On the Other Side of the Body-Cam

In April I wrote about how no good thing could possibly come from prison officers wearing body cameras as the Prison Officers’ Association would like. Shortly afterwards I spoke to one officer who had read that post and was surprised to find that he didn’t like the idea either, though for very different reasons which I hadn’t even considered.

To put his comments in context I should probably explain a bit about what this particular officer is like. He doesn’t take any crap. He doesn’t let you get away with anything you shouldn’t when you are out of order. But he doesn’t treat people badly either. He’ll hold his hands up when he’s in the wrong, unlike many others I have come across, and he generally speaks to you with respect because that’s exactly what he expects back. But most importantly, you can have a proper human to human conversation with him without ever losing track of where you stand.

But he said that if he was wearing a body camera he would probably act very differently. He would be so conscious that everything he is doing (or not doing) could be getting watched that he wouldn’t have the same human conversations he has now. He would have to be in full blown officer mode all the time. If he saw someone getting just a little bit tetchy he couldn’t just tell them to get their shit together, he’d have to approach it through official channels with written warnings which do nothing but create paperwork for him and sting the prisoner every single time a report has to be written.

Because he’d act in this way, the way people treat him would also be different. If it all kicked off he’d no longer be that one who does the job but is a person first and an officer second. He’d be the one who jumps on you for anything when you’re simply having a bad day. He’d be in the line of fire.

Wearing body cams would destroy any chance of officers building up a respectful rapport with the prisoners they have to work with and emphasise division instead of cohesion. Long term they wouldn’t decrease risk at all. Sure, it would probably mean that officers are attacked less often than they are right now. But it would also mean that when a prisoner does feel pushed to his limit and decides to attack, it will probably be far more violent and serious. This might sound contradictory but it is exactly what I saw when moving from the young offender system to the the high security adult system. Young offenders kick off day in day out, but it is usually handbags at dawn. In high security adult prisons it very rarely kicks off, but when it does, you know about it. I can’t remember the last time a bell went off for a fight here where at least one person didn’t have to go to hospital. Increased supervision of any kind, including body cams, decreases the frequency of violence, but it drastically increases the intensity.

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2 thoughts on “On the Other Side of the Body-Cam

  1. Hi Adam, I couldn’t agree more with the contents of your post. I can only imagine the massive increase in bureaucracy and the loss of the ‘human touch’ if wing staff are constantly on edge as a result of being under constant surveillance themselves when on duty.

    I can certainly see a valid argument for officers working down the Block (segregation) or security department staff wearing cameras (say during a cell-spin or similar), but not on normal wing duty. Whether these really would decrease the risk of violence is open to question, however. In my own experience as a con, I found that no amount of cameras or other measures would deter men who were kicking off, mainly because they lose control and don’t tend to reflect on the consequences in the heat of the moment.

    • Thanks for your comment, Alex. Since writing that post the Body-Cams have now arrived at HMP Wakefield and I am told that staff have been trained how to use them, though they are yet to appear on the landings. One thing which concerns me is that officers say they are able to turn these cameras on and off, they won’t be on all of the time. Apparently they have to inform you when they are turning it on, but what will happen when an officer spends all day winding a prisoner up and trying to get him to react only to turn the body-cam on at the last second?

      I’m sure some people do think officers should just be believed on their word but this just confirms all of my original fears. Any camera evidence obtained will be stacked exclusively in the officer’s favour, even if they are in the wrong.

      Interestingly, it is near impossible to get photos taken here at Wakefield. I’m starting to wonder if it might just be easier to ask an officer to turn their Body-Cam on for a minute and then to submit a Data Protection request for a copy of the image so I can send them out as photos!

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