What is a Principal Officer?

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  • Written By: Jessica F. Black
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 26 January 2020
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A principal officer is a superior position among prison officials, primarily in Her Majesty's prisons in the United Kingdom, the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Scottish Prison Service. He or she is directly involved with preparing the case officer for a prisoner's release. The first duty of a principal officer is to complete a post-sentencing assessment and then create an offender plan. He or she must choose a case officer for each prisoner under his or her care and continue to monitor the case officer's progress. The principal officer provides feedback and aid, especially with improvements, which are requested after frequent reviews of the case.

He or she guides the case officer through pre-release and final activities to ensure the prisoner's smooth transition from prison back into society. The principal officer's final task is to review the prisoner's case and sign for his or her release. This process is repeated for each prisoner, and the personal involvement is the primary difference in officer ranks.


There is a one-year probational period as a prison officer in order to be eligible to apply for a principal officer position. All prison officer applicants must be a certain age, generally 18-62 years old, and pass the required training program to begin working in the prison system. The length of the training course varies among the aforementioned prisons, typically ranging from six to eight weeks. In addition to basic training, there are management training courses offered to employees who are seeking a promotion to become a principal officer.

There is a series of tests and selective procedures used to determine an applicant's ability to perform at a higher level. There are four positions within the prison system to which officers might aspire: senior officer, principal officer, manager and senior manager. All applicants typically must pass a process devised to review individual performance during role-play sessions set in a prison environment. The purpose of the this is to observe the applicant's behavior and evaluate his or her competency as a leader. A principal officer is given numerous responsibilities and must be fully qualified to handle individual cases.

The extensive interviewing, testing and case load of a principal officer can provide him or her with a relatively higher salary and a superior rank within the prison system. The officer can further his or her training in order to apply for the position of prison governor, who oversees the entire prison. There are continuous training courses offered outside of the job requirements, and this allows for successful career development.


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