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Training Poland’s Prison Staff: Status Quo, Obstacles, and the MIRAD Project

As is the case in prison services across the world, the Polish Prison Service is having to adapt to constant change. Not only are the behaviours and demographics of inmates shifting, but there is also significant turnover of prison personnel. Officers need more access to more training than is currently provided just to meet their everyday duties, and must also adapt to abnormal and potentially dangerous trends like radicalisation.

At the Polish Platform for Homeland Security (PPHS), we have been delivering diverse training for years. This includes multiple European projects developing the competencies of practitioners across numerous domains —  among others prison and probation. These experiences have demonstrated the importance of training to us, but also made clear the many obstacles practitioners face in simply attending a training course. In many cases, our talks with field professionals have shown this is caused by misunderstandings in the value of training itself, often on the management level.

major Cezary Mecwaldowski

For this reason, we sat down with expert Cezary Mecwaldowski, a senior lecturer at the Central Training Centre of the Polish Prison Service, to discuss the status quo of training in the Polish Prison Service, as well as the possibilities of improving such training programmes. We also explore how training courses like those delivered by the MIRAD projects are being used to tackle today’s challenges.

The Need for Training in the Prison Service

The Polish Prison Service is experiencing a high turnover rate among staff: older, more experienced officers are retiring or leaving their jobs, resulting in a pool of new, young officers. These officers are in need of specialist, multi-year training obligatory for their roles, but prison staff training centres are unable to keep up, Mr. Mecwaldowski tells us.

New and existing officers can develop their skills and knowledge independently — in fact, they are obliged to do so by Polish regulations, including article 27 of the Prison Service Act. However, officers are usually overwhelmed with everyday work and are rarely allocated the time for training from supervisors.

“Some participants came to the training using their own leave and incurring the costs of travelling to the training location. Others use e-learning outside of their working hours.”

– Cezary Mecwaldowski (translated)

As a result of this, personnel are not only discouraged from taking training, but must also take the initiative to develop their skills independently, as they receive limited support from their supervisors. External direction and support in obtaining training is in this case essential. And the EU-funded MIRAD training in Poland and other European countries showed there is a great interest in such courses.

New Challenges and Skills

Radicalisation is a rising issue in prison environments in Poland and across the European Union, to which Mr. Mecwaldowski believes the twenty-first century’s digital trends may be contributing. Officers must be equipped to recognise signs of radical and extremist behaviour, as well as provided toolsets for assessing what stage an inmate’s radicalisation is at. It’s also important they understand inmates’ beliefs and cultural or religious norms in order to minimise conflict. Mr. Mecwaldowski provides an excellent example:

“The Polish Penal Code states that an inmate may not refuse a meal from a prison officer at mealtime. However, on some days of the week, month, or year, an inmate simply won’t accept a meal because of cultural or religious reasons.

A prison officer unaware or not understanding of this, may take literally the Penal Code, causing conflict. […] An inmate’s refusal of a meal may not be a protest, but simply a cultural decision.”

Other examples of a religious nature include individuals’ need or desire to pray regularly. For instance, many Muslim individuals are strict in praying 5 times a day at certain times of the day, a custom which officers may not be familiar with. The prison system has a routine for inmates which may collide with these times.

Violation of an individual’s ethical or religious norms may cause conflict or negative emotions, which can in turn lead to radicalisation. Practitioners must be trained in assessing the risk of radicalisation to ensure inmates’ prison stays are safe and as short as possible. This is one of several key focuses of the MIRAD project, which equips prison officers with the right training to identify, disengage, and reintegrate radicalised prison inmates.

What is MIRAD?

MIRAD, short for Multi-Ideological Radicalisation Assessment towards Disengagement, is a project funded by the European Commission which primary goal is to foster collaboration in the disengagement and reintegration of radicalised prison inmates between prison and probation services and community organisations.

It aimed to develop a training focused on ideological — especially right-wing and Islamist — extremism, leveraging a Train-the-Trainers approach to maximise the content’s reach. With the end of 2023, the project draws to a close having proven highly successful.

The project is coordinated by the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in France, and features participation from 6 other European Union member states, with Poland represented by the Polish Platform for Homeland Security (PPHS).

The consortium of the MIRAD project during the final meeting in Brussels in December 2023.

Results of MIRAD in Poland

The MIRAD project was met with resoundingly positive feedback. Mr. Mecwaldowski took part in the Train-the-Trainer circuit of training, in turn relaying the knowledge to Polish professionals. He believes the project’s training provided valuable information on the diagnosis of the risk or stage of a given inmate’s radicalisation, as well as how to prepare and implement reintegration programmes.

Despite the obstacles mentioned previously, many professionals from Poland participated in Polish editions of training. Participation statistics paint a picture of the scale: a total of 496 prison personnel took part in national MIRAD training across Poland, of which 164 individuals completed the full course — almost ten times the project’s target. Indeed, the completion rate once again shows the difficulty many practitioners have in allocating time to training.

As for the Train the Trainers course, 26 trainers from state facilities and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) took part – more than in any other participating country – of which 17 completed the full programme. These figures represent engagement significantly higher than what was observed in many other participating countries.

The participants who finished the e-learning course were then invited to take part in the physical training in Warsaw in November (and in 4 other countries), which was the culmination of the project’s training activities. The video below shows this event.

A survey of participants conducted by the Polish Platform for Homeland Security showed participants were satisfied. All respondents showed an interest in implementing MIRAD methods in their day-to-day work, with respondents also rating the training “good” and “very good” in terms of its organisation and the content’s importance in Poland.

The tooling for assessing risk prepared as part of the MIRAD project is an excellent facilitation for prison personnel. It’s a ready-to-use tool.

The training definitely met my expectations. The organisation was at a high level. Competent, well-prepared trainers and the constant supervision of the organiser meant it was effectively conducted without any reservations.

Currently the Prison Service doesn’t offer any trainings of this kind or relay knowledge on these topics, so it’s important it’s made available and personnel are trained.

Training in Warsaw included use of the VR technology.

What’s Next for Training in Poland?

As the MIRAD project draws to a close, the Polish Platform for Homeland Security is keen to participate in new initiatives to support Poland’s probation and penitentiary systems, especially through providing access to new training and with relation to rising issues such as radicalisation.

If you are interested in learning more about MIRAD and its publicly available resources, please see the MIRAD website.

Thomas Bush

Content Specialist

 

Lukasz Kielban

Senior Communication Specialist
Polish Platform for Homeland Security