Check out the courses we offer

Safeguarding Guide for Prison Officers

Responsibilities, worrying signs, legislation, concerns and required training for robust safeguarding

Safeguarding Guides » Safeguarding Guide for Prison Officers

People in custody or custodial settings who have needs for care and support should be able to access the care they need, just like anyone else. Prisons and prison officers have a duty to ensure that prisoners are held safely, and are responsible for the safeguarding of all prisoners and other adults, particularly those who meet the criteria of being adults at risk within the prison, and for any children who they may come into contact with during the course of their work.

What is safeguarding?

Adult safeguarding in prisons means keeping prisoners safe and protecting them from abuse and neglect. Prison officers have a common law duty of care to prisoners, which includes taking appropriate action to protect them. Prisons have a range of processes in place to ensure that this duty is met. These also ensure that prisoners who are unable to protect themselves as a result of care and support needs are provided with a level of protection that is equivalent to that provided in the community.

The Care Act 2014 lists six key principles of safeguarding. These are intended to form a core set of standards for anyone who has a responsibility for safeguarding. Although these principles have been designed with a focus on vulnerable adults, they should be applied to any type of vulnerable individual, children included.

The principles are as follows:

  • Accountability – in the event of a disclosure, if an adult or young person entrusts you with information that you know could be indicative of abuse, you must be clear with the individual that you need to report what you have heard.
  • Empowerment – it’s important for any person who has been a victim of abuse to feel that they have control over their situation. Support and encouragement are key to effective working with a victim of abuse or neglect.
  • Partnership – it is important to work in partnership with your local authority and all services or organisations in your community that might be able to assist in detecting and reporting abuse.
  • Prevention – it is sometimes possible to take action before harm has come to an individual. If you know the signs and indicators of abuse, you will understand when something is not quite right and will be better placed to report any concerns for an individual’s wellbeing.
  • Proportionality – when a safeguarding incident occurs, you should report your concerns in a manner that is appropriate for the risk presented.
  • Protection – it is crucial to be an ally for individuals who have experienced or who are at risk of abuse. Supporting and representing these individuals in the appropriate manner can help to protect them from further harm.


In some circumstances, prison officers may be accountable for the safeguarding of children, for example in juvenile establishments that hold children under the age of 18 years. The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10, therefore children between the ages of 10 and 17 years can be arrested and charged with a crime and can be sentenced to imprisonment in a secure establishment.

The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act (2006) as amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act (2012) defines anyone under the age of 18 years as a child or young person or under 25 years if they have special educational needs or disability (SEND).

Safeguarding children and young people’s welfare are defined in ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ as:

  • Protecting children from maltreatment.
  • Preventing impairment of children’s health or development.
  • Ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care.
  • Taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.

What risk factors make someone more likely to experience abuse?

Adults at risk means anyone aged 18 or over who:

  • Has needs for care and support.
  • Is experiencing, or is at risk of, abuse or neglect.
  • As a result of those care and support needs, is unable to protect themselves from either the risk of or the experience of abuse or neglect.


In a prison environment, all vulnerable adults at risk are identified, protected from harm and neglect, and receive effective care and support. This is carried out on reception into custody where there is a mandatory requirement for all prisoners to be “assessed for potential harm to themselves, to others and from others”. Throughout a prisoner’s time in custody, prison officers have a duty to ensure that prisoners are supported and their daily needs are met; this includes spotting any signs of distress, anxiety or anger which might lead to prisoners harming themselves.
The Prison Service divides risk factors into several different categories and examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Demographic characteristics such as lack of social support, low socioeconomic status, unmarried, separated, widowed or recently divorced, or young age.
  • Historical factors such as childhood adversity/maltreatment, for example sexual abuse, deliberate self-harm especially with high suicide intent, family history of mental illness, family history of suicide, history of violence, and spouse/partner with terminal illness.
  • Feelings and attitudes such as an illness affecting their mental or physical health, and feelings of anger, shame, desperation, disconnection, hopelessness, low self-esteem and powerlessness.
  • The immediate context faced by the individual such as a longer sentence than expected, early days in custody and following transfer, hostile rejection of help, life sentence, substance misuse, suicidal ideation or plans, and violence or intimidation either experienced or fear of it.


Any child can be at risk of abuse; however, there are a number of factors that can increase a child’s vulnerability to abuse and neglect including, but not limited to:

  • Socioeconomic factors such as poverty, poor housing and deprivation.
  • Child factors, for example disabled children are more vulnerable to abuse or neglect.
  • Family factors such as parental/carer substance misuse problems, parental/carer mental health problems and domestic abuse. These factors may be compounded if the parent/carer lacks support from family or friends and experiences social isolation.
  • The parent or carer does not engage with services.
  • There have been one or more previous episodes of child abuse or neglect.
  • Being in care, a looked-after child.
  • A history of offending, either parent or child.


These lists are not exhaustive, and other people might also be considered to be adults or children at risk.

The types of abuse adults can encounter

There are ten types of abuse listed in the Care Act (2014).

These are:

  • Physical abuse – this may involve physical violence, misuse of medication, inappropriate restraint or sanctions.
  • Sexual abuse – this can include verbal sexual abuse, non-consensual touching, fondling, physical restraint, cornering, tickling, kissing, excessive cleaning of genitals, enemas, intercourse, sodomy, oral sex, invasion of privacy and stalking.
  • Psychological abuse – this includes emotional abuse, threats of harm or abandonment, deprivation of contact, humiliation, blaming, controlling, intimidation, harassment and verbal abuse.
  • Financial or material abuse – including theft, fraud, exploitation, pressure in connection with wills, property, inheritance or financial transactions, and misuse or misappropriation of property, possessions or benefits.
  • Neglect and acts of omission – including ignoring medical or physical care needs, failure to provide access to appropriate health, social care or educational services, or withholding medication, adequate nutrition and heating.
  • Discriminatory abuse – including racist, sexist or abuse based on a person’s disability.
  • Domestic abuse – including psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse, and so-called honour-based violence.
  • Modern slavery – includes slavery, human trafficking, forced labour and domestic servitude.
  • Organisational abuse – including neglect and poor care practice within an institution or specific care setting such as a hospital or care home.
  • Self-neglect – includes a wide range of behaviour neglecting to care for personal hygiene, health or surroundings and includes behaviour such as hoarding.

The types of abuse children can encounter

Statutory guidance across the four countries of the UK describes four main categories of child abuse, and these definitions will normally be reflected in local organisations’ policies and procedures.

The four categories are:

  • Physical harm/abuse – this may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child/young person.
  • Emotional harm/abuse – this is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child/young person such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child/young person’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may include not giving the child the opportunities to express their views, deliberately silencing them or “making fun” of what they say or how they communicate.
  • Sexual abuse – this involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, not necessarily involving a high level of violence, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including assault by penetrative acts, for example rape or oral sex, or non-penetrative acts such as masturbation, kissing, rubbing and touching outside of clothing.
  • Neglect – this is the persistent failure to meet a child/young person’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child/young person’s development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy, for example as a result of maternal substance abuse, maternal mental ill health or learning difficulties or a cluster of such issues. Neglect may involve failing to protect a child/young person from physical and emotional harm or danger, failure to ensure adequate supervision, or failure to ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment, also including neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child/young person’s basic emotional needs.

What safeguarding issues do prison officers need to be aware of?

Abuse and neglect can take many forms, ranging from exploitation and disrespectful treatment to physical harm. It can be at a low level, and take place over a long time, or it can take place over a short time and be more extreme. It is all abuse.

Prisoners are often at their most distressed on arrival at prison. Some will not have been anticipating a custodial sentence, others face the uncertainty of entering prison on remand, some may be withdrawing from drugs or alcohol, and many will be struggling with the sudden separation from their family. In addition to these immediate adjustment needs, there are also many potential worries for new prisoners about the life and/or people that they have left behind.

Prisoners arriving with alcohol or drug misuse problems are particularly vulnerable, as there is a significant relationship between drug or alcohol withdrawal and suicide.

Measures should be considered to identify and address the needs of those women who may be particularly at risk of abuse or neglect, including pregnant women, women who have experienced domestic violence and women who have been involved in sex work.

In prisons that have mother and baby units (MBUs) there will be additional safeguarding vulnerabilities and prison officers should follow the arrangements set out in the HMPPS Pregnancy, Mother and Baby Units (MBUs), and Maternal Separation from Children up to the Age of Two in Women’s Prisons Policy Framework.

There are requirements to make reasonable adjustments for disabled prisoners. Where a prisoner’s disability increases the risk of them being subject to abuse or neglect, reasonable adjustments may include additional action to prevent this.

Prisoners who are transitioning from youth to adult status may have specific safeguarding needs and the transition requires collaborative working between the youth and adult prison services.

Prison officers should also take into consideration safeguarding issues in regard to visitors. Prisons have a responsibility to identify prisoners who are potential or confirmed persons posing a risk to children (PPRC) and through assessment establish whether a PPRC presents a continuing risk to children whilst in prison custody.

The roles and responsibilities of a prison officer in regard to safeguarding

A prison officer is required to work directly with difficult, damaged and sometimes dangerous men and women who are likely to regard them with some hostility. This demands extensive life skills which allow them to build appropriate and positive relationships with the prisoners in their care.

All staff within the prison services have a responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of prisoners and colleagues, and to provide additional measures for prisoners who are less able to protect themselves from harm or abuse.

A prison officer’s role in safeguarding is to:

  • Recognise – you should have a clear understanding of what the different signs and symptoms of potential abuse, harm and neglect can be. Robust safeguarding training can help you to spot these signs and symptoms.
  • Respond – it is essential that you respond appropriately and do not ignore the situation.
  • Report – concerns need to be reported without delay. Confidentiality is important, so only share information with those who are a part of the safeguarding process.
  • Record – you should make precise, comprehensive notes that detail everything about your safeguarding concern.
  • Refer – if the safeguarding risk is urgent and you suspect somebody is under immediate or severe threat, you should contact the relevant local authority or police services.


Prison officers have a duty to make sure that:

  • Safeguarding concerns are dealt with promptly and appropriately and are reported in a secure and responsible way to all relevant agencies.
  • Steps are taken to escalate or alert those able to protect prisoners and/or other adults at risk from harm and minimise the risk of abuse.
  • Appropriate and proportionate measures are in place to protect from harm all those who work for them, or with them, or come into contact with them.

The safeguarding issues prison officers may come across

Understanding what abuse and neglect might look like and how to recognise warning signs is an important aspect of safeguarding.

Some examples prison officers might encounter may include, but are not limited to:

  • Prisoners with unexplained injuries and the story provided by the prisoner might be inconsistent with any injuries.
  • Prisoners who habitually remain within their cells may have been the target of bullying, intimidation or harassment.
  • Prisoners who have few possessions may be vulnerable to grooming.
  • Prisoners purchasing items for others and/or swapping property may be under threat of harm to comply.
  • Prisoners who repeatedly break prison rules – this can be due to a lack of cognitive capacity and/or an inability to read notices rather than disobedience; safeguarding issues may easily be confused with a discipline problem.
  • Prisoners who may be exposed to extremist ideologies and radicalisation.
  • Remand prisoners, including convicted prisoners awaiting sentencing, may be more vulnerable to self-harm including suicide; a higher proportion of women than men in prison self-harm.
  • Health-related issues, for example where prisoners need access to specialist medication that is not in their possession.
  • Sexual exploitation of newer and or younger prisoners by other prisoners or prison staff.
  • Race and LGBTQ+ harassment and bullying by other prisoners, visitors or prison staff.
  • Illicit access to social networking sites or mobile telephones while in custody can present issues of sexual exploitation, grooming and intimidation.
  • A series of complaints or comments from prisoners about prison staff.
  • Prisoner overcrowding increases the prevalence of communicable and chronic diseases, mental illness, substance misuse, violence, self-harm and suicide.
  • Disclosures about safeguarding issues made by visitors, families and other individuals or organisations who are in contact with prisoners.
Prison officer with safeguarding concern

Where should prison officers go with a safeguarding concern?

Prison officers must take appropriate action when they have concerns about the safety or wellbeing of vulnerable adults or children. Some concerns may be minor in nature but provide an opportunity for early intervention, for example advice to prevent a problem from escalating. Other safeguarding concerns may be more serious and need a response through multi-agency procedures and possible statutory intervention through regulators, the criminal justice system or civil courts. Prison officers should always follow the procedures laid down in their individual prison’s Safeguarding policy, and each prison will have designated safeguarding leads to whom all issues should be reported.

Any allegation of abuse within a prison received by any agencies external to the prison should be reported to the prison governor and should involve the police. Prison governors and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) may ask for advice from the local authority when faced with a safeguarding issue that they are finding particularly challenging. Prison officers should always make a record of the concern raised and identify the concerns in any Care and Support Plan or Care Plan, and co-operate in any safeguarding enquiry as requested.

If a safeguarding concern relates to neglect or abuse that occurred or may have occurred in another detention setting, or prior to detention, it should be reported to the Prison Governor or Offender Manager who have responsibility for responding to the concern.

If any member of HMPPS staff has concerns about the improper behaviour, abuse or maltreatment of a child by another member of staff, they must follow the guidance set out in the Ministry of Justice Whistleblowing Policy and Procedures. Anyone who comes forward to raise legitimate concerns or allegations of misconduct must not be victimised, harassed or bullied for doing so.

Prison officer following legislation

What legislation do prison officers have to follow in regard to safeguarding?

The Prison Rules 1999 – these Rules make provision for the management of prisons, including the treatment of prisoners and the conduct of prison officers.

The Care Act 2014 sets out statutory responsibility where they have a concern about abuse and neglect of an adult in custody. The prison must ensure that it has clear safeguarding policies and procedures that are explained to all visiting staff. Prison and probation staff may approach the local authority for advice and assistance in individual cases although the local authority will not have the legal duty to lead enquiries in any custodial setting.

Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 and the Protection of Freedoms Bill – this Act was passed to help avoid harm, or risk of harm, by preventing people who are deemed unsuitable to work with children and vulnerable adults from gaining access to them through their work. Organisations with responsibility for providing services or personnel to vulnerable groups have a legal obligation to refer relevant information to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).

The Mental Capacity Act 2005 – in order to protect those who lack capacity and to enable them to take part as much as possible in decisions that affect them, the following statutory principles apply:

  • You must always assume a person has capacity unless it is proved otherwise.
  • You must take all practicable steps to enable people to make their own decisions.
  • You must not assume incapacity simply because someone makes an unwise decision.
  • Always act, or decide, for a person without capacity in their best interests.
  • Carefully consider actions to ensure the least restrictive option is taken.


The Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards 2009 (DoLS), an amendment to the Mental Capacity Act 2005, provide a legal framework to protect those who lack the capacity to consent to the arrangements for their treatment or care, for example by reason of their dementia, learning disability or brain injury and where levels of restriction or restraint used in delivering that care for the purpose of protection from risk/harm are so extensive as to potentially be depriving the person of their liberty.

Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018 – the way that agencies and organisations should work together to carry out their duties and responsibilities under the 1989 Children Act and other legislation is set out in a document called ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’.

It sets out the responsibilities of all agencies in the protection of children, and is aimed at staff in organisations that are responsible for commissioning or providing services to:

  • Children, young people and adults who are parents/carers.
  • Organisations that have a particular responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people.


The Equality Act 2010 – this Act aims to protect people or groups of people who have one or more “protected characteristics”. These protected characteristics are features of people’s lives upon which discrimination, in the UK, is now illegal.

The protected characteristics listed in the Act are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Sex
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion and belief


Under the Act:

  • Every individual has the right to be treated equally and fairly and not be discriminated against regardless of any “protected characteristics”.
  • Every individual has the right to be treated with respect and dignity.


The Human Rights Act 1998 gives effect to the rights and freedoms enshrined in the European Conventions on Human Rights. Under Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights, individuals have a right to respect for their private lives. This is not an absolute right and can be overridden if necessary and in accordance with the law. Interference must be justified and be for a particular purpose. Justification could be the protection of health, the prevention of crime, and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 – this Act, often referred to as the Whistleblowers Act, encourages staff to report suspected wrongdoing and protects those that do against being dismissed or suffering a detriment by their employers. It also gives protection to employees against suffering a detriment or retaliation from another employee for reporting suspected wrongdoing.

The following legislation is also relevant to the prison officers in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults, but is not limited to:

  • Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974
  • Protection of Children Act 1999
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999
  • Data Protection Act 1998 and UK GDPR 2018
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003
  • Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015
  • Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019


PSI 16/2015 Adult Safeguarding in Prisons contains guidance for prison governors on engaging with local Adult Safeguarding Boards.

Prison officer taking safeguarding training

Why is safeguarding training important?

It is important that we all understand safeguarding, and know what to do should safeguarding concerns arise.

Safeguarding induction and training is essential for all prison staff appropriate to their role, including:

  • Information on types of harm, abuse and neglect.
  • How to spot abuse.
  • How to respond to concerns.
  • Who to report concerns to.


Training should be directly applicable to the responsibilities and daily practices of the person being trained, and to the care and support needs of the individuals that they are working with. An example of appropriate safeguarding training includes Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults (SOVA) Level 2, designed for people who are working with vulnerable adults and teaches the skills needed to safeguard people who are at higher risk of abuse. Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults (SOVA) Level 3 is designed for people who are wanting more in-depth knowledge into safeguarding vulnerable adults.

Safeguarding Children Level 2 is designed for people who are working with children and teaches the skills needed to safeguard children who are at higher risk of abuse and is recommended for prison officers who have regular contact with families and children as part of their role.

Other training that is recommended for prison officers to provide the skills and knowledge for effective safeguarding include, but are not limited to:

  • Managing Behaviour that Challenges
  • Domestic Violence Awareness
  • Substance Misuse Awareness
  • FGM Awareness
  • Modern Slavery Awareness
  • Adolescent Mental Health Awareness
  • Workplace First Aid
  • Mental Health Awareness
  • Drugs and Alcohol Awareness
  • Schizophrenia Awareness
  • Self-Harming Awareness


Senior prison officers should evaluate changes in understanding and confidence of officers in their charge before and after training, assessing this:

  • Immediately after the training.
  • In regular long-term evaluations, for example as part of supervision sessions.
  • Annually, for example as part of the performance management/appraisal process.


Senior prison officers should provide feedback through supervision and appraisals, acknowledging how the officers have learned from their experience of identifying, reporting and managing safeguarding concerns.

Prison officer after renewing training

How often should prison officers renew their safeguarding training?

Senior prison officers should assess their officers’ safeguarding knowledge annually, and run refresher training if needed. To help prison officers increase their confidence in managing safeguarding concerns, they should at a minimum refresh their safeguarding training at least every 2 years and participate in continuing professional development (CPD).