Statista, the number of prison officers working in England and Wales has fallen by 3,000 since 2010. This means that it is crucial that prison officers are appropriately assigned to role. Guesswork leads to mistakes and disillusionment.

It is also an issue which the Ministry of Justice is acutely aware of. In its December 2021 white paper, Prisons Strategy White Paper, the MoJ outlines its intention to boost prison officer numbers by some 5000 by the mid-2020s. Retention is another key aspect of the MoJ’s staffing intentions, to tackle a leaving rate of 11.1% in the year preceding 30 September 2021. “Enhancing professional skills: improved training, supervision and qualifications,” is central to this.

Technology can help. Not only can it instantly match skills and experience to available roles, it can also inform the training needs of the prison guards, thereby enhancing professional skills. Mandatory ongoing training is a prerequisite, but what about expanding training management efforts to open new skills and experiences to the workforce? This has the twin advantages of increasing the skills available across the prison, whilst also offering career enhancing opportunities to staff. A deeper pool of resources across your existing workforce is useful in times of strain, something we’ve seen during the Covid pandemic.

This also ties in with creating a broader understanding of the prison population. The population is transient by nature in certain prisons. Having oversight of the profile of prisoner in the facility enables better provision of resources to their needs. For example, matching prison officers with experience of dealing with and helping inmates with substance addiction.

Prison inmates

As the focus of any prison, understanding the needs of each prisoner helps to improve outcomes for them during their sentence. What makes for a good outcome? Hopefully a successful rehabilitation of the offender. Reoffending costs some £18bn.

Management and scheduling of prison activities is central to their success. The need for demand modelling is also clear. What profile of prisoner is in the prison at a given moment, and what courses and activities are required and how will spaces be allocated? The management of this can be complex. There are staffing resources, rooms and equipment to be factored in. Activities can clash, so what’s the order of priority for a prisoner? Managing waiting lists for activities is another consideration. Then there’s scheduling prisoners, where applicable, to tasks within the prison. You need to consider the jobs they need to carry out, as well as their activities.

All of this requires careful assessment and management. Prison staff resources must be allocated to the necessary background checks and assessments. Then those staff need allocating to the activities as appropriate.

Where this can be further complicated is the need to factor in a prisoner’s attendance at court. Prisoners need to attend their relevant hearings, and, in some cases, they must be escorted to and from court by prison staff. Understanding the impact of having staff off site for such visits must also be factored into the overarching prison schedule.

Prisons must also consider external visitors. From those delivering training courses to lawyers visiting inmates, all activities and their participants need to be carefully monitored and provisioned for. Each prison has its own interpretation of the rules around visits, so a degree of flexibility is required. There is also a need to communicate visiting hours with friends and relatives who wish to visit inmates.


Scheduling within prisons is a complex affair. There are several moving parts and resources can be strained. Having a system in place to provide a holistic view of activities, staff and prisoners can significantly help.

Understanding the skills and experience of your staff, then matching that to the needs and profile of your prisoners can help to drive improved outcomes for all parties. Leaving this to guesswork and random scheduling based solely on availability fails to make the best and most efficient use of available resources.

A central system enables schedulers and administrative staff to instantly account for each scenario. This removes the guesswork from scheduling and auto-matches the supply of staff and their skills and experiences, to the demands of the prison population.

It also facilitates effective reporting on activities, the prison population and demand forecasting going forward. Rather than being reactive to changes and scheduling, it facilitates a proactive outlook based around supply and demand.

Automation of scheduling in certain circumstances also frees up time to focus on planning. In an environment where time is so often at a premium, this can deliver tangible benefits to the training, activities and management of a prison.

The focus, however, is always on outcomes. Improving outcomes for staff and inmates alike results in a more efficient – and more effective – prison.


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Ollie Watson